18 Facts (And a LOT of Pictures) About Laisvės Alėja
As the boulevard is celebrating its 170th birthday in 2017, let’s take a look back at its rather colourful history.
The main street of Kaunas and one of the longest pedestrian streets in Europe (1,6 km!) has been called Laisvės alėja for so long one might think there’s no need to translate the name into English. But here you go – it means Liberty Boulevard. Some prefer ‘Freedom Avenue’ though! Anyway, as the boulevard is celebrating its 170th birthday in 2017, let’s take a look back at its rather colourful history and today.
October'2017. Photo by Kristis Balčiūnas / KTU Foto Studija
Winter'2012. Photo by JuPaule/ efoto.lt
- The Kovno Governorate was formed in 1842 by Tsar Nicholas I of Russian Empire. Soon after, the territory of Naujamiestis, or the New Town, was planned, inspired by the plan of Odessa. The boulevard was first proposed and the papers were signed in 1847. Obviously, it was then called Nicholas prospect.
- During the Tsar era, it was forbidden to build buildings higher than 2 floors, as Kaunas was a fortress city. The garrison church for Emperor's soldiers, today known as Soboras, was an exception. It was built instead of a fountain at what’s today the Nepriklausomybės (Independence) square. During the Soviet occupation, the church was turned into a stained-glass gallery. After regaining independence, it again became a garrison church for Lithuanian army.
The massive crosses were removed from Soboras during the Soviet occupation, which makes this a rather old and very inspiring picture (source unknown). The crosses were discovered in a basement in Kaunas as recently as November 2017th!
Photo by Raimondas Pundinas
- 1892 saw the launch of horsetram called “konkė” in Kaunas. The route connected the Town Hall and the Railway Station through Nicholas prospect that later became Laisvės alėja until April 15th, 1929.
- Nicholas prospect was renamed to Kaiser-Wilhelm-Strasse in 1918, when Kaunas was under German occupation. By the way, the occupants planned to transfer the title of the main street from Laisvės alėja to the parallel Kęstučio street but the plan wasn’t successful.
From the archives of Vytautas the Great War Museum
- The German army left Kaunas in 1919. This is also the year when Kaunas became the temporary capital and Kaiser Wilhelm street was renamed to Laisvės alėja. On February 16th, the first anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, to be precise! The godfather of the name Kazimieras Oleka, member of the Kaunas city council who later became the minister of foreign affairs of Lithuania.
- A total of 12 cinemas were operating in Laisvės alėja between 1918 and 1939. Today, only one is left from the period – it’s Romuva on Laisvės al. 55. As of 2017, it’s preparing for a major renovation and movies are screened in a temporary hall on Kęstučio g. 62. Numerous cafes and restaurants offered daily live music by talented musicians - and were packed daily, too.
Oaza cinema, 1930. Source unknown
Romuva cinema (unknown year). Source unknown
- In the 1930s, more than a dozen 5-6 storey modernist architecture buildings that were considered very tall at that time were erected on Laisvės alėja, including the Central Post Office, the Pienocentras building, the Pažanga building and a handful of others today marked with the European Heritage Label. It was the time when Kaunas was called little Paris – and very much wanted to be one!
Pienocentras building (unidentified year). Source unknown
- In 1940, under the first Soviet occupation, the nameplates were changed to Stalin prospect. Interestingly enough, in 1961, still 30 years before restoring our independence, the street was again renamed to Laisvės alėja.
Stalin times. Source unknown
- All of the private businesses and land were nationalized during the Soviet occupation, right after WW2, this also applied to the numerous stylish shops, cafes and restaurants of Laisvės alėja. Some of the locations were reborn in the 1960s. the Konradas café, for example, became Tulpė and continued the interwar jazz traditions of Kaunas. Today, Tulpė does not exist anymore but its memory is installed in the pavement of Laisvės alėja. Look closely when you walk past Vero Cafe on Laisvės al. 45!
In Soviet times, there was also a super popular night bar called ‘Orbita’ on the intersection of Laisvės alėja and Maironio street. Today, it’s a bank. Picture by Romualdas Požerskis
- At noon on May 14, 1972, a young man called Romas Kalanta set himself on fire in the square adjoining the Laisvės alėja in front of the Kaunas State Musical Theatre, where in 1940 the People's Seimas declared establishment of the Lithuanian SSR and petitioned the Soviet Union to admit Lithuania as one of the soviet socialist republics. He died about 14 hours later in a hospital. It was an event that touched each and every resident of Kaunas, it was especially important for the young crowds that gathered to commemorate Kalanta – it was forbidden by the government and many people were arrested. After 1972, the State censorship became more severe, it meant sad days for artists, musicians and other free spirits.
The impressive memorial for Romas Kalanta was created by one of the most important sculptors of modern times, Robertas Antinis. Photo by Alvydas Vaitkevičius
- In 1982, Laisvės Alėja was reconstructed according to plans of architects Alfredas Paulauskas and Vanda Paleckienė. The duo completely transformed the street into pedestrian area (it had been planned some 30 years ago already). It was the second pedestrian-only street in the whole of USSR.
- The reconstruction was also the perfect playground for the new fountain ant the intersection of Laisvės alėja and S. Daukanto street. The fountain, today one of the city symbols, was designed by V. Paleckienė. Thousands of Kaunasians of all ages now have vintage pictures at the fountain in their albums. It's also a very popular dating and meeting place. You can control its lighting via a special website in summertime (in winter, it's a Christmas decoration spot!).
Photo by Elijus Kniežauskas / Kauno diena
- In 1983, Kaunas witnessed the grand opening of Merkurijus mall, one of the fanciest in USSR. The construction (which was only possible because the land was nationalized during the occupation and urban development took an unexpected curve – nobody objected such grand buildings) cost 6 million roubles, a cosmic amount of money for these times. You could buy everything there if you knew the right salesperson; more than 10 000 different items were on sale and approximately 20 000 people a day visited the mail. In 2009, Merkurijus was demolished. As of 2017, the lot is empty.
Merkurijus. Picture by Romualdas Požerskis
- Today, motor vehicles cannot travel along Laisvės Alėja, but can cross it at intersections with other streets where motor traffic is permitted. The boulevard is separated into two walkways by a median strip lined with more than 500 linden trees. This kind of makes it of the little Schwester of the Unter den Linden in Berlin! The length of the street is 1,6 km. If you cross the busy Birštono street via the underground crossing and continue strolling towards the Town Hall, the care-free pedestrian route can become as long as 2,6 km.
Kaunas State Music Theatre during the Kaunas Light Festival which runs through January 2018. Photo by Evaldas Virketis
- Laisvės alėja is a work of art, too. In 2010, it was first intersected and then performed as a musical piece by Darius Čiuta, a Kaunas-based architect and sound designer. No recording of the event is available. The boulevard is also the creative ground and source of inspiration for numerous writers, poets, painters, even sportsmen. etc.
- Laisvės alėja is also one loooong shopping alley (think Nike, Adidas, United Colours of Benetton, many other high street brands and the most interesting Lithuanian fashion designers) and a splendid gastronomical journey including traditional (including a couple of 60s style canteens) and contemporary Lithuanian, Georgian, Armenian, Lebanese, Italian, Indian, Tex-Mex, Japanese, French, Jewish and American cuisines.
Photo by Tomas Ragina / Kauno diena
- The sculpture of Danielius Dolskis, an interwar superstar singer, was installed in front of the historic Metropolis hotel and restaurant (built in 1899) in 2007. Flowers and other symbolic gifts can often be seen in the hands of the singer! A new (and slightly larger) sculpture of similar style can be met a the Kaunas post office. Once there, say hi to Jonas Vileišis, the legendary interwar mayor of Kaunas that influenced a lot of positive changes in the city.
Photo by Evaldas Virketis
One more song, dear Mr. Dolskis! Photo by Tomas Ragina
Opening of the Jonas Vileišis sculpture in July 2017. Photo by Rokas Tenys / Kas Vyksta Kaune