The House at Eyrarbakki - The Árnesinga Folk Museum
Húsið (The House) at Eyrarbakki is one of Iceland's oldest buildings, built in 1765 when Danish merchants were allowed to overwinter in Iceland for the first time. Merchant families lived in the House for almost two centuries and over that period the House was the center for art and European culture in Iceland; fashion, music and literature spread from there throughout the country. Eyrarbakki village was at that time one of the largest harbours and trading places in Iceland, serving farmers along the coastline from the extreme west to the extreme east.
At the Árnesinga Folk Museum's varied exhibitions in The House, visitors can experience past times and learn about the remarkable history of the building.
15th May - 15th Sept. Daily: 11-18. And by arrangement
16th Sept - 14th May: By arrangement.
The House and the Assistants' House
Húsið ("The House") at Eyrarbakki is one of Iceland's oldest buildings. Transported to Iceland in kit form in 1765, it is a timber structure, comprising two storeys and an attic.
The extension to the west of The House, known as Assistentahúsið (The Assistants' House), is connected via an annex. Built in 1881. It originally housed the shop assistants of the Lefolii store.
Located north from the Assistants' House is the Egg House. The building was used by Peter Nielsen, manager of the Eyrarbakki store, for his collection of both birds and their eggs in the period 1890-1926. The Egg House was reconstructed in 2004 and is used as an exhibition space.
The sea wall adjacent to The House was constructed after the disastrous Básendar flood of 1799, which swept away the whole hamlet of Básendar near Keflavik town. North of The House are outhouses dating from 1922, and the Rabbit Enclosure, where rabbits were bred for their meat. The enclosure was later roofed in for use as a fish-drying shack, and subsequently converted into a kitchen garden. In 1995, remnants of the original stone path in front of the House were uncovered when soil was removed from the plot surrounding the building. The foundations that are visible to the east of the House are probably remnants of a cowshed, and a canal that brought water to the laundry from a pond at the homefield, now dry. The House and the sea wall are all protected under the terms of the law on national monuments.
The House has undergone various alterations over the years. The original main entrance was on the south side of the building, which was Danish in design. The interior division into rooms was somewhat different from the present, and the attic was not divided into rooms.
The identity of the original builders of The House is not known, but they were probably Danish builders. In 1868 the southern entrance was closed, and a new entry opened on the western end, via an annex, which provided access to the Assistants' House. The staircase was also moved from the centre of the House to the western end. The rooms at the southern end of The House were opened up and enlarged, and a new small room was made at the eastern end of The House. It was at this point that the attic was divided up into rooms. Until then, it had not been used as a living accommodation. In 1932-1934, the House was thoroughly renovated, as it had become severely dilapidated. The House underwent repairs and alterations during the period 1979 to 1995, with the objective of restoring it to its original form.
Brief History of The House at Eyrarbakki
From 1765 to 1926, The House was the home of the Eyrarbakki merchants and their staff. It was commonly known as “The House” probably because it was the only wooden residential house at Eyrarbakki, at a time when most Icelanders lived in turf houses, and was thus splendidly different. It was also known as “The Merchants House”.
The House has played an important role in Icelandic cultural history; it was one of Iceland's most important centres of cultural activity for a long period, specially from the days of the merchant Guðmundur Thorgrímsen and his wife Sylvia, who moved to Eyrarbakki in 1847. The House had an important cultural influence at this period, bringing Danish bourgeois standards to Iceland.
Guðmundur Thorgrímsen was one of the founders of the Eyrarbakki primary school in 1852; this school, which has functioned ever since, is the oldest primary school in Iceland. Thorgrímsen had a reputation for fairness and was a popular merchant. His family was active in promoting musical appreciation in the region; members of the household played the organ, guitar and piano, as well as singing. Bjarni Pálsson, father of composer Friðrik Bjarnason, received music lessons from Mrs. Sylvia Thorgrímsen and her daughter, also named Sylvia; Bjarni went on to teach many pupils the organ. It was in The House that Páll Ísólfsson, one of Iceland's most eminent composers (1893-1974) first heard piano music, “and was both amazed and delighted by those magical tones.”
Eugenia Nielsen, wife of Peter Nielsen and daughter of Guðmundur Thorgrímsen, was one of the founders of the Eyrarbakki Women's Association in 1888, and its first chairwoman. Ásgrímur Jónsson (1875-1958), one of the pioneers of Icelandic paint art, was employed in The House for two years in his teens; he felt that the interest and encouragement of Mrs. Eugenia Nielsen had influenced his decision to become an artist.
Peter Nielsen, manager of the Lefolii business from 1887 to 1910, lived in the House with his wife, Eugenia Nielsen. Nielsen was famed for his studies of natural science and his natural history collection: he acquired a large collection of stuffed Icelandic birds and their eggs. He wrote articles on natural history, especially about the distribution of Icelandic bird species, which were published both in Iceland and abroad.
Guðmunda Nielsen (1885-1935), daughter of merchant Peter Nielsen and Eugenia Nielsen, taught many Eyrarbakki people to play the piano. She published songs for solo voice and piano, conducted choirs at Eyrarbakki, and also ran a local store for several years.
The House was much visited in the time of Thorgrímsen and Nielsen. Many Icelandic and foreign visitors have left accounts of life in The House at this time. These all indicate that The House was a civilised home, where people were made welcome - not only the rich and influential, but also ordinary people. Workers were eager to gain employment at The House, which was regarded as the equivalent of an education.
In 1918, when Iceland gained independence from Denmark, the Hekla cooperative, owned by the farmers of south Iceland, purchased the assets of the Danish merchants at Eyrarbakki, including the House. The manager of the cooperative moved into The House with his family. In 1920 to 1926 the cooperative went through a period of difficulties in trading at Eyrarbakki, and The House passed for a time to the National Bank of Iceland.
In 1932 The House was purchased by a trawler captain Halldór Kr. Þorsteinsson of Háteigur in Reykjavik and his wife Ragnhildur Pétursdóttir, after it had been advertised for sale. They had it renovated under the supervision of Matthías Þórðarson, Keeper of National Antiquities, who had encouraged them to buy The House. This is believed to have saved The House from demolition, as it was rare at that time for old buildings to be preserved. This is believed to have been the first conscientious renovation of a building, for conservation purposes, by an individual in Iceland. Ragnhildur Pétursdóttir planned to open a school of domestic science in The House, but this came to nothing. In World War II The House, by this time used by the couple as a summer residence, was commandeered by the occupying British and later American forces.
Halldór and Ragnhildur rented out the Assistants' House for many years. Author Guðmundur Daníelsson lived there for some years in the 1940´s, and wrote seven books. Guðmundur lent The House to Halldór Laxness in 1945, and he wrote his book Eldur í Kaupmannahöfn (Fire in Copenhagen), part of Íslandsklukkan (The Bell of Iceland), in The House. Various other people lived in The House and the Assistants' House, for varying periods of time. The Assistants' House was leased for some years to the Eyrarbakki Women's Association, which ran a coffee shop and a solarium for children there. Finally, the Assistants' House stood empty, in a state of dilapidation. Ragnhildur Halldórsdóttir Skeoch, daughter of Halldór and Ragnhildur, inherited The House from her parents.
In 1979 Tthe House was purchased by Auðbjörg Guðmundsdóttir and Pétur Sveinbjarnarson. They made various improvements to The House, where Auðbjörg lived until 1994. The Icelandic Treasury purchased The House in 1992. The National Museum of Iceland undertook the management of The House on behalf of the Treasury, and supervised repairs over the following two years. The Árnessýsla Folk Museum moved into The House in August 1995, and opened it to the public.
Guide to The House and the Assistants' House
Exhibitions in the House have been designed to show the building at its best. The museum is inevitably affected by its environment, and so part of the museum focuses on the House and its inhabitants. Several aspects of local history are also recounted.
In the Assistants' House are six sections: (1) Items from the Lefolii business. (2) A wool weight from the Lefolii business and items owned by Guðlaugur Pálsson (1896-1993), who ran a shop in Eyrarbakki from 1917 until 1993. His long career in business attracted international media attention. (3). Ecclesiastical items. (4) A selection of items from the Árnessýsla Folk Museum. On the upper floor of the Assistants' House is an exhibition on the utilization of natural resources and another on textiles.
On the ground floor of the House are three rooms and a kitchen. The Green Room or the Drawing room (5) has been restored as far as possible to its appearance around 1900, based upon photographs. The most remarkable item in the collection is the piano, which was in the House from 1871 to 1930.
In the Blue Room (6) the history of the House and its inhabitants is recounted. On the walls are photographs taken by Agnes Lunn and Oline Lefolii in the years after 1900, The Blue Room was originally the office of the shop manager; there was also a small room at the eastern end, and a main entrance at the west.
The Yellow Room or Dining Room (7) is used for various short-term exhibitions.
In the kitchen is the hearth (8), restored in its original form by Auðbjörg Guðmundsdóttir and Pétur Sveinbjarnarson, and from Auðbjörg and Péturs’ period is also a “modern” kitchen unit with a sink. The exhibits on the table relate to Icelanders' coffee drinking.
The old pantry has been converted into a lavatory.
On the way up to the upper floor, the wooden logs of which The House is constructed are visible; the building was brought to Iceland in kit form. The staircase was renovated in 1933, but traces of worn treads can be seen under the second step from the top.
In the Daughters' Room is an exhibition on domestic life from 1850 to 1910, and accounts of life in The House in olden times. In a garret under the eaves on the south side, various household items are stored. Servant girls slept here. In a room under the eaves at the south are old photographs. In a garret leading from this room, old playthings from the Árnessysla Folk Museum Collection are displayed. In the attic was sleeping accommodation for male servants, where visitors can observe their living conditions.
On the east part of the second floor is an apartment, as it was 1919 to 1925, when a well known Icelandic photoprapher, Haraldur Blöndal, lived there. Items are from 1920 to 1940 and are from The Árnessýsla Folk Museum Collection.