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”.
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.
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.
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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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.
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.
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.
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.
Today’s photo was taken around 1870 by one of Berlin’s best visual chroniclers, F.A.Schwartz, at the time when he himself lived nearby in Friedrichstraße.
The view is practically impossible to match to today’s situation: the photographer stood on the northern bank of the Spree looking towards what is today Planckstraße, a street – built as Prinz-Louis-Ferdinand-Straße, in the filled-in bed of the water canal whose mouth you see in the picture. The then popular inn, the “Hammelkopf”, is visible on the left corner of the canal’s end.
Both the small canal and the inn would disappear soon as the city continued its steady northbound expansion.
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