Cafe National, Friedrichstraße 76 in Berlin-Mitte.

Among many postcards of what used to be one of Berlin’s main thoroughfares and most popular streets, you will find this image: “Café National” –  Friedrichstraße No. 76 corner Jägerstraße. Following the fashion of the time, the photo is quite obviously a collage – a composite or early cut-and-paste technique. Something you probably noticed at once, mildly disturbed by the oddly artificial, staged arrangement of people in the photo. And by the funny proportion-ratio between various objects.

Thanks to its location and cosy yet elegant furnishings “Café National” was quite a popular venue from the start. Its guests greatly appreciated the four Venetian glass mosaics decorating the interior walls: designed by Wiener, they symbolised four different nations and were made for the café by Dr. Salviati, a renown mosaic-maker whose own shop was located at No. 149. Salviati’s is largely forgotten today but one look at the fantastic mosaics decorating Berlin’s Siegessäule (Victory Column) in the Tiergarten and you know: this was no just any glass-beads game. Salviati was big.

Which would suggest that “Cafe National” did not open to cater to the taste of the “Great Unwashed”. Its target audience had to have reached a certain financial level, mid-middle-class and up, you understand. The place did quite a lot to win them, too: it gained its fame as the “largest billiard club in Berlin” (posters in the upper-floor windows bear witness to that). Billiard, as it is easy to guess, was not a working-class leisure activity.

But the glory days of Friedrichstraße did not last long. Soon enough it was the west of the city – or then still, in fact, completely different cities like Charlottenburg, Schöneberg and beyond – that became the desiderable addresses for the well-heeled Berliners. And when they and their families abandoned the city centre for the plush, leafy neighbourhoods of Grunewald, Lichterfelde or Dahlem, and began to do spend their time on Kudamm and at the KaDeWe, the fate of Friedrichstraße was sealed.

From then on this is where you went to have cheap fun. This is where you went you came from a provincial little town somewhere in West Prussia and wished to spend a couple of days breaking your marital vows and as many of the ten amendments as you possibly could without getting caught or thrown into Hell-fire at once.

After the First World War and in the early 1920s, with the hyperinflation raging in Berlin, destroying human lives and sinking businesses, Friedrichstraße became synonymous with abandonment and sin – it became the volcano on which all those lost souls seemed to have danced.

But our “Cafe National” paved this road long before the so-called “Golden Twenties” hit Berlin. Still before the Great War broke out this café was a favourite address for the Friedrichstraße prostitutes working between this street and Leipziger Straße: this is where they came to warm up and have some rest.

In his 1955 autobiography “Ein kleines Ja und Ein großes Nein” (A Small Yes and a Big No”) brilliant German painter, George Grosz, wrote: “Friedrichstraße was crawling with whores. They stood in the house-doorways like sentries, whispering their classics. ‘Kleiner, kommste mit?’ Those were the days of great feather hats, feather shawls and laced-up bosoms. A handbag swung back and forth was the guild’s trademark. The best-known whore-café was the Friedrichstraße ‘Cafe-National’.”

He was right. If you have another look at our postcard, you will see it at once: the cut-out ladies pasted into the photo might not be swinging their handbags but the way they reveal their ankles under exciting layers of frilly underskirts, says it all. We might safely assume that it is not to the “Cafe National” that they and their clearly interested cut-out partners would be going next…

The building which used to house the café is long gone – its site is occupied today by Berlin’s “Galerie Lafayette”.

Palais Hitzig in Burgstraße, 1857 (by FA Schwartz whose photo collection is currently being digitised by Berlin’s excellent City Museum, Stadtmuseum Berlin)

When Friedrich Albert Schwartz, nineteenth-century Berlin photographer to whom we owe many absolutely invaluable images of the city, placed his camera at Friedrichsbrücke, spanning the Spree between what is now Museuminsel and Anna-Karsch-Straße, he quite likely knew he would be taking a photo of a building facing its doom. It is quite possible that the fact that the old Palais Itzig had been sold and would be demolished was exactly the reason for his commission.

Palais Itzig, once owned by one the mightiest men in Berlin, Prussian Hofjude, Daniel Itzig (“Court Jews” were privileged Jews who took care of royal finances on German courts), was one of the most impressive, elegant and largest residential buildings in the 18th-century Berlin.

Itzig had it erected in Burgstraße: it rose along the river Spree and in close proximity to the Royal Palace. In fact, its architect August Gotthilf Neumann did not start on a blank page. Apart from seven houses that occupied the plot, Daniel Itzig bought the never completed Palais Montargues – another elegant estate house designed by Philipp Gerlach (the one of Pariser Platz, Leipziger Platz and the Rondell or the predecessor of today’s Mehringplatz) for Prussian-French General Peter von Montargues. Think of it as a kind of an architectural Babushka: a house within a house within a house.

And so Gerlach’s design was altered, incorporated, refurbished and extended. The seven neighbouring houses had to go to make room for the spreading body of the new palace, which was after all to provide home to the royal mint-master, banker and head of Berlin’s Jewish community (as well as a great supporter of Moses Mendelssohn’s Haskala movement of enlightened Judaism). And to his family of 17: Daniel Itzig and his short of heroic wife, Mirjam Wulff, had 15 children. Ten daughters and five sons who themselves went down in history but that is another story.

Palais Itzig was a thing to behold – due to its very size it was definitely impossible to overlook. What made passers-by gasp when seeing it on the outside, made others go quiet with awe when invited to see it from the inside. Not only did it have a large private gallery full of precious paintings and a spreading garden with a fountain – the garden stretched between the generous main courtyard on the side of the Spree and the Heilig-Geist-Spital (whose chapel built in 1300 still stands in today’s Spandauer Straße). It also offered all possible comforts and even had its own in-house synagogue.

As always, this display of wealth and an ostentatious mark of success met with resentment. Which in this case was, of course, additionally amplified by anti-Semitic resentment and did not get any less later, after Daniel Itzig’s death. The Itzig family became the target of both concealed and public mockery as well as rude jokes and their surname was used by some as synonymous with “Jew”. It must be said that the resentment towards the Itzigs was not reserved for no-Jews only – the family’s break-up with traditional Judaism and support for its “enlightened” form became a source of deep bitterness within the Jewish community itself.

When the family’s fortune turned by the end of the 18th century, Palais Itzig became an asset which had to be dropped: in 1817 it was sold to Dr Nathan Friedländer. And 49 years later his son, Carl Jacob Friedländer, signed a sales contract himself. The old Palais Itzig/Friedländer became the property of a business group known as Korporation der Kaufmannschaft (Traders’ Corporation).

Their plan was simple: the old palace should be demolished to win the plot back for a new construction site – Palais Itzig had to go (we are now in that picture taken by FA Schwartz). The new building would symbolise the modern capital and modern capital markets: it would become the Berliner Börse – Berlin’s new stock exchange.

Berliner Börse around 1870 (in 1884 it was further expanded to occupy the block). Image PD.

Berlin’s famous Stock Exchange in Burgstraße used to line the northern bank of the river Spree opposite Berliner Dom until the end of the Second World War (its ruins were demolished in 1958/59). It housed two largest hall rooms in Berlin and was regularly visited by tourists curious to see the building they could read about in the most renowned guidebooks.

Berliner Börse aerial view (1910). Image PD.

Few of them knew Berliner Börse’s little secret. It was designed by a respected Berlin architect, Friedrich Hitzig – the same man who created, among others, the city’s first market hall in Schiffbauerdamm, the original Reichsbank building in Jägerstraße as well as Berlin’s first observatory, the Sternwarte (where he assisted his teacher, Karl Friedrich Schinkel). Now he was commissioned to design one of the largest buildings in Prussian capital.

And so Friedrich Hitzig’s stock exchange building was erected on the site of the old Palais Itzig. And the little secret? Well, Daniel Itzig, the palace’s original owner happened to be Friedrich Hitzig’s paternal great-grandfather. Berliner Börse’s architect’s surname was the altered form of the name Itzig – chosen by the family after converting to Christianity and to escape anti-Semitic jeers.

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Gustav Wunderwald, 1927, U-Bhf “Schönhauser Tor”

It is never easy to find your way within a vanished city. But then again, it is never boring to try to do so. Especially when such quest involves deciphering a beautiful painting. Like this 1927 work by a gifted artist, Gustav Wunderwald.

“Film-Palast Schönhauser Tor” was a popular cinema built in Hankestraße 1 in Berlin-Mitte. But the address most likely won’t help you find its former site – it vanished from the maps of the city just as the cinema disappeared from Berlin’s cityscape. In 1969 Hankestraße became the northern section of today’s Rosa-Luxemburg-Straße, which means that Gustav Wunderwald’s painting shows the place shortly before the street crosses with today’s Torstraße.

The location of the cinema on a 1928 aerial photo of Bülowplatz (now Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz).

The U-Bahn station in front of the cinema, opened in 1913, was the picture show’s namesake: after several re-naming campaigns (including “Bülowplatz”, the Third-Reich inspired “Horst-Wessel-Platz” and post-war “Liebknechtplatz” followed by “Luxemburgplatz”), station “Schönhauser Tor” on today’s Line U2 was eventually called “Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz”.

The cinema itself was known under several different names, too. When it opened in 1926 it commemorated the old, eighteenth-century city gate but by 1934 it had already been known as the “Hanke-Lichtspiele”, the “Gloria-Palast” and in the end as “Ton-Eck” (Sound-Corner). With seats for 600 and later around 500 guests, it offered pleasant and intime atmosphere while remaining modern and situated in a perfect mid-city location. Sadly, the latter became its downfall – the cinema did not survive the Second World War.

But what remains is this fine image of it, a sunny ghost captured by the painter who found joy in exploring the metropolis, providing us with pictures of it we would otherwise never get to know.

Bülowplatz (now Rosa-Luxemburg.Platz) with Oskar Kaufmann’s Volksbühne Theatre. The “Schönhauser Tor” cinema as well as the two buildings behind it visible in the top-right corner. (Image: AKG-Images, author NN, 1928).

The Lichtburg Cinema in Berlin-Gesundbrunnen in 1930 (image PD)

What looks like a symbol of cinematic call to arms was one of the nearly 400 Berlin cinemas on the city’s 1929 map. What made this one quite exceptional was the opulence and at the same time the austerity of its design.

The opulence of illumination was quite typical of that time and not only in Germany’s capital but Berlin clearly excelled: Europe-correspondent for the “New York Times”, Mildred Adams, described Berlin as “the best lighted city on Earth”. Fifteen vertical opal glass windows were screens for altogether 1,000 light bulbs which turned the cylindrical section of the building into a bright, almost floating structure. The ship searchlights on its top, where the glass roof terrace offered a wonderful view of the city, both during the day and at night, created a lighthouse effect that made the place stand out on yet another level.

The Lichtburg and the entrance to the U-Bahn station Gesundbrunnen (right) in 1935. Image via Heimatsmuseum Wedding.

Here in Gesundbrunnen – a very much working-class district – the “Lichtburg’s” architect, Rudolf Fränkel, created one of Berlin’s new Kinopaläste (literally “Cinema Palaces”), buildings which next to the screening rooms also housed restaurants, cafes, dance rooms and bowling alleys. They were real entertainment hubs, offering what we could call “a full experience” or “all-inclusive offer”: a film screening followed (or preceded) by a nice meal and/or a drink and a dance to round the evening off.

Fränkel’s design for both the cinema and the residential estate it complemented, Gartenstadt Atlantic (a fantastic instance of Berlin’s social housing projects of the 1920s, built between Behmstraße and Bellermannstraße), counts as one of the best examples of a movement in German architecture known as Neues Bauen (New Objectivity). Or rather would count, if the “Lichtburg” had not been demolished in 1970.

The Lichtburg as the Corso Cinema in the 1948 (photo by Abraham Pisarek via Deutsche Fotothek)

This listed-heritage building, which partly survived the Second World War and continued to serve as a cinema (the name was changed to the “Corso”), was only partly a victim of the Berlin Wall. Having lost most of its audience who crossed over for screenings from the neighbouring East Berlin, it closed down in 1962 and was later converted into West Berlin’s Senate Reserve site (until 1990 food and other other necessities, like toilet paper, were duly stored in West Berlin in case of another Berlin Blockade from the East). The old “Lichtburg” became home to tonnes of grains and thousands of tins.

Unfortunately, by 1970 its second Nemesis arrived – something that came to be known as Bauwirtschaftsfunktionalismus. Crudely speaking, it stands for the typical – not only in Germany – 1960s drive to demolish the old and replace it with the new because it is easier and cheaper and perhaps even more fun to build from the scratch (not to mention the construction boom and some seriously sunny days not only for the construction industry that followed). It is still quite incomprehensible why and how a listed-heritage building of this value could be torn down like this (one of many in both East and West Berlin) – a loss particularly painful today, when the city is trying to re-direct the (hopefully soon returning) crowds of tourists away from its centre.

The demolition of the “Lichtburg” in 1970. (Image via an excellent Berlin heritage maintenance organisation and tour service Berliner Unterwelten – who, by the way, have been badly hit by the consequences of the pandemic and rely on donations to survive the lockdown – details on their page).

For there is no way that anyone visiting Berlin would have missed the guiding lights this magnificent old building would have sent from afar. As it is, what remains are a sculpture commemorating the cinema (in Behmstraße 9), a plaque honouring both the architect, Rudolf Fränkel, and the cinema’s owner, publisher Karl Wolffsohn, and a shadow of the temple of light.