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Karmelitai, the Block That Will Host Optimismo

The first festival of electronic and experimental music Optimismo will take place in June in a historical block in the Kaunas’ New Town district, symbolically known as Karmelitai (Carmelites). Here is a brief history of the industrial quarter.

Kaunas railway station area. Unknown photographer, the first half of the 20th century. © Lithuanian Aviation Museum

According to Paulius Tautvydas Laurinaitis, in the autumn of 1861, Kaunas was flooded by the Industrial Revolution. It was then that the first trial train arrived in the city through the tunnel that had just broken through the Šančiai hills. The rails were to cross even further into Kaunas and the station building was to be built somewhere in the same place where the huge Drobė textile factory buildings would later appear. However, history took a slightly different turn, and the gateway to Kaunas was a suburban area that for many years was simply called Karmelitai. 

The historical name was eventually replaced by the practical, but dull Station District, but until recently, Karmelitai was not only in the colloquial language of Kaunas residents, but also often in official documents. 

It is written that a wealthy Kaunas woman once dedicated the land she owned in the suburbs for religious purposes and built a small shrine, which was replaced by the Baroque Church of the Holy Cross in the 17th century. Later in the century, the monks of the Order of the Barefoot Carmelites moved here, to whom the sanctuary was handed over, and a monastery complex was built nearby. Naturally, the area surrounding the monks’ domains was given the name Carmelite. However, for a long time, the name of the village of Kaunakiemis, which used to be here, was also used in parallel, and nowadays it is only a street name. 

The key element of Karmelitai was not the population, but the number of industrial enterprises. In the 1870s, with the advent of the railway, the city’s first industrial enterprises began to spring up one after the other, and a decade later, the entire industrial cluster, with the modest houses of the former suburban inhabitants and the newly arrived workers scattered around. Karmelitai, together with the suburbs and the Šančiai suburb, which remained independent until 1918, was rapidly building and launching a completely new era of industrial Kaunas.

The former Carmelite shrine and the village of Kaunakiemis began to be surrounded by new factories and warehouses – the Minerva foundry was established on the site of the current bus station as early as 1862, and a few years later, the banks of the Nemunas were occupied by the Šereševskis’ and Tilmans’ metalwork factories (later, the former Šereševskis’ factory was acquired by Tilmans’). Together with Šančiai, the Carmelites turned Kaunas into one of the most important metalworking centres in the west of the Russian Empire.

The collapse of the tsarist empire completely changed the dynamics of the city’s industry. Metal production became irrelevant in the new market conditions. Light and food industries began to emerge in some of the city’s old factories, and this did not stop at Carmelite. Today, after the occupation and the aura of capitalism, the quarter is no longer recognisable – but only at first glance. 

But we have some time, a few days. One of the aims of Optimismo is to recall the former Karmelitai vibe and to create a new experience of music, light and movement in the synergy of old and new. See you on 3-5 June.