The seasons are progressing with surprising haste, and the days now are often drizzly and dim. In the chill of mid autumn, comfort and coffee and company are called for. Hannesarholt is marked as a café, but it is much more than that -- a venue for music, a historic house, and a place in which everyone can drink in a time that is often overlooked, as well as a cup of tea.
When I met with Ragnheiđur, the owner and manager of Hannesarholt, it was the kind of day that makes one desire such a refuge: rainy, bleak, and beginning to be cold. The walls of one of the first concrete buildings in Reykjavík were slick with running rivulets. As Ragga finished some business affairs before our interview, lending me a sweater as I came in from the cold, I watched a documentary on the background of the house, and its famous owner, the first Icelandic Minister of State and poet Hannes Hafstein. Then, over coffee and a delectable slice of orange cake, she told me about the house, Hafstein, and her mission. A teacher and PhD in curriculum and instruction, her involvement with Hannesarholt began by coincidence. She and her family purchased the building to save it from decay, and she has worked to revive it since, giving it the unique character that it possesses today. Her work in education has given her a sense for filling in the gaps in people’s understanding, a defining aspect of this “culture house for everyone.”
There is music here, and storytelling, sing-along evenings, meeting rooms, all of which relate to a common theme. Ragga’s mission is threefold: to retrieve roots and regain cultural memory; to cultivate the best in people in the present, bringing out talent and fostering critical thinking; and to allow future generations to develop a solid cultural identity. Hannesarholt is a “homespun organisation,” and it is about connections of all kinds, not only from one generation to the next, but between the arts, academia, and the public. People are welcome not only as an audience, but to share their arts, knowledge, and skills, in what Ragga called a “grassroots healing” process to retrieve a sense of identity.
Despite the name, Hannes Hafstein was not the centre of attention in our conversation. His presence in the house is like that of a host, with two rooms kept in his style on the upper level, including some items that he owned, and quotes from his poetry on the tables. The aim is not a simple commemoration of the man, but a representation of his house and the times he lived in. The “people with foresight” of whom Ragga spoke, those who worked for women’s rights, education, and social justice, are the important. By helping Icelanders develop a sense of where such rights came from, she hopes to ensure that they “never forget their contributions and take these privileges for granted.” It is their trailblazing efforts that she intends to recognise.
Iceland, at the end of the nineteenth century, could not have been described as modern. The previous decades had brought earthquakes, famine, disease, poverty, and major hardships. A fifth of the population emigrated during the 1800s, and many others perished, leaving the land destitute and depopulated. Much of the country lived in turf houses. At the beginning of the twentieth century, things began to change in dramatic fashion. During Hannes Hafstein’s term as Minister of State, the institutions that we now accept as part of everyday life were founded. His generation turned the country around and laid the foundations for modernity in a span of twenty years. Women won the vote, libraries were built, compulsory education was introduced, the telephone was brought in, and sudden enthusiasm arose to catch up with the rest of Europe.
“We have arrived a long time ago. We don’t have to run anymore,” Ragga told me, and the uniqueness of Hannesarholt was suddenly made clear. It is one of the few places in the city that marks Iceland’s relatively recent past, neither ancient history, nor an uncertain future. It is situated in a time between the two. Its function is different from a museum or history lesson, surrounding its guests with the feeling of a time and place, and making them think in a different way. In the past hundred years, the changes in this country have been radical, and there are still those who remember ways and times that seem foreign to the youngest generation. Allowing the generations to come together and converse is at the heart of the house’s hopes. Events such as “An Evening With Friends,” where a host shares their stories, and public singing, expressing a strong musical tradition, breathe life into, as Ragga puts it, “the part of culture that gets lost.”
For international students such as myself, this is a gift. I am studying the medieval period, the distant past, yet here I am reminded that sometimes, the recent past also is made remote, and the present must learn afresh to see it. Here is a place where foreigners may understand Iceland better, a tacit but rich lesson. I came away wondering at how rare such a place is, and wondering why.
The gap between generations is not unique to Iceland, and in my short visit, I saw the ways in which the house seeks to repair this, starting with the design of the space. On the third floor, dollhouses and toys were set out next to a table, at which two women enjoyed a coffee, while their children played. The design of the first floor was equally well thought out. Rather than adopting the latest in stylish décor, the café has developed an old-fashioned atmosphere. “You almost feel like you’re visiting an aunt, or a grandmother,” Ragga noted, and this is a worthy description of the house in general. It bears no sense of snobbery, but an abundance of taste: there is a comfortable elegance about its design. On the lower level, the performance space is flexible, large enough for a choir of thirty, or an eighty-person audience, yet intimate in atmosphere, with the option of setting out rows of chairs, or arranging them around small tables.
Often, the way we look at history is simply as the past, something to be studied or interpreted. All too often a study of history only serves to increase the distance, and the desire to reconnect with the past is viewed as nostalgic, or even pretentious, but it is closer to us than we imagine. Hannesarholt allows its guests to explore their own relationship to past, present, and progress, and to let go of the need to hurry forward. I felt as though, before opening the door, I had been running everywhere, without realising it. Speaking with Ragga, I noticed how many people greeted her as they entered, and scanning the walls I saw intriguing books, waiting patiently to be read. Hafstein himself, a gracious invisible host, steps aside for the story of his time to unfold. That time may be past, but its legacy and its memory fill this remarkable place, and stand ready to welcome guests.
Hannesarholt is located at Grundarstig 10, and more information as well as videos can be found online at hannesarholt.is. The house is open from 8:00 to 5:00 on weekdays, and 11:00 to 5:00 on weekends, plus cultural evenings and light dinners.
Written by Karin Murray-Bergquist
Photos: Courtesy of Hannesarholt