The Bank of Lithuania’s building in Kaunas

Upon the re-establishment of the State of Lithuania in 1918, the significance of the city of Kaunas strengthened. It became the provisional capital of the country – its political, cultural, economic and financial centre. State, educational, cultural, and credit institutions were founded in the city. Kaunas also began dictating the architectural fashions of Independent Lithuania – here, monumental buildings rose. Among them is the representative building of the Bank of Lithuania, built at the end of the 1920s at the intersection of Kristijonas Donelaitis and Maironis streets by architect Mykolas Songaila. The building is an important piece of both neoclassical architecture in Lithuania and the history of banking.

The Bank of Lithuania started its operations on 2 October 1922. On the very same day, the national currency litas was adopted. The Bank of Lithuania was founded by the Government of the Republic of Lithuania. Its fixed capital amounted to 12 million litas. During the interwar period, the bank was a joint stock company: around 80% of the shares were state-owned, while the remaining were owned by private shareholders, municipalities, societies and other individuals.

The Bank of Lithuania’s main objective was to regulate cash circulation, facilitate cash withdrawals, create a stable and sustainable monetary system, and foster the development of agriculture, industry and trade. The bank was granted exclusive rights to issue banknotes for 20 years. In addition to the main functions of the bank of issue, the Bank of Lithuania also acted as a commercial bank during the interwar period. One could make a deposit, take out a loan or bring valuables for safekeeping there. It was a usual international practice, and only after World War II did central banks start giving up their commercial functions.

Professor Vladas Jurgutis became the first Governor of the Bank of Lithuania. His team consisted mainly of banking practitioners. The Bank of Lithuania started its operations with five employees, and by 1939 their number grew to almost to 600. Employees’ wages were substantial – an average of 600 litas per month. The working hours were from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Social care was also well-organised: there was a health insurance fund and an employee savings bank on the premises.

When the Bank of Lithuania started its operations, it did so on different premises because this building that you are now in did not exist yet. At first the bank was located in the building standing across the street. That was where the State Bank of the USSR had its branch at the beginning of the 20th century, and later where various authorities of the Republic of Lithuania were located. It was the most modern building in Kaunas at that time because it had central heating and plumbing. The Bank of Lithuania sought to acquire the entire building for its own purposes, but after failing to reach an agreement with the Government, the bank decided to change its location. A land plot was purchased across the street and in 1924 an international architectural competition was announced. A French architect emerged as the winner, however, their project proved to be too modern, complicated and expensive, so the only professor of architecture in Lithuania at the time, Mykolas Songaila, was asked to make some changes. Now he is considered the building’s architect. The cornerstone of the Bank of Lithuania’s building was laid on 12 March 1925. It was consecrated by prelate Jonas Mačiulis-Maironis, a priest, professor and Lithuanian Romanticism poet of the 19-20th centuries.

The Bank of Lithuania’s building in Kaunas was ceremoniously opened on 8 December 1928. The ceremony attracted the crème de la crème of that time, including ministers, diplomats, representatives of the Catholic Church and other distinguished guests. Antanas Smetona, the President of the Republic of Lithuania, was supposed to cut the ribbon. Sadly, since it was wintertime, the President fell ill and the ribbon was cut by his wife Sofija. The building cost an impressive amount for those times, more than six million litas. Such a sum could buy you almost a tonne of gold at the time.

The Bank of Lithuania’s building in Kaunas was and still remains one of the most beautiful ones in the city. The interior is breath-taking and so is the exterior, adorned by a sculptural composition created by the famous Lithuanian sculptor Kajetonas Sklėrius, depicting a worker, two peasant women, a soldier and a shield in the middle of them, featuring the Vytis and the Columns of Gediminas. The sculpture allegorically symbolises agriculture, industry and warfare.

This building is one of the best examples of neoclassicism not only in Kaunas, but across Lithuania, which encouraged the flowering of Kaunas modernism. In terms of sophistication and style, it was not inferior to the global financial centres of that time in London, Amsterdam and New York.

The main entrance to the lobby is decorated with black marble Ionic columns, and the staircase is made of Swedish granite. The main entrance lobby is glowing yellow, decorated with caissons featuring rosettes and impressive crystal chandeliers. Currently, there are 34 original chandeliers in the building, they were brought from various European countries. Through a spacious lobby you enter the two-storey Operations Hall. Individual vaults, located under the Operations Hall, are accessed through a massive door, weighing 3 tonnes, which was made by the English company Milners and has survived until the present day. The two-storey Operations Hall is surrounded by a Corinthian colonnade and a corridor that connects both first and second floors, which, on the second floor, turns into an open gallery, that houses the exposition of the Money Museum of the Bank of Lithuania. The Conference Hall of the bank’s Council and Board on the second floor, which even today contains armchairs decorated with the Bank of Lithuania’s logo, was used for taking important decisions to ensure the stability of Lithuania’s financial system. The ceiling of the Conference Hall is decorated with oriental ornamentation motifs, featuring a massive chandelier of 20 metal branches. The angular part of the third floor from Maironis Street had an 8-room flat for the then-Prime Minister Augustinas Voldemaras, which had an entrance hall, a library and premises for official receptions, a separate main entrance, and the oldest elevator in Kaunas. A garden was planted on the roof terrace, surrounding the large triangular skylight of the Operations Hall.

Paintings by Lithuanian and foreign authors, other pieces of art, acquired for decoration, are still stored at the Bank of Lithuania. Among them – ample works by famous Lithuanian artists: “Haymaker”, “Flax Pullers”, and “Two Pines” by Antanas Žmuidzinavičius, “Alley” by Jonas Mackevičius, “Shore of Lake Čiauna” by Justinas Vienožinskis, the sculpture “Boy with a Dove” by Juozas Mikėnas, and the sculpture “Lithuanian School 1864-1904” by Petras Rimša. Currently, 137 movable cultural objects and 33 antique items are included in the Cultural Heritage Register protected by the state. 73 of them are furniture pieces, some of which were produced at Kostas Petrikas’ furniture factory in Kaunas. This factory manufactured writing tables, filling cabinets and armchairs for the Bank of Lithuania, which remain in a pristine state even to this day.

When the Soviet Union occupied Lithuania on 15 June 1940, the country’s central bank was nationalised. Banking operations continued here, and the building remained almost unchanged as the interior was suitable for the then nomenclature. Only the symbols of “bourgeois” Lithuania – the Vytis and the Columns of Gediminas, which are depicted on the decorative composition created by sculptor Kajetonas Sklėrius on the front of the building – were deemed improper and ordered to be removed. However, the patriotic citizens of Kaunas believed that the occupation would not last forever, so they decided not to remove the symbols, but simply to cover them by putting a metal mesh grid over them and applying a layer of plaster on top. After Lithuania regained its independence, the grid was removed, and the symbols were once again unveiled in their original form.

In 1991, the building was transferred to the Bank of Lithuania that was established on 1 March 1990. The premises were reconstructed, their authentic interior and original colours were restored. In 2003, the building was proclaimed a cultural monument. The purpose of the building has never changed since the day of its construction – it has always served bankers. Today, the central office of the Bank of Lithuania – the central bank of the Republic of Lithuania – is based in the capital city of Vilnius. The bank’s building in Kaunas had until 2012 housed the Bank of Lithuania’s Kaunas branch; nowadays it houses the Cash Management Kaunas Branch of its Cash Department. Various conferences, seminars, exhibitions, guided tours and other public events are organised here. Lithuanian visitors and guests from abroad admire this impressive architectural monument, where the spirit of old banking lives on. It is something of value that will be admired by generations to come.