THE DAYS OF YRJÖ AND LEONORA PALOHEIMO

 

Fenyes Mansion has gone through a complete renovation and is now open to public.

The fabled Fenyes Mansion in Pasadena recently reopened to the public after a three-year, 1.7 million dollar renovation. It is a fine house indeed, but it is the people who used to occupy it – Yrjö and Leonora Paloheimo – that makes the mansion so special to the Finnish community. This is their story.

On a spectacular Sunday afternoon a group of people gathered in the Pasadena Museum of History got a special treat. Paul O. Halme, Chairman of the Board of the Paloheimo Foundation, gave a special presentation, a look into the lives of Yrjö Paloheimo and his wife, Leonora Curtin Paloheimo and a tour of their home. This power couple built a bridge between Finland and the United States that still stands today.

Leonora and Yrjö Paloheimo in front of their home, Fenyes Mansion

Yrjö Paloheimo was born in Finland in 1899. The youngest of five sons of Kerttu and K.A. Paloheimo, he was born to luxury and privilege. K.A. was a wealthy industrialist, who owned saw mills around Finland. But he was not just another businessman. K.A. was also interested in establishing a cultural identity for Finland, struggling under the Tsar’s Russia. This would be brought about by establishing an artists’ colony on the eastern shore of Lake Tuusula. It would combine literature, visual arts and music under one special place. Lucky for K.A., he had friends in the very fields. Together with novelist Juhani Aho, painters Pekka Halonen and Eero Järnefelt and composer Jean Sibelius, the colony was realized.

“The sons of K.A. Paloheimo were called “the lazy sons”, since they married their neighbors’ daughters – one son married Sibelius’ daughter, the other one Halonen’s daughter and the third one Järnefelt’s daughter,” Paul Halme bemuses.

Attorney Paul Halme giving a tour of Fenyes Mansion in Pasadena

The sons also went into business with their father. One exception to the rule was the youngest son, Yrjö. He studied agriculture at the Helsinki University. After receiving his Master’s degree, the young man set out to west. He first arrived in the United States in the 1920’s. He lived and worked in Los Angeles and Ojai, a mountain community 83 miles north of L.A. In much the same way that a college student in these days would, he experimented with different philosophies, trying to find his own voice. There were other Finns living in Ojai as well at the time. Yrjö held discussions with them about topics such as religion, of which he was said to have liberal views. After this sojourn, Yrjö returned to Finland. But not for long. In 1933 he returned to the new continent, this time for good. Paloheimo was employed by the consulate general of Finland in New York. He was promoted to be in charge of travel promotion. In this capacity he had a chance to shake hands with presidents Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt and became good friends with Roosevelt’s mother, Sara. In 1939, New York hosted the World Fair. Paloheimo was in charge of the construction of the Finnish pavilion as a commissioner. That same fall the Soviet Union attacked Finland. Yrjö mobilized the American Finnish community, working as a Field Secretary for Help Finland, a relief organization. The enthusiasm in which the U.S. Finns embarked on their mission, never left Paloheimo.

A Finnish machine gun brigade near Lemetti, Karelia during Winter War

After the war Yrjö, now an American citizen, found himself in his mid-forties and unmarried. Things were about to chance – big time. In Washington D.C.,  socialite Leonora “Babsie” Curtin, daughter of the late newspaper tycoon Thomas Curtin, was working at the Smithsonian Institute, studying dialects of the Pueblo Indians. One evening in 1946, a family friend called Babsie and invited her to a dinner party in New York. Yrjö was at the same party. They met, fell in love and married later that same year. Their honeymoon took them to his homeland, Finland. Leonora brought an armada of luggage along wherever she traveled. And as to make up for all those years both had been single, in rabid succession, between 1946 and 1949, they adopted four orphans – Nina, George, Eric and Eva – from Finland. They were promptly dispatched to the best boarding schools America had to offer.

Leonora “Babsie” Curtin Paloheimo dedicated her life to her passions – culture, arts and Indigenous peoples.

Leonora and her family had many cultural interests. Her grandmother, Eva Fenyes, was a businesswoman, painter and pot maker, who traveled extensively. Wherever she went –Egypt, Venice, India – instead of buying a postcard, she painted a picture of the local scenery instead. American Indian cultures were especially close to Eva’s heart. She built houses in Santa Fe, New Mexico and Pasadena, California. After she passed away, it was Eva’s house in Pasadena, called after her Fenyes Mansion, that the Paloheimos settled in. It is a beau arts style house that has three floors and 16 rooms in over ten thousand square feet.

Fenyes Mansion has been a setting for several movies, including the satire Being There starring Peter Sellers,1979.

Yrjö was named Honorary Consul of Finland to the Western United States. So Fenyes Mansion also became the Consulate of Finland. With his excellent connections and people skills, Yrjö Paloheimo set out to put Finland on the map in America.

“If Yrjö Paloheimo was in this room, he would make you feel like you were the most important person. He could come up to you and say, I feel safe because you are here. And you would believe it,” says the family attorney Paul Halme.

Yrjö Paloheimo ran his consular affairs from this desk, displayed in Fenyes Mansion.

“He was a diplomat. And he always went and sought out people and shook their hands. He lifted the Finnish presence here. The consular core from Sweden, Norway, etc. – they really enjoyed him. And all of a sudden, the Finnish presence in Los Angeles was something different than it was before,” Halme adds. Before Paloheimo, Finland in Los Angeles was known mainly for its maids who at the time were working in the better households around town.

In the meantime, Leonora was no shrinking violet either. Throughout her life, she remained focused on her projects and studies.

“She continued to promote art and folk art. She was writing. Leonora and her mother and grandmother owned lots of properties. They had gas stations, etc. But they had hard time doing business, because they were women. Men had a hard time dealing with these women,” Halme points out.

Yrjö Paloheimo served as Honorary Consul from 1948 until 1964. Amazingly enough, at that same time, the Paloheimos were also able to find time to do business, engage in cultural affairs, take care of their children and travel around the globe. And there was still one thing Yrjö wanted to achieve. He yearned for the days when all Finns despite of their political views pulled together to help Finland in need during the war. In that same spirit, in January of 1953 he gathered nine of his most trusted men in the sauna building next to Fenyes Mansion. There Finlandia Foundation was born, in a Finnish sauna. Family friend Jean Sibelius agreed to be its first patron.

Composer Jean Sibelius agreed to be the first patron of the newly formed Finlandia Foundation in 1953.

As you know by now, the Paloheimos were involved in a myriad of businesses, foundations, property, cultural affairs and what not. As they got on in years, it became necessary to put their affairs in order. Fenyes Mansion was the first to go. The Paloheimos donated it to the city of Pasadena as a museum in 1972.

The Paloheimos moved out of Fenyes Mansion and into their other home in Carpinteria, California in 1972.

But there was still a lot of work to be done. Enter Paul Halme, attorney at law. His father- a Lutheran minister in a missionary – had been good friends with Yrjö Paloheimo.

“Yrjö used to talk to my daddy. He said you are my brother. They were very close doing Finnish cultural things together. My father was born in a Finnish family in Massachusetts but as a child he went back to Finland and was raised in Viipuri,” Halme, now 72, explains. He himself was born in Los Angeles.

“Yrjö was bringing me in to handle their affairs because he was concerned. I used to say, well, I don’t know which one of you is going to die first and he said, I’m going to die first. He was worried about Leonora and wanted her protected, because there would be lots of relatives showing up and so forth. Yrjö was the insulation, handling all the business affairs. He was trying to find someone to be in a position to protect her.”

A salon in Fenyes Mansion

Very soon the vast scope of the task dawned on Halme.

“I had to get my head around this whole estate and to try to see what the issues were, because they had many different documents. They had five trusts set up and they had a lot of different moving parts.”

At that point the Paloheimos had three residences in Carpinteria, CA, Santa Fe, NM and Järvenpää, Finland.

“I had many meetings with Yrjö. We would sit down for a couple of hours. We would meet in Carpinteria and sometimes he brought me to Santa Fe. He said, let’s bring Leonora and talk to her, let’s have fun! So, we’d go to the country club and have lunch. He was always very precise about everything. He was not a casual person, nor was Leonora. So, we’d go to lunch. He’d say, OK, where are the women going to sit and where are we going to sit,” Paul Halme reminisces.

Attorney Paul O. Halme runs the Paloheimo Foundation as the Chairman of the Board.

In 1985, the year before his death, Leonora and Yrjö traveled to Finland for the very last time. They had often spent their summers there, staying in their Kallio-Kuninkala house in Järvenpää, near Helsinki. The main building was in disrepair. It had recently served as a restaurant. There Yrjö met Ellen Urho, rector of the Sibelius Academy. Perhaps because of the old Sibelius-connection, Yrjö told her that he would like the place to be associated with music. It was agreed that the academy would take over the buildings and convert them into a learning center. Yrjö Paloheimo never saw the completed work. He died in the spring of 1986. The following year the Kallio-Kuninkala Course Center opened.

Yrjö Paloheimo was a distinguished, formal man with exceptional people skills.

By now Paul Halme had become the lead attorney handling all the Paloheimo affairs. For the last 20 years of her life, Leonora was deaf, so it took an extra effort for Paul to communicate with her.

“She was a very bright woman, very intelligent. She loved humor. I used to put a joke in the letters I sent her. Because she was deaf, I would send a letter in advance. Then she would read it and be prepared to give me answers,” Paul recounts.

A painting of a young woman adorns one of the rooms at Fenyes Mansion.

Leonora passed away in 1999 – 13 years after her husband. Today Paul Halme is the Chairman of the Board of the Paloheimo Foundation. Making his home in Carpinteria, he is busier than ever, dividing his time between Carpinteria and Santa Fe. He tells me he is trying to renovate the New Mexico style Paloheimo house there. Paul’s wife is in a bakery business. Their four children are all grown up now and the Halmes have ten grandchildren. In the meantime, Finlandia Foundation is stronger than ever, giving out grants totaling a hundred thousand dollars a year. They are also a major force behind Finlandia University in Hancock, Michigan. 2013 marks their 60th anniversary, so in March the storied Fanyes Mansion will once again come alive with music, clinging glasses and laughter, as Yrjö Paloheimo’s life work is befittingly celebrated in the place where it all begun so many years ago.

Fenyes Mansion will be the venue for Finlandia Foundation National 60th anniversary, March 22-23, 2013.

For more info about Finlandia Foundation and the upcoming celebration, go to: www.finlandiafoundation.org