SUNDSVALL, the capital of the tiny province of Medelpad, is often referred to as “Stone City”, for the simple reason that most of its buildings are made of stone – a fact that distinguishes it immediately from other coastal towns here. Having gawped at Sundsvall’s imposing architecture, most visitors then make for the city’s other main attraction: Kulturmagasinet, a superb museum complex located right in the city centre housing the paintings and sculptures of local artist Carl Frisendahl, amongst others. In summer, Gaffelbyn, Sundsvall’s outdoor craft village, is definitely worth a look, too – try your hand here at baking the northern Swedish flatbread, tunnbröd.
Once home to a rapidly expanding timber industry, the whole city burned to the ground the day after Midsummer in June 1888. A spark from the wood-burning steamboat Selånger (promptly dubbed “The Arsonist”) set fire to a nearby brewery, and the rest, as they say, is history – so much so that the remark “that hasn’t happened since the town burned down” is now an established Sundsvall saying. Nine thousand people lost their homes in the resulting blaze. The work of rebuilding the city began at once, and within ten years a new centre had been constructed, entirely of stone. The result is a living document of turn-of-the-twentieth-century urban architecture, designed and crafted by architects who were involved in rebuilding Stockholm’s residential areas at the same time. Wide streets and esplanades that would serve as firebreaks in the event of another fire formed the backbone of their work. These thoroughfares are home to 573 residential buildings, all of which went up in four years; the centrepiece is the house that dominates the main square, Storatorget.
The reconstruction, however, was achieved at a price: the workers who had laboured on the city’s refurbishment became the victims of their own success. They were shifted from their old homes in the centre and moved out south to a run-down suburb – the glaring contrast between the wealth of the new centre and the poverty of the surrounding districts was only too obvious. When Nils Holgersson, a character created by the children’s author Selma Lagerlöf, looked down on the town from the back of his flying goose, he remarked: “There was something funny about it when you saw it from above, because in the middle there was a group of high stone houses, so impressive that they hardly had their equal in Stockholm. Around the stone houses was an empty space, and then there was a circle of wooden houses, which were pleasantly scattered in little gardens, but which seemed to carry an awareness of being of lesser value than the stone houses and therefore dared not come too close.”