Christian Grosch. Kristiansand’s Customs House – Public Ambitions in a Vernacular House

This is the story about a small customs house, designed by well known architect Christian Grosch in the early 19th century. In the case of the customs house on the islands of Lyngør, local legend has it that the building was mistakenly built reversed by the craftsmen. This article will investigate the impact of mistakes and coincidences that occur when a centrally designed public building responds to local vernacular building tradition. 

The architect

Born and educated in Copenhagen, Christian Grosch was a part of Norway’s tradition of importing architectural influences from Europe. Norway did not have a strong developed architectural education of its own due to a long history of colonial rule under Denmark. In larger cities such as Bergen and Oslo, prominent buildings were regarded as important markers of a modern and cultivated society, which gave them a reason to be built in the latest fashion. Around 1820, the Empire style was most dominant with its subtle way of handling the shapes and colours of the classicism.

Picture 1. Kristiansand’s customs house. Built in 1827. Drawing by architect W. Reinhardt

In 1828, Christian H. Grosch was appointed head architect of Christiania (former Oslo). Due to a dramatic increase in seaside trade, the government required a stronger presence along the coast of Norway in order to keep control over trade. For this, Grosch designed a type house able to adapt to local conditions.1 His first commission was a customs office for the city of Kristiansand. This was close to Lyngør, which would soon have its own customs office.

The customs house in Lyngør

Picture 2. “Tollboden”, Norwegian for customs house, 1870. From the book: Hus in Lyngør by Helge Krafft. Photographer: unknown.

The customs house in Lyngør was completed around 1837. To understand how the building was used, one needs to know that the customs officer both lived and worked in the same house. The main concept for the plan was to orient the private rooms towards the backyard and the office towards the sea. The plan of the customs house in Lyngør is reversed and according local legend the customs officer sat in the kitchen instead of the office when observing seaside traffic. Another important aspect of this mistake was the orientation of the only entrance. It was typical of domestic houses in Lyngør to have only one entrance but was it enough to fulfil the purpose of this kind of public facility? Instead of a straight connection to the services in the back of the house, it connected towards the docks. No other buildings on the island had an entrance towards the sea, which means that the large staircase that connected the first floor and the ground level was also unique.

Customs house in Lyngør. The major aspect of the site is the two important directions. On one side, the facade orientates towards the sea and the docks. The other facade faces the street and the backyard where a smaller building is situated, holding all the utilitarian functions such as storage of goods. (Author’s drawing)

Picture 3. An identical customs house was built in 1839 on the island Borøya not far from Lyngør. In this case, the entrance door is towards the storage building on the backside of the house. Photo: Aust-Agder fylkeskommune

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The empire style meets the Vernacular

As the customs house in Kristiansand is an example of the empire style, so is the house in Lyngør. The major difference between these buildings is found in the construction. In the cities, stone architecture was widely developed from the European model. However, the regional building tradition was still based on notched log constructions, and the house in Lyngør was not an exception. Covering the rough logs, the horizontal facade panels where shaped wide and flat to mimic stone. The entrance was designed with double doors and a window on the top which made it grow in size and importance.

To the left, facade towards the water on the customs house in Lyngør. Drawing by author. Picture 4. to the right, facade detail of the customs house in Kristiansand. Drawing by architect W. Reinhardt.

There are no traces left of the building process of the house in Lyngør, but there is a description regarding the case in Kristiansand. The project is a good example of how public commissions were arranged at this time. A local builder or architect – the title was apparently not that important – made a proposal for the building. This was then sent to be edited and approved by Christian Grosch in Christiania. When the officer in Kristiansand received the final drawings, the responsibility to complete the building was once again on a local level.2

If this was the case in Lyngør, the mistake must either have been the architect’s, the customs officer who was to use the house, or the builders undertaking the construction. The notched log construction used in this house is a highly modular system. It was usually built on mainland where the resources from the forest were close by. Each log was carefully carved in to fit the previous one, assembled to a complete house before marked up and then deconstructed for shipment to the island.

Conclusion

Maybe the customs officer was disappointed, doing his daily observing over the sea at the kitchen table. Or was the large staircase a welcoming feature that increased the importance of the customs duty? Either way, one can think that having two doors instead of one might have been preferred in this case. When the mistake regarding the reversed plan occurred is hard to tell, but only three years later, Christian Grosch designed a third customs house in Stavanger:

Picture 5. Stavanger’s customs house, built in 1840. Drawing by architect Hugo Friis Zahl.

 

Endnotes:

1. A similar type house was built on the island Borøya near Lyngør. My conclusion about Christian Grosch being the responsible architect of the customs house in Lyngør is based on the fact that these houses are identical, built for the same purpose and close to each other both geographically and in time. More about the house is described in this article: https://www.austagderfk.no/tjenseter/kulturminnevern/kulturminnevern-2014/manedens-kulturminne-april2/

2. Elisabeth Seip, CHR. H. GROSCH -Arkitekten som ga form til de nye Norge (Peter hammers forlag, 2001) s.53

Historical resources:

Bernard Høiden, Norwegian Customs Houses. (Toll og avgiftsdirektoratet, 2000)

Jens Christian Eidal, Kontroll og sikker forvaring, Årsbok 2009. (Fortidsminneforeningen, 2009) S. 137

Picture resources:

Picture 1. Kristiansand’s customs house. Drawing by architect W. Reinhardt

Picture 2. From the book: Hus in Lyngør by Helge Krafft. Photographer: unknown.

Picture 3. Photo of the old Customs office on the island Borøya not far from Lyngør. Photo: Aust-Agder fylkeskommune

Picture 4. Facade detail of the customs house in Kristiansand. Drawing by architect W. Reinhardt.

Picture 5. Stavanger’s customs house. Drawing by architect Hugo Friis Zahl.