Grayscale drawing of a church
Online exhibition

Wilhelm von Hanno

Wilhelm von Hanno (1826–82) was one of the most important and prolific architects in 19th century Norway. It is difficult to move very far around Oslo without encountering his architecture.

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Wilhelm von Hanno (1826–1882)

In the 19th century, Wilhelm von Hanno was one of Norway’s most important and prolific architects. It is difficult to walk far in Oslo without encountering his architecture. Originally from Germany, von Hanno emigrated to Norway as a newly qualified architect.

Von Hanno worked as a stone mason, draughtsman and architect. He had studied under the architectural painter Martin Gensler, and in Christiania (now Oslo) he ran his own drawing school, which made an important contribution to artistic and architectural education in the city. He was also responsible for the design of Norway’s posthorn postage stamps. Designed in 1871, these stamps are still in use today.

The Posthorn Stamp has become the world's oldest uninterrupted stamp series.

From 1853 to 1864, Hanno was in partnership with Heinrich Ernst Schirmer, another German immigrant who became one of the 19th century’s most important architects. Von Hanno’s name is mentioned most frequently in connection with this partnership, but the current exhibition focuses on three of his projects that fall outside of this: the Trinity Church (1849­–58), Grønland Church and the surrounding buildings, i.e. Grønland School and Grønland Fire and Police Station (1864–69); and the building for the Geographic Survey of Norway (now the Norwegian Mapping Authority) (1876–79) on a site next to Slottsparken.

Through several donations and purchases in recent years, the National Museum has built up a collection of von Hanno’s architectural drawings and sketchbooks.

This map gives you an overview of von Hanno's projects in Christiania (now Oslo).

The Trinity Church

Following a lengthy and arduous process, Trinity Church was completed in 1858. Until then Our Saviour’s Church (now Oslo Cathedral) had been the city’s only church, but it had become too small for the growing congregation. In 1849, the city invited five architects to submit designs for a new church. This was probably the first architectural competition held in Norway. The city awarded the commission to the celebrated German architect Alexis de Chateauneuf (1799–1853), based in Hamburg, whose wife was Norwegian.

Chateauneuf proposed an octagonal central-plan church crowned by a monumental dome. The central space beneath the dome interior was surrounded by a vaulted colonnade supporting the gallery, which also created a symbolic transition from the dark entrance to the light-filled nave.

Grayscale drawing of a church
Wilhelm von Hanno, “Trinity Church in the Snow”, 1850. Watercolour and gouache, 243 x 333 mm.
Photo: Nasjonalmuseet / Børre Høstland

To prepare working drawings, Chateauneuf dispatched his former pupil, the young Wilhelm von Hanno, who arrived in Christiania in the summer of 1850. Later that same summer, Chateauneuf became sick and returned home to Hamburg. He would never return to Christiania and died in 1853. On Chateauneuf’s recommendation, the city appointed von Hanno to head the building project.

Rough draft of church interior
Alexis de Chateauneuf: "Design for the Interiour in Trinity Church", 1850. Pencil, 427 x 544 mm.
Photo: Nasjonalmuseet / Øyvind Andersen
Wilhelm von Hanno: “The Arch Way in Trinity Church”, 1851. Pen, pencil, and watercolour, 530 x 720 mm.
Photo: Nasjonalmuseet / Børre Høstland

The ensuing years were characterized by recurrent quarrels about the budget. Von Hanno was appointed executive architect for the church and was instructed to simplify the design in order to cut costs. He retained the floor plan and made only minor changes to the exterior. He made extensive alterations to the interior, however, transforming Chateauneuf’s neo-Gothic design into a less rigid composition that allowed the interaction of various historical influences.

Wilhelm von Hanno: “Trinity Church Stone Mason’s Workshop”, 1852. Pencil, 475 x 620 mm.
Photo: Nasjonalmuseet / Børre Høstland

Von Hanno designed both the interior and all the fixtures and fittings: the lamps, door handles, pulpit, organ, altar, church silver and the lions’ heads on the main door. Many of the various leaf patterns used for the column capitals were not only designed by von Hanno, but also carved by him. He had a stone masons’ workshop just behind the building site.

Trinity Church was consecrated in 1858, following a procession from Our Saviour’s Church. By that time the design had been so influenced by von Hanno that it is correct to assign the architectural credit jointly to him and Chateauneuf.

The Christiania Fire of 1858

Watercolor drawing of house destroyed by fire
Wilhelm von Hanno: “Petersen’s House destroyed by Fire”, 1858. Watercolour, 253 x 327 mm.
Photo: Nasjonalmuseet / Børre Høstland

14 April 1858 witnessed one of the most dramatic fires in the history of Christiania. Almost three entire blocks in Kvadraturen, Oslo’s historic centre, burnt to the ground. Only some unstable chimney flues were left standing. Von Hanno’s drawing of the burnt-out ruins was made while thick smoke still filled the air and efforts to extinguish the fire were continuing.

The rebuilding process resulted in several commissions for von Hanno and his business partner Heinrich Ernst Schirmer. The area that had gone up in smoke was located in one of the city’s more exclusive neighbourhoods, and new, expensive buildings rose from the ashes. The building commissioned by Per Petersen on Karl Johans gate  was one of the city’s most luxurious private residences and even had its own ballroom. In the same street, the prominent building known as Hoppegården was designed to include premises for the Christiania Art Society, which held exhibitions there from 1859 until 1870.

Von Hanno’s sketchbooks are full of observations of urban life, as well as drawings relating to his own work. His drawings were widely used by newspapers as source material for wood-engraved illustrations.

drawing of atelier
Wilhelm von Hanno: “Artist’s own Studio”, 1861. Watercolour, 292 x 232 mm.
Photo: Nasjonalmuseet / Børre Høstland

At home with von Hanno

The watercolour depicts von Hanno's own studio, a small, chapel-like brick house. Above the door he carved the sage advice, "Allen zu gefallen ist unmöglich" – you can't please everyone.

Exactly when he built the studio is uncertain, but it has to have been between 1853, when he bought a house in St. Olavs gate 28–30, and 1861, which is the date on this watercolour.

In the photography below, you can see the studio to the right of the main house. Von Hanno stood on the veranda, surrounded by the lush greenery, when he drew this picture.

The interior photographs from von Hanno’s house was made in the 1890s, after the death of von Hanno and just before the building was torn down. Note the abundance of architecture on the walls.

The small studio was relocated to the courtyard of St. Olav’s gate 7, where it still stands.


Grønland was incorporated into Christiania in 1859, generating a need for public buildings in the city’s newest district. The city authorities decided to build a combined fire-and-police station, a school and a church. A competition for all three buildings was announced in 1864. Von Hanno and Schirmer submitted separate proposals, thus marking the end of their long-standing partnership.

church design
Wilhelm von Hanno: “Design for buildings in Grønland”, 1864. Watercolour, 315 x 450 mm.
Photo: Nasjonalmuseet / Børre Høstland

Von Hanno proposed a longitudinal church. But was a longitudinal design suitable for Protestant worship?

Wilhelm von Hanno: “The Steeple at Grønland Church”, 1866. Pen and wash, 987 x 652 mm.
Photo: Nasjonalmuseet / Børre Høstland

Several contributors to the ensuing press debate argued that longitudinal churches had been developed for a Roman Catholic style of worship, involving ritual processions and a very clear divide between the congregation and the priest. In a central church (such as the Trinity Church), the congregation is gathered around the preacher, and many argued that this arrangement was more appropriate for a Protestant church. Nonetheless, von Hanno was declared the winner in 1865.

In Trinity Church in the Snow, von Hanno had depicted the buildings around the church as forming a harmonious frame around the building, in terms of scale, style and materials. At Grønland he had the opportunity to create just such a completely realised urban environment: an idyllic group of buildings completely dominated by a tall church steeple, such as one might find in a country village.

Building work on the church commenced in 1866, once the fire station and school had been completed. The design of the church draws on various different styles and is a good example of von Hanno’s experimental and relaxed attitude to the use of historical styles of architecture.

The Geographic Survey of Norway

As early as the 1850s there were proposals to erect a dedicated building to house both the National Archives and the Geographic Survey of Norway (now the Norwegian Mapping Authority) at Tullinløkka, close to the Royal Palace. Three architects, including von Hanno, were invited to submit proposals.

Wilhelm von Hanno: “Design for a National Archive Building”, 1853. Pen and wash, 361 x 474 mm.
Photo: Nasjonalmuseet / Børre Høstland

The Norwegian parliament rapidly found that the project would be too expensive; some representatives commented that one couldn’t be expected to erect a dedicated building for every specific use. Instead, it was decided that the two institutions should move into the new parliament building that was then in the planning stages.

The Geographic Survey’s collection of maps and printing plates grew so quickly, however, that it soon outgrew its new parliamentary premises. During the 1860s, the idea of a dedicated building was floated once again. Von Hanno was involved at an early stage in the building project, and when funds were granted for construction in 1876, he was awarded the commission.

There was considerable debate about where to locate the new building. The authorities wanted an elevated plot with unencumbered views, as well an isolated position so that neighbouring buildings would not pose a fire hazard. These requirements made the extremely prominent plot next to Slottsparken an optimal solution. Von Hanno, as architect, envisaged the monumental main façade as a "handsome gateway to this part of the city, when one approaches from Parkveien".

Wilhem von Hanno: “Building for The Geographic Survey of Norway”, 1877. Pen and wash, 640 x 750 mm. Elevation.
Photo: Nasjonalmuseet / Børre Høstland

The two large corner towers of the new building concealed the fact that the wing facing St. Olavs gate was not set at a right angle, and gave the impression of a symmetrical layout. The striking roof terrace was also functional – the unrestricted views in all directions made it a perfect place to adjust measuring instruments and instruct operators in their use.

The building contained offices, drawing studios, an engraving workshop, a printing workshop, a fireproof room for storing engraved plates and original maps, and two apartments. The Central Bureau of Statistics was allocated premises in the south wing.

The small annexe to the side contained a photographic studio. Photographing maps required the camera to be on a completely firm base; and processing the images required noxious chemicals and a glass roof that let in light. Because these latter factors posed a security risk that was undesirable in a building that was also home to the Survey’s collections, the photographic studio had to be housed in a separate building.