Luleå Gammelstad is a remarkable example of the traditional church town of northern Scandinavia, and illustrates the adaptation of conventional urban design to the special geographical and climatic conditions of a hostile natural environment. It is a type of milieu that has been shaped by people's religious and social needs rather than economic and geographical forces, being intended for use only during weekends and church festivals.
The Luleå river and its valley have provided a route between the Gulf of Bothnia and the mountains of Lapland, and beyond to the coast of northern Norway, from earliest times. Agricultural villages were established on the fertile lands as early as the 13th century, when the Swedish-Finnish kingdom expanded into this region as an act of deliberate colonization, to counteract Russian pressure. The size of the 14th century stone church of Gammelstad testifies to the prosperity of the region.
The settlement became the meeting place for three groups - merchants from the coastal regions of the Gulf of Bothnia, local farmers, and the Saamis (Lappons) of the hinterland. Of these, the farmers were the largest group by the mid-16th century. A social framework evolved around the parish church, influenced strongly by two factors - trade and church visits from outlying villages and farms, whose inhabitants were unable to attend church services and return home in a single day. The site of the church and its market place developed into a church town, i.e. a cluster of wooden cottages and stables to provide sleeping accommodation for churchgoers at weekends and festivals. The new settlement resulting from the relocation of the old harbour and of the trading centre closer to the sea took the name of Luleå, and was also known as Nystad (New Town). The earlier church site, renamed Gammelstad (Old Town), continued as the parish centre, although the parish itself had diminished in size as population growth led to the creation of new parishes. Because of the need to ensure that farm animals were continuously supervised, it was not possible for a family to take part in religious observances at the same time. As a result the tradition of 'church holidays' for older parishioners two or three times a year developed, along with an annual two weeks at midsummer for the younger people to meet, to prepare themselves for confirmation.
Gammelstad was untouched by the industrialization of the region in the later 19th century, made possible by the introduction of the railway from the south, which mitigated the isolation during winter, when the sea froze over. The advent of the car saw the gradual disappearance of most of the stables in the church town. Despite the relocation of the settlement to Luleå, the church village retained its town plan simply because there was no pressure for it to be changed during a period of stagnation. The houses built in the 20th century as part of the dormitory area of Luleå all lie outside the early settlement, and Gammelstad has retained its historical integrity.
The church town consists of 424 buildings, divided into 555 separate rooms. All are built from wood, painted red and with doors and window frames picked out in white. The doors, which face the street, are very varied in design, as are the window shutters, essential where buildings are not occupied continuously. Most of the doors bear a pyramid device, a motif from pagan antiquity reinterpreted as a Christian symbol depicting an altar with a sacrificial fire. The roofs were originally of wood, but with the advent of metal sheeting this became the favoured roofing material, to reduce fire risk and water leakage during thaws. A specific form of rolled steel sheeting has become accepted as the traditional roofing material.
The church is the largest of its type in northern Scandinavia. It was decorated by artists from Stockholm and is crowned with the coat of arms of the archbishop. The bell tower (1852) is detached from the church, an unusual feature in this region. Notable buildings within the area are the Chapel of Bethel on the church square; the Cottage of the Separatists: the Parish House, built in 1754; the imposing Tithe Barn (1790); and a number of private houses, notably the Mayor's Residence, the Captain's Residence, and the Guest House, mostly dating from the foundation of the 17th century town.