When in 1919 the University of Latvia was founded it had only two buildings, which were taken over from the former Riga Polytechnic Institute: buildings in Raiņa Boulevard 19 and Kronvalda Boulevard 4. The number of students was increasing rapidly, consequently new premises were needed which resulted in gradual expansion of the University of Latvia economic activities. With the support from the National Government and the society the University acquired ownership of many buildings which were and still are architectural landmarks.
The University of Latvia Main Building in Raiņa Boulevard 19
The main building of the University of Latvia is not only the oldest university building in Latvia, but also an architectural landmark of national value, whose image for many has come to symbolise higher education. The history of its construction is closely related to Riga Polytechnic Institute (1862-1915). In the 19th century Riga became a most modern metropolis in the Baltic province with a developed and diversified manufacturing and traffic and trade routes. The ongoing change created demand for new skills in both technical and natural sciences to make it possible not only to use the existing scientific achievements, but also to offer new areas for development. Riga Polytechnic Institute prepared a wide range of specialists and was the very first polytechnic higher education institution in the Russian Empire of which Latvia at the time was a part. Riga Polytechnic Institute launched the first study courses in rented premises, but soon afterwards in 1866 the construction of a building especially designed for the University by the architect Gustav Hilbig (1822-1887) was commenced in Raiņa (at the time - Troņmantnieka) Boulevard and the first body of the building was finished in 1869. As the educational institution developed, the building was gradually expanded –additional bodies of the building were built in three stages employing similar architectural forms. In the following forty years a joint complex of buildings was constructed with a spacious courtyard occupying a separate street block enclosed by four streets – Raiņa Boulevard, Merķeļa Street, Inženieru Street and Arhitektu Street.
The oldest part of the monumental University building was constructed combining features of Neo-Romanic, Renaissance and Byzantine styles, but at the same time in accordance with the construction traditions of educational institutions at that time. With the symmetry characteristic to the Romanic style the central part of the building is appended on both sides by two wings in which the lecture rooms are situated. In the central part there is the Entrance-Hall, Main Stairs and a ceremonial hall (the Small Assembly Hall). The observatory tower gives a peculiar vertical accent to the central risalita that does not have elevated vertical part. Two four-prong lanterns made of crude iron adorn the University Main Stairs – pente douce, which are enveloped in tales and legends. All in all, thanks to the precise regulations of construction that controlled the new building construction in the 19th century, the building perfectly fits in the Riga centre architecture and environment. After the liquidation of Riga Polytechnic Institute, the building passed into the hands of the University of Latvia.
The facade of the building
The construction of the facade was given much attention to and the sallow bricks were imported from England and also manufactured in Pērnava district. They were decorated with little glazed violet slabs that brightened the massive brick walls. In the centre of the University building there are decorative crude iron casts that depict the emblems of the former Baltic provinces – Vidzeme, Kurzeme and Estonia. In the centre there is the Vidzeme emblem above which the year of the Riga Polytechnic Institute foundation (1862) can be seen. A little lower the Sāmsala emblem is situated trimmed with a German inscription Das Wort Gottes bleibt ewig (The Word of God is eternal). Above the emblems there are reliefs symbolising nine technical fields of science – physics, chemistry, mechanics, trade, engineering, architecture, agriculture, land surveying, and navigation – all of which could be studied at Riga Polytechnic Institute. These reliefs were made by Riga Polytechnic Institute Professor John Clark’s (1830-1905) designs. The roof balustrades and the details of the corner turrets are made of crude iron.
At first, at the upper central facade of the University building was the emblem of City of Riga which in 1938 was moved to the part of the building facing Merķeļa Street and still can be seen there. The aforementioned emblem was replaced by the Latvian National Coat of Arms which, during the Soviet times, was substituted by the Coat of arms of the Latvian SSR. In 1990 it was once again replaced by the independent Republic of Latvia Coat of Arms.