As mentioned, we had our first meeting of the Financial Services Club in Oslo last week, and a fine affair it was. The most impressive aspect of the meeting being the palatial surroundings of the British Ambassador's Residence in Oslo.
We hold many of our European meetings in partnership with the British Embassies, and sometimes we meet at the Embassy buildings and, on occasion, at the British Ambassdor's Residence. This meeting was at the Residence and, to give you a sense of the building, here are just a few views of the building and decor:
Now I wouldn’t normally show you all of these pix, but there is a reason.
The reason is that, during the opening words from the Embassy representative, it became clear that this building is rather special.
It is the Villa Frognæs, one of Britain’s “historic residences”, which gives it a special status. It was also built by a banker, which is why I’m going to blog about it.
Originally, the land on which the Villa Frognæs resides was a monastery settled by English monks in 1147 AD.
After the Reformation, the land was sold many times as great arable land for farming and was used to feed the citizens of Christiania, the name by which Oslo was known from 1624 to 1924.
During the 1800s and the age of Romanticism, the view of mountains and fjords changed and citizens of the city started to yearn for country east with spectacular views, and so it was with Villa Frognæs, originally the finest area of the Frogner farm.
Lying between two streams with hilly country and steep crags to the north and west, and a gentle slope down the fjord inlet to the south and east, it had all the features desired by the Romantics.
Therefore, in 1833, the Postmaster of Christiania Wilhelm Wraatz built a house, modestly named “Wilhelmsberg”. No trace of that house remains as, after his death, his widow sold the property and Thomas J. Heftye acquired some of the land in 1852 and built Villa Frognæs between 1856 and 1859.
Who was Thomas J (for Johannessen) Heftye (1822 – 1886)?
One of the most important leaders in Norwegian life at the time, as demonstrated by his award of the Royal Norwegian Order of St. Olav in 1864*. Having said that, he was of Swiss origin, with a grandfather who migrated from Switzerland in 1791 along with other leading Swiss families such as the Trumphys and the Tschudys.
Thomas Heftye senior founded the banking firm Thos. Joh. Heftye & Son which consequently was passed down to his son and thence to his grandson.
The grandson, Thomas Johannessen Heftye, soon became very prominent, particularly when he married Marie Jacobine Meyer, one of the city’s largest property owners and financiers.
Working with Marie’s brother, Thomas built up the bank into one of the country’s largest financial institutions, and became a leading landowner, politican and founder of the Norwegian Trekking Association (!).
Heftye was also a member of the board of Akers Sparebank for much of his later life. Akers Sparebank was founded in 1844 and, through various mergers and acquisitions, has since been incorporated into DnB.
The original Akers Sparebank offices on Grensen in central Oslo:
The office today:
Once Heftye had built Villa Frognæs, it was called “one of the grandest and finest [houses], if not the grandest and finest, in the City” by Skiling Magazin in 1865, and Thomas and his wife Marie loved to entertain the grand, glorious and famous here.
When royalty or other celebrities were in the country, they were always invited to the house and included visitors such as Prince Frederick of Prussia (1874), President Ulysses Grant (1878) and King Edward VII (1885). The Swedish Family were regular visitors, notably Crown Prince Gustav, King Oscar II and Kng Charles XV.
After Heftye’s death in 1886, the house was sold to various investors – one of whom created a scheme to transform the property into an Oslo version of Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens – but stood empty from 1898 until 1906.
After much debate, it was eventually acquired by the British Minister to Norway, Sir Arthur Herbert, for £18,000 on 1st February 1906, and has since been used as the Ambassador’s Residence.
Heftye was not just influential in Norway. He was a Knight of the Swedish Order of the Polar Star in 1860, the Danish Order of the Dannebrog in 1866 and the French Légion d'honneur in 1867, a Commander of the Austrian Order of Franz Joseph from 1867 and of the Swedish Order of Vasa in 1877.
Oh, and just in case anyone is wondering why I mentioned Ferroro-Rocher: