View down Belle-Alliance-Platz towards Belle-Alliance-Brücke (Hallesche Brücke today) captured by F.A. Schwartz in 1895. Several years later the Hochbahn viaduct will appear behind the characteristic square buildings in the background, known as Magistratklaviere (Council Pianos). Image via Berliner Landesarchiv.

Belle-Alliance-Platz. The name whose melodious sound equalled the beauty of the place it stood for. Built as the Rondell, one of the three magnificent new plazas designed in the eighteenth century by Philipp Gerlach and inspired by the three grand Parisian squares, it developed over time into what many considered to be the most splendid among all Berlin courts.

Until 1943, when some of the heaviest Second-World-War air-raids, like a giant grinder, left Berlin’s centre in ruins and ashes. As part of the southern Friedrichstadt, Belle-Alliance-Platz suffered particularly grave damage – the Landwehrkanal flowing past it at Hallesches Tor and the plaza itself served as points of orientation for the allied bombers.

Belle-Alliance-Platz in 1912 (view north). Image PD.

After the war, new urban-planning projects turned the old plaza into what it is today: despite (mostly) best intentions and some of the most renown architects having been involved in its design (like the legend of German architecture, Hans Poelzig) it produced a weird fruit – a “space oddity”. A place soaked in heaviness and one which – whatever efforts have been made to change that and many have been so far, especially in the recent years – always feels strangely heartless. You do not stroll on Mehringplatz. You scuttle through or fly past it.

Belle-Alliance-Platz in 1935. Image via Landesarchiv Berlin.

By the way, the name – Mehringplatz – was chosen to honour German historian of Communism and Marxism, publicist and politician Franz Mehring, born in Pommeranian town of Schlawe (today’s Sławno and coincidentally also the author’s birthplace). It honoured him as one of the men and women active in the headquarters of German Social-Democracy, Vorwärts-Haus in Lindenstraße – the building on the edge of Belle-Alliance-Platz was one of the very few which survived the bombings and the Untergang but were demolished later.

View of the old plaza – by then Mehringplatz – from the platform U-Bhf Hallesches Tor. Photo from July 1957 by Willy Pragher via Landesarchiv Baden-Württemberg

On February 16, 1946 the no longer existing Belle-Alliance-Platz was renamed Franz-Mehring-Platz but by July 31, 1947 the name was shortened to Mehringplatz. Which turned out very convenient when in 1972 the old Küstriner Platz in Berlin-Friedrichshain, a plaza in front of the old Küstriner Bahnhof and the site for the main building of the East German daily, the “Neues Deutschland”, had its name changed to Franz-Mehring-Platz.

Looking at Mehringplatz today it is hard to believe that less than a century ago the plaza at the southern end of Friedrichstraße was a place to behold. If there is one place in central Berlin which could do with some reconstruction or even blatant replicas, then this must be it. Sadly, the chances of that happening are, to put it mildly, poor.

With Mehringplatz as a densely populated residential area surrounded by a towering Plattenbauten (high-rises), the only hope anyone can have of the plaza becoming less estranged is to see its charming central ring – with a historic Cantian Friedensäule – finally left in peace. After it had been renovated and the surrounding statues of sitting muses cleaned and restored as well, it has become stuck in a sad groundhog-day cycle of an endless construction site involving the underground station “Hallesches Tor” placed right underneath it.

Mehringplatz seen from above in 1975 – the high-rises placed on the northern edge of the plaza were meant to shield the plaza itself from the noise of the never-built motorway (Südtangente).

The Berlin curse of “always becoming and never being” is nowhere as palpable as in the shade of the old Belle-Alliance-Plaza in Kreuzberg.

 

The gate to Schloß Monbijou captured by Hermann Rückwardt in 1885 (image PD).

Schloß Monbijou – here its decorative gate captured by Hermann Rückwardt in 1885 –  is one of Berlin’s lost palaces and sites. Built on the northern bank of the river Spree opposite today’s Museum Island, it started in the seventeenth century as a model farm.

In the 17th century the first wife of the Brandenburgian Great Elector Friedrich Wilhelm, Luise Henriette of Orange – Dutch and excelling at both gardening and horticulture – set up a model farm where Park Monbijou is today. After her death in 1667 her Vorwerk vorm Oranienburger Tor (Farming Estate outside the Oranienburg Gate) became one the Great Elector’s gifts to his second wife, Dorothea.

Her still rather modest summer house she had erected for herself and her family was later replaced by a “bijou” (only 400m²) palace built by the husband of King Friedrich I’s concubine, Countess Wartenberg. The King thanked his general for providing him with so charming a house and promptly gifted it to the latter’s wife to use it as hers and the monarch’s love-nest. A bit of a French twist in an otherwise very Prussian story.

But it was not her who eventually gave the place its immortal name: Friedrich II’s (The Great) mother, Sophie Charlotte, came up with “Monbijou” or “My Jewel”. Her son named his favourite palace in Potsdam “Sanssouci” (Carefree).

Refurbished several times over the next 200 years, in 1887 it became home to Berlin’s Hohenzollern Museum devoted entirely to the history of the last ruling house of Prussia. After the First World War and the collapse of German monarchy its collection remained in the hands of the by then former ruling family but both the site and the palace itself became the state property. The new republican government took it upon itself to maintain the museum and allow the citizens to take long sentimental trips down the imperial memory lane.

Hit by bombs during the November 1943 air-raid, Schloß Monbijou partly burnt down. Most of the collection had been removed by then and stored in one or several of the secret Nazi storage locations, only to be discovered by the Red Army troops and taken as war booty to the USSR. It is also possible that many of the objects were taken – effectively stolen – by other people and remain in private hands until today.

As for the palace, its remains were demolished in the late 1950s as an unwanted remainder of the Hohenzollerns and the role they played in the lead-up to both world wars. The park originally surrounding the palace – by then an empty site – was used to create a public park and (by now probably visited by millions of them) children’s lido. The lido, one of the most popular places for children in Berlin, operates until today.

Park Monbijou and the lido on July 14, 1955. Photo by Rainer Mittelstädt via Bundesarchiv.

 

 

foto uit Spaarnestadarchief, tijdschrift Het leven kleiner
Image from a Dutch magazine “Het Leven” (via Spaarnestadt Archive).

Here is a typical Berlin Balkonia, little man’s and woman’s green paradise, in its rooftop edition: as a small garden and a chicken-pen.
This model example of self-sufficiency was necessary to survive dire food-shortages of the First World War – shortages which were particularly acute in the capital and led to long periods of starvation not only among the poorest. Many Berlin children did not survive those and if they did, they often suffered their consequences – mentally and health-wise – for the rest of their lives.
This idyllic image is a witness to a very bitter truth: that unless you were able to provide your own food yourself, your family was in danger. And that in 99% of the cases this responsibility had to be shouldered by women – whose children were at great risk.

Before the take-off: Berlin-Alexanderplatz, Line 5 (Direction: Hönow).

Alexanderplatz, a monumental plaza in Berlin-Mitte, is the second most popular spot in the city after Kudamm. Well over 350,000 people visit it every day: it is by all means one of the busiest public spaces in Berlin. What began in the 13th century as a hospital site outside a city gate (Oderberger Tor, later known as Königstor), gained weight when re-purposed as a city market: at first, used mainly for trading cattle, it had a regular wool market added to it in the second half of the 18th century.
What Berliners called Ochsenmarkt or Ochsenplatz (Oxen Market or Plaza), was also used by the military: like most other Berlin markets it doubled as an exercise site for the numerous local troops. That explains the site’s other name used at the time: Paradeplatz.

Future Alexanderplatz in 1804, one year before it was given its current name. The shape it had back then remained more or less unchanged for centuries.

In 1805 to honour Prussia’s big ally in the war against Napoleon, Tsar Alexander I, the plaza was christened “Alexanderplatz”. The Russian Tsar had just visited Berlin and King Friedrich Wilhelm III, Alexander’s lifelong friend, welcomed him with a lavish military parade organised just there. A couple of days after the event the plaza changed its name.
As for the street named after the same Russian ruler, Alexanderstraße, it retained its original, baroque-sounding monicker – An der Contrescarpe am Stelzenkrug (Contrescarpe was the outer edge of the moat surrounding Berlin/Cöln fortifications) – until 1819.
The 19th century was the golden era of Alexanderplatz: the Stadtbahnof Alexanderplatz, a large city- and long-haul-train railway station which opened in 1882, allowed more and more people to contribute to the quick development of the neighbourhood. Guests arriving from outside the city were thrilled to stay at one of the 185 rooms inside the “Grand Hotel Alexanderplatz” which welcomed its first guests less than a year later.
After the Zentralmarkthalle, a new Central Market Hall, designed by the ingenious Hermann Blankenstein, replaced the need for the weekly market am Alex, the plaza was redesigned and received a new, far more elegant visage. Hermann Mächtig, the City Garden Director who had just turned a sandy hill in Tempelhofer Vorstadt into a stunning city park – Viktoriapark in today’s Berlin-Kreuzberg – modernised Alexanderplatz and helped it gain world fame.
Soon afterwards it was discovered by great Berlin department stores: Tietz, Wertheim and Hahn all wanted to partake of its prominence and unbelievably lucrative central location. Tietz, who was the first to erect his store there, needed seven years to complete his Alexanderplatz empire. But when the first section of the Warenhaus Tietz opened in 1905 (the last one was inaugurated in 1911), its 250-metre long façade was the longest department store front in the world. And it provided attractive background for the real Queen of the Plaza: Berolina. Emil Hunderieser’s giant bronze beauty surveyed over Alexanderplatz from 1890 until 1942 – with several years of a year when the U-Bahn station under the plaza was being refurbished.

Alexanderplatz captured by Max Missmann in 1925.

The break Berolina had to take take from guarding her post lasted several years: Berolina was removed from her original spot in 1927 to carry out construction works for the extended U-Bahn station “Alexanderplatz” as well as the erection of Peter Behrens’s Alexanderhaus and Berolinahaus (both survived the war and are wonderful examples of modern pre-WWII Berlin architecture). In 1933 she returned to Alex, after the District Council of Treptow where she had been stored in the meantime refused to keep her at a storage near the S-Bahnhof “Treptower Park”. Placed in front of Behrens’ buildings she looked slightly overwhelmed and never recovered to her old glory.
In August 1942 she was removed from her plinth – which, too, had to move from in front of the Tietz Department Store to before the new Alexanderhaus), transported to Neukölln and quite certainly melted.

Alexanderplatz in 1934: Alexanderhaus to the left, Berolinahaus and Warenhaus Tietz (centre and right) and Berolina installed in front of the Alexanderhaus (image via Bundesarchiv).

After WWII, as an important part of East Berlin, Alexanderplatz underwent another significant metamorphosis: it was given a completely new face again. But that story is featured in the next post from the treasure trove of Berlin Companion.