Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin
Next to Unter den Linden and Friedrichstraße, Kurfürstendamm, or Elector´s Causeway, is one of the best known streets in Germany´s capital. In fact, after 1961 and the division of Berlin, it became the Berlin boulevard par excellence: elegant, modern, lively and exciting.
While die Linden slept their uneasy Socialist sleep right behind the Iron Curtain, Ku´damm was having the time of its life: cafes, parties, theatres, cinemas and neon lights as far as an eye could reach made it a symbol of the liberal western lifestyle. The fact that its head-spinning career was only possible due to (very!) heavy subsidies from the West has long been forgotten: although not as splendid or exciting as back in the Berlin Wall days, the City West´s main boulevard attracts millions of visitors a year even today.
None of this would have been possible, however, had it not been for one larger-than-life man who decided to support a big property development project: Otto von Bismarck. Impressed by the success of two other up-market residential communities, Villenkolonie Alsen in Wansee and Carstens´scher Villenkolonie Lichterfelde (same Lichterfelde where Werner von Siemens installed his first electric street-tram line in 1881), Bismarck became involved in a similar project planned for an area which was part of the Grunewald Forest and as such belonged to the state. In fact, it was the Iron Chancellor himself who delivered the final argument to convince the said state to sell 234 ha of land to a development group which came to be known as Kurfürstendamm-Gesellschaft, a syndicate established in 1882 by several banks to profit from the hot property market.
Churfürsten Damm existed since at least the 16th century: as a road used by the Prussian Elector Joachim II to travel from his castle, the Berliner StadtschloßI, to his hunting lodge, Jagdschloß Grunewald in Grunewald. The name appeared for the first time on a late 18th-century map known as Schmettau-Plan. The word Damm was to be understood literally: the road was a causeway built through marshy land and permanently threatened by the famously high level of Berlin´s groundwater.
When on February 5, 1873 Otto von Bismarck, who had recently returned from a sojourn in Paris, wrote an official letter to Gustav von Wilmowski, a member of the Prussian Cabinet, he proposed turning that road into an impressive avenue worthy of the Kaiser. He wished for Kurfürstendamm to match the resplendent character of Champs-Elysee. And, at the same time, to provide an elegant road leading to a new Villenkolonie Grunewald which Bismarck was a champion of.
The idea met with positive reception. The only problem was the proposed width of the boulevard. The initial permit allowed the construction of a 22-metre wide street – an average Berlin street-width matching the Berliner Traufhöhe (Berlin Eaves Height). In June 1875 Bismarck wrote another official letter demanding the new thoroughfare be made 53 metres wide. Again, Bismarck´s wish proved to be everybody´s command and Kurfürstendamm was built almost as wide as Unter den Linden. The new boulevard was given a 10-metre wide bridleway in the middle, flanked by two 10-metre roadways on both sides and two 4-metre wide trottoirs (pavements). The plan included 7.5-metre wide front gardens on both sides of the street, too: these gardens as well as the central bridleway with neat rows of trees separating it from the rest of the traffic gave Ku´damm a particularly green, calm appearance so appreciated by the well-heeled residents of Charlottenburg.
No wonder then that the boulevard quickly became the magnet it continues to be today. Interestingly, it is also one of few Berlin streets with, dare we say it, rather messy numbering system. Which, of course, has nothing to do with possible lack of Prussian love of order – several serious historical reasons are at play here.
First of all, Ku´damm has no numbers 1-10 and 238-264 are missing, too. Numbers 1 to 9 as well as 238-264 vanished in 1925 when part of the street was re-named Budapester Straße. Berlin had a Budapester Straße before – it connected Brandenburger Tor with Potsdamer Platz – but after the death of Germany´s first president, Friedrich Ebert, this particular road was re-named in his honour. To keep the old name on Berlin´s map nevertheless, it was “moved” to Charlottenburg and given to the section of Ku´damm between Corneliusbrücke and Tauentzienstraße, to the old numbers 1-9 and 238-264 to be exact.
Number 10 vanished much later: the building was demolished after WWII when the plaza, today´s Breitscheidplatz was expanded.
As for numbers 77-89, they actually never existed. No buildings bearing them were ever constructed. The plots with those numbers became Lehniner Platz. A careful look at numbers 220-230 would tell you something is wrong again: that is because plots 221-223 (street numbers reflected not so much a number of buildings as land plots purchased by one owner) were eventually used to build another street instead. They became Meinekerstraße.
And here is one last curious fact: the original Kurfürstendamm used to measure proud 7.5 km – today, after many adjustments, City West´s Prachtboulevard stretches over “only” 3.5 kilometres. However, real Ku´damm-natives would never say it has got shorter – they´d probably rather insist its charm just got more compact.