19th century district of Kaunas | True Lithuania
True Lithuania

Naujamiestis (New Town) Borough of Kaunas

The New Town with its grid layout of streets dates to the late 19th century. This district lies entirely to the east of the Old Town. It was built by the Russian Empire as the administrative center of Kaunas Fortress which surrounded the city during the same era.

Because of its military importance, there was a tradition that no building may exceed 2 floors (+attic) in size. Therefore even the most important buildings such as the former fortress HQ are not tall, but expansive. The main exception is the Kaunas Sobor (Soboras) in the center of a small square. This imposing Russian Orthodox Church with its shining dome was built for officers of the military fortress. After the independence of Lithuania (1918) the Russian military departed and the church became Roman Catholic. It still remains the church of the army.

The Sobor visible from Laisvės alėja (Freedom Avenue). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The independence changed the building size restrictions as well. New Town became the downtown of what effectively became the country's capital. Many stately buildings were constructed here, among them the Central Post building (1931), Parliament building (1928), Officers Club (1937), Savings Bank Palace (1940) and „Pienocentras“ company HQ (1931). Most construction took place in the 1930s when the prevailing style was art deco with Bauhaus influences. The building facades typically have many rounded geometrical elements and some sharp corners. This unique architecture of Kaunas is recognized as UNESCO World Heritage.

Among the more recent additions is Mykolas Žilinskas Art Gallery (near Sobor), the Lithuania's main encyclopedic museum of foreign art (Lithuanian collectors donated the exhibits from Babylonian cuneiform to impressionism).

Kaunas central post building (near the western end of Laisvės alėja) is a good example of Kaunas interwar architecture that uses both curved and sharp corners. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The undisputed main street of New Town is Laisvės alėja (Freedom Avenue). Once the only pedestrian boulevard in the Soviet Union the street had been the heart of the city long before Soviet occupation. Most of city's major 1880-1940 era buildings are to be found along this street and Romas Kalanta self-immolated himself against the Soviet regime here as well, triggering a global protest. There is now a monument to him in front of the Musical Theater, itself a high-society hub since its opening in 1892, built immediately beyond the former city wall (remains are visible). In the 2000s, however, the urban entertainment largely relocated again to the Old Town and the new shopping malls. Some restaurants and the theaters remain in Laisvės alėja but nightlife is scarce.

The musical theater of Kaunas. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

In the eastern reaches of Naujamiestis (at the other end of Laisvės alėja) there is the Ramybės (Calmness) park. This used to be Kaunas prime cemetery until Soviets demolished it (1959), destroying the elaborate tombstones and memorials (among them Darius and Girėnas mausoleum). Few of them have been rebuilt (Homeland defenders, 1941 June uprising). Luckily three religious buildings which once centered minority sections of the cemetery survived intact and are still city-wide hubs for the Muslim and Russian Orthodox communities. Lithuania's only non-wooden mosque (named after Vytautas the Great) subtly unites art deco style with Arabic influences. One Russian Orthodox church (Ressurection) dates to 1862 while the neighboring one (Virgin Mary Revelation) was constructed by the Lithuanian government in 1935 after the Sobor was ceded to the Catholics.

The June uprising memorial in Ramybės park is one of many patriotic monuments in the New Town of Kaunas. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The northern part of Naujamiestis is centered around Vienybės (Unity) square. This patriotic heart of pre-WW2 Kaunas hosts Freedom statue, sculptures of the Lithuania‘s founding fathers, a grave of an unknown soldier and other monuments (rebuilt after Soviet destruction).

Major national museums were also constructed here. National Vytautas the Great War Museum (1934) is the most famous. It shares its building (a nice example of monumental art deco) with Čiurlionis art gallery , dedicated to Lithuania‘s most famous symbolist painter. The War museum tower houses a 49-bell Belgian carillon. Created in 1935 it is still played every Saturday and Sunday afternoon (16:00) providing free concerts for everyone in the Unity square (video).

Further north, right in the line of interwar apartment buildings next to the slope of Žaliakalnis hill, there is a newer Devil museum of sculptor Antanas Žmuidzinavičius who collected various statues of devils and other demons from all over the world.

The 1934 museum building and carillon tower in Vienybės square. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

In the south of Naujamiestis right next to Nemunas river stands the largest shopping mall in Kaunas known as Akropolis (80,000 m²): a repurposed pre-war factory with new multi-storey parking towering above Karaliaus Mindaugo Avenue on the bank of Nemunas. Akropolis also serves as an entertainment hub with ice rink, cinema, bowling and many restaurants. In the island of Nemunas, the new Kaunas arena stands. With 17 000 seats, this arena is the largest in the Baltics providing a home to international gigs and Žalgiris basketball team.

Holy Cross (Carmelite) church is partly outflanked by these modern developments but it still hosts a nice Baroque interior with 17th-century frescoes.

Map of Naujamiestis borough of Kaunas.

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