History of Sólheimar
Sesselja Hreindís Sigmundsdóttir was born in Hafnarfjörður on the 5th of July 1902. Her mother was Kristín Símonardóttir and her father was Sigmundur Sveinsson. Sesselja had seven siblings: Steinunn, Sigríður, Gróa, Þórarinn, Kristinn, Lúðvík and Símon. When Sesselja was two years old, her family moved to Brúsastaðir in Thingvellir. Her father became the manager of the restaurant Valhöll (Valhalla). In 1919, the family moved back to Reykjavík.
Sesselja was blessed to be able to go to the European mainland and study. She travelled for six years in Denmark, Switzerland and Germany. She studied pedagogy, child nursing and kindergarten management. She was the first Icelander to study how best to care for people with mental challenges. While studying in Germany, Sesselja came to learn about Anthroposophy (also known as “human wisdom”) and the theories of Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). She also studied gardening, flower cultivation and how to handle poultry. While studying abroad in 1928, Sesselja wrote down some of her ideas and dreams (sampled and summarized here):
-a large farm with many animals, a stream, a waterfall, and hot springs
-hot springs and boiling water will heat every building
-borrow the land from the town
-build the first house and later use it for a workshop, complete with development and training forces
-workshop and a shop in the center of town
-begin immediately to prepare textiles of a variety of materials like silk, wool, even paper
-create bags, sofa pillows, photo albums, books, cigarette boxes, etc. (
-floral vases, boxes, lamps, fruit bowls and drawings
– Weaver has one person producing things of wicker, including tables, chairs, benches and baskets. -let all the rooms for single people
-have a woman who can knit, embroider and weave worldly, simple and tasteful designs to sell curtains, wall tapestries, clothing and tablecloths
-always have a bazaar with auction packages and ensure there are advertisements in many languages for foreign visitors; perhaps admission prices
-an economy with jobs for most people in town, including many studios
-chicken community: build a big henhouse for a hundred fowl; collect eggs.
In 1930, when Sesselja moved to Iceland, she was in contact with several people in Denmark, Germany, Holland, England and Switzerland about organic farming and anthroposophy. She travelled to these countries regularly. She corresponded with Dr. Karl König, founder of the Camphill movement in Britain, Sólveig Nagel from Norway and Carita Stenback from Finland. They were all pioneers in their own countries on matters concerning people with mental challenges. Over time, Sesselja also became a pioneer in the fields of pedagogy, artistic expression and caring for the mentally disabled people in Iceland. Furthermore, she made great advances in farming, as she was the first to start organic horticulture (then even bio-dynamic farming) in both Iceland and in the Nordic countries. It is only fair to say the she was the first Icelandic environmentalist.
The Childcare Committee of the Church of Iceland, led by Gudmundur Einarsson, purchased the land known as Hverakot for isk 8,000 on March 31, 1930. Hverakot encompasses roughly 250 hectares, 37 of which have been taken out of agricultural usage for urbanization. The eastern part of the land near the bridge is rich with peat.
Although there was no proper housing on the land of Hverakot at the time, on her 28th birthday, the 5th of July 1930, Sesselja leased the land and founded Sólheimar (“The Home of the Sun”) with the arrival of the first five foster children, who were quickly followed by five more a few days later. In the beginning, they all lived in tents built up on wooden platforms constructed by Sesselja’s brother, Lúðvík, who conducted hot water beneath them from a pipe to the hot spring in the center of the village, providing geothermal heat. On November 4th of 1930, the basement of the House of Solheimar (Sólheimahús) was ready to be occupied.
So Sólheimar started as a children’s home, especially for children who had lost their parents or had ill parents. There were also children staying only over the summer. In the fall of 1931, the first child with mental challenges came to Sólheimar and four others followed, but at that time there were not many alternatives for children with physical or mental disabilities and sometimes they were even kept in outhouses. Selhamar, the first building built specifically for the developmentally disabled, was constructed in 1932 and 1933 with the support of Parliament in the form of a 15 thousand isk contribution. In the year 1934, it is stated that 11 healthy children and eight mentally retarded ones lived in Sólheimar “apart from those dwelling for the summer.” In the year 1936, there were “10 healthy children, 14 retards and summer children as well.” Despite the shortage of staff in the years 1942 – 1944, after World War II, nearly all the children in Sólheimar were mentally disabled, besides the summer children and Sesselja’s foster children. The Chieftain of Byggingafélagið gave Solheimar a pool in 1942, which was built next to Sólheimahús and was redone by the Lionsklúbbnum Aegir in 1980. In 1952, there were 16 mentally disabled people living in the community, 25 in 1956 and 45 people with disabilities in 1964. A windmall was installed in Solheimar in 1943 to produce electricity for lighting in conjunction with a 32 volt power station, but the village did not get phones or electricity until 1956 after much struggle, despite the close proximity of Iceland’s largest power plants. Sólheimahús remained Solheimar’s main building until 1962 when Svein Lund and Lækjarbakki were built. An addition to the Sólheimahús launched on May 7, 1966, included new dining facilities, kitchen, and basement laundry. The Hvammur, Birkihlíð and Fagrabrekka were added in 1970.
Sesselja married Rudolf Walter Richard Noah on March 17th, 1949. Noah was a German musician and teacher who came to Iceland in 1935. He was arrested by the British Army on July 5th, 1940 and moved to a prison camp in England. He was not allowed to enter Iceland until 9 years later but eventually, on the 7th of March 1953, he went back to Germany without formally divorcing from Sesselja. Noah died in Germany in 1967 and Sesselja herself passed away on the 8th of November 1974, then at the age of 72, in Landakot hospital in Reykjavík.
Sesselja emphasized that Sólheimar was a home, not an institution, and that disabled people share the same rights as everyone else. Her commitment to integrating children with and without disabilities sparked much controversy as it was widely held that “healthy” children should not play with those with special needs for fear of disabilities being contagious. It is safe to say that the value of reverse integration was established in Sólheimar and only later became acknowledged in other countries around 1970. Reverse integration means that the community was, and still is, built with the needs and rights of the disabled in mind and not vice versa, as is the common practice in most modern, urban societies. Sesselja’s decision to serve high-vegetable diets, then thought to be unhealthy, to the children was also highly controversial, but this issue has also faded with time.
The main buildings built in the village after 1985 were made possible by donors and collections.. The sports/theater building, Ípróttaleikhús, was built in 1985 in part through collections by the Hiking Reynis Peter Ingvasonar. The building is 759 square meters and includes a main hall for 200 people where the community’s daily morning meeting takes place during incelement weather (otherwise it is held outside). On the ground floor of Ípróttaleikhús exercise, physical therapy and massage facilities. The Ólasmiðja building was opened on Solheimar’s 65th anniversary on July 5, 1995 and is 754 square meters. It houses the candle-making and wood/instrument workshops. It is named in honor of Oli M. Isaksson who visited Solheimar in 1992 and became a great benafacotor. . Ingustofa was opened on the 70th anniversary of Solheimar on July 5, 2000 and is named after Inga Berg Jóhannsdóttir a benafactor of Solheimar. The building is 464 square meters and contains , an art gallery and the fine arts, weavery, herb and ceramics studios. Sesseljuhus opened on the 100th anniversary of Sesselja’s birth on July 5, 2002. It is an environmental and sustainability training center. Solheimar’s latest addition, the Sólheimakirkja (chapel) was inaugurated on the 75th anniversary of Solheimar on July 5, 2005. Bishop Sigurbjörn Einarsson and Magnea Þorkelsdóttir blessed the groundbreaking, while Bishop Karl Sigurbjörnsson consecrated it under the Church of Iceland. The church was only built for donations.
There over 100 residents in Solheimar, who are very diverse, including disabled people, long-time unemployed people, prisoners and long-term patients. They range widely in age and some have been here most of their lives. Roughly 45 of the residents have special needs. The majority of the residents work in the village, but a few work elsewhere. Ten to fifteen people live elsewhere and commute to work here. The children attend school in nearby Minni-Borg. The focus is on the individual and his/her development rather than the actual reason why people have chosen to live in Solheimar. A directory of the residents can be found in the phonebook (“símaskrá” in Icelandic).
Employment in Solheimar began solely in agriculture and horticulture. Vefstofa was established in 1940 and again in 1979, with candle making and wood workshop following soon after. Puppet-making and book-binding were actaivities for a while. . In 1995, the village adopted employment policies and decided to distinguish between protected workplaces and independent companies owned by Solheimar. There are currently six independent companies and six workshops in the village. Sesseljuhus, the environmental center is also operated independently.
Art and culture have always been important parts of the work in Solheimar. The first play shown in the village was “Greg” by Margret Jonsdottir, debuting in 1931, starting the annual tradition of play production. Sesselja met Jacob J. Transistor when seeing plays on weekends in Germany and Switzerland. He translated two plays for her, “Birth Jesus” and “Wise Men from the East.” When Sesselja’s husband Rudolf Noah was in Solheimar during the spans of 1935 to 1940 and 1949 to 1953, he played prominent roles in the annual plays. The shows became more special when roles of non-disabled persons started to be portrayed by disabled people and adults by child actors. In 1984, Solheimar’s acting troupe for the play “Lífmyndir” went on a tour of the Nordic countries with their performance.
Music has also been important since Solheimar’s founding, often serving in educational capacities. Musical programs were augmented by the advent of instrument production in the village wood workshop. In 1989, Solheimar’s choir was established permanently with the addition of a music teacher to the staff.
Solheimar’s sculpture garden officially opened on June 10, 2000 in a ceremony with Bjorn Bjarnason, Minister of Education. The sculpture garden includes works by pioneers of Icelandic sculpture made between 1900 and 1950.
Thescout group of Solheimar has participated in the World Scouting Jamborees held in Australia in 1987 and in England in 2007. Meanwhile, Gnýr the sports group has maintained regular sport seasons over the past fifteen years and sent competitors to race in throughout Iceland and overseas.
Educational instruction began in Solheimar in 1931 and in 1943 the Education Commission approved the funding for the addition of a permanent faculty position in the community.
In the early years of Solheimar, most foreign influence came in the form of numerous German workers. Employees also came from Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, England and Switzerland. Most were highly educated professionals in areas such as gardening, music, wood work, visual arts, nursing and healthcare. Foreign volunteers have been and still are a large part of Solheimar as well. Some only stay for a week or two while others stay for up to six or twelve months. In recent years, almost one in ten residents of Solheimar is of foreign origin. Clearly this abundance of foreign influence has enriched daily life in Solheimar as well as the work culture.
Solheimar has often been a target of suspicion and hostility. In 1932, Icelandic legislation established the Child Protection Council. Soon after, the strong-willed Sesselja came to odds with the policy authorities. They intervened often over the following two decades, sometimes severely, mostly in attempts to prevent the intermingling of disabled and non-disabled children as it was thought that “healthy children might be psychologically or physically damaged from contact with those with disabilities.” They also ordered that the children should not only be fed a high-vegetable diet, but also much meat, fish and milk.
On June 9, 1945, the government took away Sesselja’s rights to provide Solheimar with pastors. She appealed the ruling and on April 1, 1948, the Supreme Court annulled the decion.
On September 12, 1946, a provisional legislation attempted to dissolve Solheimar, requiring Sesselja to leave the site of the village. Luckily, it did not receive the approval of Parliament as the governing body was caught up in a dispute regarding Keflavik. Solheimar was then graced with a reign of peace from 1948 to 1980.
On January 1, 1980, there was enacted a legislation to help the developmentally disabled which created regional boards and the Ministry of Social Affairs. Unfortunately, this led to difficulties in communicating with authorities.
Sesselja Hreindís Sigmundsdóttir was the Director of Solheimar until her death in 1974. She often worked in cooperation with rev. Gudmundur Einarsson, who was long the chairman of The Childcare Committee of the Church of Iceland, which started the orphanage. He is the one who bought the land of Hverakot and signed the charter with Sesselja in 1934. Gudmundur died in 1948.
After Sesselja’s death, the orphanage named five church representatives onto the Board of Solheimar. In 1987, changes were made to the charter of Solheimar creating a representative body of 21 members, five of whom were then elected to the Executive Board at the annual general meeting. In 2004, the charter was again modified, changing the number of representatives to 17, each with a four-year term. Three individuals have held the presidency since 1975.
Solheimar grows and develops as all living societies do. The goal is still to make the quality of living as good as possible for the residents and is pursued in many ways, with continued dedication to the vision of the founder. Creative work and a strong social life are important components to everyday life in Solheimar as well as qualified staff, training, motivation and full participation in the community, Christian values, security and commodious facilities.
The writer Jónína Michaelsdóttir wrote a book on Sólheimar and the story of Sesselja, called “Mér leggst eitthvað til – Sagan um Sesselju Sigmundsdóttur og Sólheima” which could be translated as “I will think of something – the story of Sesselja Sigmundsdóttir and Sólheimar”. The book was published by the Sólheimar Relief Fund in 1990, but has unfortunately not yet been translated into English