Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A Walk into the Past - Fichtenberg Part I

"..being curious...it's one of the best things about life, don't you think?" comments my dear friend from Silver City, who is a curious person herself. I owe her a curiosity trip to find her roots in Sicily one of these days. Meanwhile, I am rediscovering my own old stomping grounds.

I went to high school on the Fichtenberg, Spruce Hill, walking or biking up from "regular" Steglitz where I lived age 15-18.  Regular Steglitz, as in, the other side of the main street, aka Schlosstrasse, where it's more densely settled. Here at the foot of the Fichtenberg, the village of Steglitz grew into the largest community in Prussia before it was incorporated as a district into Berlin in 1920. In the 1980s, I biked to school here every day, hung out at the park, and breathed the clean air of the hill. And never wasted a single thought on how and why this hood was so different from the rest of the area. I guess I wasn't curious (about local history that is, I was sure curious about other things then....)

I am curious now. And so appreciative of our little garden, the quiet neighborhood, the tall trees, the hedgehogs and the fresh forest air. So after moving back, for a few months now I have been walking, taking pictures, and reading about the Fichtenberg. This is definitely a place with lots to discover for the local history nerd. I'll share a little bit of what I found.

Steglitz has been around since the 1300s. Located on the highway between Potsdam and Berlin it quickly grew in importance during the years of the Prussian empire. They didn't start intentionally settling the hill above it until the early 1870ies. Before that, the hill was a park, with intentionally planted pine trees (not spruce = Fichte. So first, it was know as Kieferberg, rather than Fichtenberg), part of the Schloss property (not really a castle, more like a nice country hangout) built by Count Carl-Friedrich Beyme, and later owned by Marshall Friedrich Wrangel, today known as the Wrangel-Schlösschen.  The owners also tried to grow wine here, fruit trees and later mulberry trees for silk production.

Since this is the only elevation for miles around, you had a breathtaking far and wide view across the fields of Dahlem from the hill. As if that wasn't enough, at the top of the hill, right outside where our house is today, somebody in the late 1700s had built one of those fake ruins, a Belvedere with a tower. When things started to get serious, it was dismantled in 1865 and the bricks given to local developers.

So in 1872 the Domänenfiskus (this was sort of the property management department of the Prussian State) subdivided the hill into 89 lots and started selling. The lots were small, so the buyers, since they could afford it, bought several adjoining lots at once and erected representative villas. 13 years later, there were 24 villas surrounded by huge parks. Yes, parks... with fountains, ponds, stables, green houses, and additional buildings housing carriages, cars and staff. The first big, impressive villas were built for scientists, educators, high ranking public employees, artists, military men, and a little later, up-and coming industrial tycoons. They were truly the "High Society", not just of Steglitz, but of nearby Berlin, creating their little high-end suburbia here. Berlin was only a short train ride away since Steglitz had become a stop on the Potsdam-Berlin route in 1839. More about a few of the interesting characters who lived here later.

a view of the hill in 1903

First, the streets had the same names as in Prussian villages everywhere. Wilhelmplatz, Schillerstrasse, Kaiser-Wilhelm-Strasse, Friedrichstrasse. When Steglitz was swallowed by Berlin, along with Lichterfelde, Lankwitz and Südende, people had to come up with new names, so there wouldn't be 20 Wilhelmstrassen. So today many of the streets here and in other parts of Steglitz are named after important local residents - Friedrich Schmidt-Ott, Carl-Heinrich Becker, Paul Henckels.

Let's take a little walk. This map section was created by using OpenStreetMap, © OpenStreetMap contributors.

Fichtenberg Map

The map shows the hill, bordered by Grunewaldstrasse on the northeast, Schlosstrasse on the south and the botanical gardens on the southeast sides . Our house is right by Paul-Henckels Platz, on Schmidt-Ott-Str. 5a, where I put the arrow. That spot is very close to the top if the hill, marked by the number 68 (meters, that is). If you increase the zoom on your browser, you can see the details better.

We'll walk down Carl-Heinrich-Becker Weg, across Henckels-Platz.

Paul Henckels was an actor and director, as well as a co-founder of the post-war version of the Schlosspark-Theater, on Wrangelstrasse. It's located in the buildings of the old Wrangelschlösschen. It is still one of the most active little theaters in Berlin, providing lighter entertainment these days. Henckels didn't live on the hill. Carl Heinrich Becker, the Prussian Minister of Culture did, but not on the street named after him (go figure), so 'll tell you more about him when we come by his place later.

A big eyecatcher on our right is this beauty:

The Villa Anna was built by Architekt Otto Techow for himself and his family in 1884. Techow is also famous for the Water Tower (around the corner on Schmidt-Ott-Strasse) he built a few years later.

It was later refurbished to house the offices of the Institute of Meteorology, where today students maintain the Free University's weather monitoring sequence day and night.

The Henckels square is somewhat unkempt these days, apparently public park funds and personnel are not sufficient.

And also the Tree of Heaven on our property is sending shoots everywhere. I hated those stinky invasive trees in New Mexico and I hate them here.

Walking down further, we notice a spacey-looking building on the right. It was built by the Free University and houses more of the Meteorological Institute and the Institute for Space Science. There were protests from residents when this was built, because it does not fit in architecturally. I don't mind the mix of architecture, that's what Berlin is like everywhere - heterogenous and messy.

The rest of Carl-Heinrich-Becker-Weg illustrates architectural messiness perfectly. We see everything in between the fairy tale Villa Anna and the space building: 19th century high end rentals, classic, clean Bauhaus style, 50ies atrocities and a few hints at romantic 1800s Villas which are no longer there, or have been altered to a point of being unrecognizable in their grand old beauty.

Erich Pommer lived here, on C-H Becker Weg 16-18. The house is long gone, replaced by 1970s little boxes. He was a film producer, responsible for many of the expressionist silent movies of the 1920s, such as "Metropolis" and "Faust". He produced "Der Blaue Engel" with Marlene Dietrich in 1930. After 1933 he got the hell out of here and continued his career in Hollywood. He is credited with rebuilding the German film industry from ashes after 1946.

As you walk, guide your eyes to the ground: the typical Berlin pave stones actually have a mosaic pattern here, with a dark stripe and curved openings where each driveway used to be. Today, we can see that after the pavement was torn up for pipe work or such, the city crews didn't make the effort of recreating the stripe, but instead scattered the black stones about. Bummer.

Dietrich Schäfer was a tenant, along with his partner and six kids, in Nr. 27-29, the last house on the left before the street dead-ends into the park. The 1896 villa has been drastically altered and built onto. Today it houses a residential facility for people with severe mental illness. I didn't dare take a picture, because the residents alway hang out on the front porch. Schäfer was a historian with strong anti-semitic views and in favor of total war. He died in 1929, but the Nazis loved his writings, and because of this he is a controversial figure. Becker-Weg actually used to be Schäfer-Weg when I went to school here. A group of students from my high school back then started to advocate for changing the name of the street, and the initiative finally succeeded in 1992.

Becker-Weg leads to what we used to call the Fichtenberg as kids - which is the park.

At the entrance of the park, if you move the weeds and autumn leaves a bit with your foot, you'll see a weird square stone plate.

It covers the opening to a bunker system, which the Nazis, or actually I should say, Nazi prisoners, built into the mountain in 1944. In the late 1970ies, several sections of the tunnels caved in and had to be filled up and covered.  The bunker was built for the employees of a large administrative SS office on Schlosstrasse. I don't think it was ever used.

Next you enter a large flat area bordered by a curved wall, with benches to sit and enjoy the view. Except there is no view anymore. The trees are too tall today. This is what it used to look like.

And today:

If the trees weren't there at the other side of the lawn, you would look across the same area, then the wheat fields of Dahlem, today the Botanical Gardens.

The rest of the park covers the south slope of the hill - softly descending lawns surrounded by paths slowly overgrowing with blackberries and weeds. On the way down we meet this gentleman:

Friedrich Paulsen

Paulsen was an influential educator, philosopher and pedagogue. He is considered the inventor of the modern German high school, the gymnasium, at which modern languages and the natural sciences are given the same importance as the ancient languages.  He lived on Lepsiusstrasse, half way down the hill until his death in 1908. Streets and schools in Berlin and elsewhere are named after him. His philosophical works were translated into many languages and were widely read in the US. He is buried at the St. Matthäus Cemetery over in Schöneberg, along with the Brothers Grimm, and a few, dear, recently passed members of my family.

Two playgrounds flank the park, and next to one of them in the bushes, I found what I think might be the original Bäkequelle, the spring of the now buried river Bäke,  discussed here, housed in by a brick enclosure.

Circling around the park and back up the hill, we find the memorial stone of prolific writer and journalist Ruth Andreas-Friedrich, after who the park was named.

Ruth and her partner, the conductor Leo Borchard, were important figures in the anti-Nazi resistance movement. Their group, called Onkel Emil, helped many persecuted people get out of the country. They operated it out of their home in Steglitz. The district of Steglitz, by the way, was an early and solid bullwark of the Nazi movement. Ruth Andreas-Friedrich later published her diaries from these years, which today are considered one of the most important time witness reports of the period. I have been waiting for  a copy to become available at the library for two months now....

We'll walk back up to the platform and turn to our right onto Zeunepromenade. This little foot path is the border between Steglitz and Dahlem (you can see the red dotted line on our map). On the left is the fence to the Botanical Gardens, and we see the back side of the big green house.

On the right, and in both directions around the corner, we can still see the remains of the original 1890 iron and brick fence of the Carl Schlickeysen property.

I love that name - it's like someone made it up to fit a Gründerzeit German industrial tycoon. Which is what Schlickeysen was.  He worked his way up from modest circumstances, and later perfected and successfully marketed the steam brick press, taking brick making from a hand craft to an industry.  I can only imagine how the old elite of professors and government officials on the hill felt about this rough new kid in the hood, and about his parties and the braggy property. His big villa and park, as the one of his next door neighbor Weber, are long gone though, replaced by dense 1950's condos. Only the fence and its base of stamped bricks, probably from his factory, remind us of the glorious 1890s, when Berlin, the capital of the new German empire was growing exponentially, and you could make millions with bricks. Today they are covered in graffiti.

At the end of the promenade, in a minute we will turn right onto Arno-Holz-Str. This street is not as architecturally messy - it still features more of the old turn of the century grandeur than Carl-Heinrich Becker-Weg, as well as some surprises...

You'll find out about the people who lived here, among them Carl-Heinrich Becker and Friedrich Schmidt-Ott. We'll walk down Schmidt-Ott-Strasse towards Lepsiusstrasse, and you'll hear about a present-day actor who saved his historic home, a 1930s actress who died very young, and of course the dying Franz Kafka, and a bunch of early anthropologists, and why one always runs into blind people on the hill - for the last 100 years, and, and..... All of this in Part II of our walk, which will appear here in October. Thanks for sticking with us!

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