Spittelmarkt seen from Leipziger Straße in 1904.

Spittelmarkt, once a central Berlin plaza in the borough of Mitte and today one of the most non-descript places in the city centre.

A 1900 traffic census carried out there rendered following results: between 6 AM and 10 PM the plaza was crossed by 144,223 pedestrians and 21,237 vehicles. At the time, Berlin had 1,888,848 registered residents.

By the end of nineteenth century Spittelmarkt, named after a small hospital (Sankt Gertrauden Hospital) and a chapel built there in early fifteenth century, became one of Berlin’s busiest traffic knots. This was only possible after the 17th-century Gertraudenkirche – built after the old chapel and the “Spittal” burnt down in 1641- was demolished in 1881 and the area underwent a significant re-design.

Gertraudenkirche in 1880, a year before its demolition (photo by Hermann Rückwardt).

In the 1920s another refurbishment followed and approximately a quarter of the century later, after May 1945, Spittelmarkt lay in ruins. Built anew by the East Berlin authorities in the 1970s, it reflected the then “modern” approach to architecture and urban planning. It virtually vanished again, overridden by the expanded traffic lanes as well as overwhelmed by the monstrous concrete high-rises erected around and partly on it.

Spittelmarkt in the 1920s (photographer unknown, PD).

The two map images – sections of a 1910 and a current Google-Map – featured below strongly reflect that change. The western entrance to the 1908 U-Bhf “Spittelmarkt” marked on both of them will help you locate the former within the latter.

Last night #RBB (Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg) – for obvious reasons our favourite German TV station – treated its viewers to another episode of its highly appreciated documentary series Geheimnisvolle Orte (Secret, or Mysterious, Places).

This time it is all about the KaDeWe: since its opening in 1907 Berlin´s Kaufhaus des Westens (the Department Store of the West) remains an elegant temple of shopping, the Mecca of jet-setting keen buyers.

Adolf Jandorf and family in their villa in Tiergartenstraße, 1908 Berlin (image by R. Siebert).

Its story is a rich tapestry of anecdotes and historically significant moments. Its fate reflects that of Berlin itself almost one-to-one: the Wilhelminian show-off opulence, braggadocio and drama, the Weimar Republic “wild & wasteful” craze and sudden financial slump, the Nazi-era tragedy of the Jewish management and staff, followed by the Second World War wreckage and the resurrection; division of Berlin and the 1960s anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian, anti-government student movement for whom the KaDeWe became a symbolic enemy (also because the man behind the store´s post-war resurrection, its post-war manager, held his post thanks to the 1933 Nazi process of “aryanisation” of Jewish enterprises). In 1989 the Kaufhaus des Westens was also among the most important destinations for many awe-struck East Berliners.

The RBB documentary captures all of those moments and the experts as well as the store´s management do their best to elucidate the special, almost royal, status of Schöneberg´s old shopping temple. In our humble opinion, they succeed.

The documentary is in German only, however, the precious historical film material it contains makes it worth watching even if you do not understand a word. Please click the image to enter.

KaDeWe in its opening year, 1907 (photographer unknown).

One of the best things about leaving Berlin and going on holidays is knowing that when those end, it is to Berlin that you will come back again – a sentiment just as strong today as it was 14 years ago when I first unpacked my suitcase here.

One of the best things about being back in Berlin again is being able to sit down at your desk, look at your Berlin-book collection (strategically placed next to it) and realise how many incredible, fascinating stories are still waiting to be told. And that, come what may, you will never run out of topics to write about.

But before we resume our regular service on Monday next week – we might be back but school holidays aren´t over yet and we are still engaged otherwise– let us make a proud announcement (drums and tuba in the background): our book, Notmsparker’s Berlin Companion, is now available as an e-book, too! Digital edition of one of the most surprising, most educating and fact-filled books about Berlin´s past and present – in short, everything you never even knew you wanted to know about Berlin – has been optimised for e-readers.

So before you take a guided walk of the city – armed with tonnes of enthusiasm, comfy footwear and a map of main historical sights – dive into Notmsparker´s Berlin Companion for a magnifying-glass look at the lesser-known or even forgotten facts and anecdotes from Berlin´s history and its present.

Alternatively, enjoy them after your walk: with tonnes of exciting impressions, sat in a comfy chair and with images of the places you have visited still before your eyes. Whichever you choose, your Berlin savvy will boom.

Berlin’s first aquarium was a nineteenth-century hotspot. Image: cover of the “Guide Through Berlin’s Aquarium”, image in public domain, via Wikipedia.

Did you know that the Aquarium in Budapester Straße in Charlottenburg was not the original Berlin Aquarium? The first Berlin Aquarium opened on the corner of Unter den Linden and Schadowstraße on May 11, 1869.

Built in a grotto-style – a design both attractive and highly practical – the aquarium located in the backyard of Berlin’s main boulevard was the largest such establishment worldwide. Dr Alfred Brehm, a renowned zoologist, former head of the Hamburg zoo as well as the man after whom much later the famous Brehmshaus in Berlin’s Tierpark was to be named, managed to secure the support of King Wilhelm I and his son, Friedrich (the future “99-Day Kaiser“). Royal seal of approval as well as the prospect of having a real crowd´’s magnet right in the heart of the city meant that money was hardly an issue.

Aquarium_Unter_den_Linden_1 from book klös
The house on the corner of Unter den Linden and Schadowstraße – home to Berlin’s first aquarium.

And a real crowd magnet is became. After the official opening, attended by King Wilhelm I (two years later he changed the title to Kaiser), the aquarium quickly gained international fame. No respectable Berlin city guidebook would have failed to mention its name and the wonders it held.

Apart from the usual water creatures one would expect in a place announced as an “aquarium” – both sweet-water and sea fish, crustaceans, polyps, a beautiful collection of sponges as well as numerous cave animals – it also offered real crowd-pleasers such as as turtles, birds and monkeys.

The New and Old World monkeys and gorillas occupied a series of cages placed between reptiles and the crocodile basin. These cages, by the way, had one wall fitted with mirrors, which not only improved the illumination but was also a source of amusement for both the creatures and the guests (or so the widespread belief at the time…)

A large aviary placed in the same grotto as reptiles and apes – one could probably hear the echo of the theory of the origin of species reverberating inside – was divided into 14 departments and held birds representing all climate zones.

berliner aquarium Die_Gartenlaube_(1873)_b_166
A series of illustrations presenting the interiors of the aquarium, printed by the popular magazine “Die Gartenlaube” in 1873. Image via Wikipedia.

The actual aquarium, located behind the turtle grotto, was a delight for all fish fans and of those there were many in the nineteenth-century Berlin. Here a little anecdote: after the goldfish living in the Tiergarten ponds froze to death in the harsh winter of 1849, the city bought a new population but, having burnt their fingers once, began to remove the fish from the park before frosty days arrived.

As a result, the fish population grew fast and the excess could be sold to private people. One of the side-effects was a huge – and perhaps a bit unexpected – success of an aquarium and pet-fish shop in Markgrafenstraße, offering glass fish-bowls and other necessary paraphernalia. The trade owed its success to the 1849 “Tiergarten Fish Disaster”.

Back at the old Berlin aquarium, after admiring the many wonders of nautical world and unwittingly taking a crash course in the evolution of species, guests could rest for a moment inside the aquarium’s most romantic room: the replica of the Blue Grotto of Capri. With such a cornucopia of delights on offer and an unceasing interest especially among the guests from abroad, what could possibly prevent Berlin’s first Aquarium from remaining one of the city’s leading sights?

As always, economy and competition could. Alfred Brehm’s Berlin establishment was competing against the excellent Zoological Garten opened in August 1844 in Charlottenburg (until 1920 Charlottenburg was not part of Berlin but an independent city). By the end of the nineteenth century, it was clear that a fusion of the two cities was imminent. Also, the city transport network became so dense and efficient by then that a trip to Charlottenburg was no trouble at all. At the same time, the idea of a large, mostly outdoor zoo had slowly won against the by then obsolete looking grottos from Unter den Linden. In 1907, Berlin Aquarium’s director, Otto Hermes, announced its inevitable end. The old aquarium closed down on September 30, 1910. Most of its animals were sold to the zoos in Leipzig and Frankfurt am Main.

On August 18, 1913 the new aquarium opened in Kurfürstendamm (Budapester Straße today).


Hotel Minerva, which existed until the beginning of the 1920s, on the corner of Unter den Linden and Schadowstraße opened in the building housing the first Berlin aquarium and planned as an additional source of income for the collection.