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Frankfurt’s bombed-out old town has been rebuilt. Here’s what we found there

Jörg Luyken
Jörg Luyken - [email protected]
Frankfurt’s bombed-out old town has been rebuilt. Here’s what we found there
Building work on the district in 2017. Photo: DPA

The general public will finally be able to see Frankfurt’s rebuilt medieval old town in early May. The Local got a guided tour behind the facades with the head of the ambitious project.


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In March 1944, after two years of trying, the British finally managed to burn down the medieval town centre of Frankfurt.

On two days of heavy bombing, four days apart, over a million incendiary bombs were dropped onto the city. Fires quickly spread through the timber structures, burning Germany’s largest medieval city to the ground. At least 1,000 people died - either buried alive or burnt to death.

The attacks were part of the controversial British “dehousing” policy, a form of bombing which targeted Germany's most densely populated cities. The aim was to cause maximum loss of life among the working classes and create a large refugee population, thus sapping both industrial output and morale in Nazi Germany.

In Frankfurt, the tactic was so devastating that on March 18th alone 55,000 people were made homeless and 7,000 buildings were destroyed.

Rising from the dust - 70 years on

Among the areas reduced to rubble 74 years ago was a 7,000-square-metre district between Frankfurt Cathedral and the Römer, Frankfurt’s medieval town hall.

This district was the beating heart of the old town - the city’s oldest ruins have been found underneath its streets and German kings used to parade through it during their coronation.

After over 70 years with a mixed architectural legacy, the area has now been meticulously rebuilt to resemble its previous glory. Starting on May 9th, residents of Frankfurt will once again be able to walk through this ancient district’s streets, when a six-year reconstruction project is opened to the public.

Fifteen old town houses have been painstakingly rebuilt as almost exact reproductions of the originals, while 20 further houses have been built on designs by architects who took inspiration from the medieval surroundings.

The Hühnermarkt before the First World War. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The project has been led from the beginning by Michael Guntersdorf, an architect with decades of experience heading major building projects in the city.

Guntersdorf’ introduced The Local to the new neighbourhood by starting where it all began - in the “archaeological garden” - foundations discovered during renovation in the 1950s.

The foundations date back to Roman times and, in a way that was typical for the dense little city, they were incorporated into the underground structure of later houses, Guntersdorf explains.

“During preparations for building on the project we were able to establish that the Carolingian foundations were used as cellars and foundations for the medieval buildings,” he says.

Although the archaeological garden was discovered in the 1950s, it wasn’t always there for everyone to see. From 1972 onward it housed in the basement of the city’s Technisches Rathaus - a concrete behemoth which city planners decided to build on the site as a home for the city administration.

After the war, nothing was left of the old town but rubble, Guntersdorf explains. "The rubble from the district was cleared out and broken down to use for concrete for new builds up the street,” he says, pointing at a row of houses that could politely by described as an eye sore.

The area then lay empty for over two decades until the Technisches Rathaus was built.

But the bulky concrete towers of the administrative building never caught the public imagination. So, when the city decided to renovate the Rathaus a decade ago, it was met by a public campaign for the Rathaus to be torn down and replaced by a rebuilt old town.

Guntersdorf admits to not being taken by the idea originally, but says he ”was given no choice” but to head it by the city mayor.

Once he was on board though, it was a case of “if we are going to do this, we will do it right.”

There are several other attempts at reconstruction on the old town already, he explains, but dismisses their lack of historical accuracy. With a shake of his head, he points out one nearby rebuild that has an annex behind it with a lift inside.

The central philosophy of the Dom-Römer district on the other hand has been to stay true to the original.

“Where we had plans for how the original looked we built it as far as we could exactly how it once looked. Where we didn’t have plans, we commissioned architects to plan entirely new buildings,” he explains.

The result is a surprisingly smooth mix of architecture from the Gothic, renaissance and baroque periods, standing side-by-side with modern buildings that play on medieval styles.

“Each of the new builds was conceptualized by a different architect,” Guntersdorf explains. “They were also given some guidelines for what they were allowed to do - such as building the bottom floor from red sandstone.”

The results are varied, but one particularly eye-catching structure is the Neues Paradies, a house walled entirely in slate that stands at the corner of the Hühnermarkt - the district’s once bustling central square.

On the stone facades of the reconstructed ground floors, no shortcuts were taken, Guntersdorf says. Stonemasons chipped the elegant designs by hand, meaning the work took two years to complete.

Michael Guntersdorf. Photo: Jörg Luyken

Another triumph of the project has been the rebuilding of one of the most storied streets in Frankfurt’s history - the Krönungsweg.

For centuries kings of the Holy Roman Empire would walk the length of the street from the Cathedral to the town hall as part of a coronation ceremony. When the Technisches Rathaus was built, the ground level was raised to over a metre over the height of the original road. So, in order to stay true to the original, the construction teams were ordered to dig back down so that the road would be at the exact same height as in the days of German kings.

Not that everything has been built exactly how the people of medieval Frankfurt did it, though. For a start, the new district is more or less floating on top of an underground car park, built under the Rathaus four decades ago. But the buildings also conform to modern fire standards - and in some cases reinforced concrete girders have been used instead of the wooden joists.

At one point on the tour, Guntersdorf mentions that architecture has an important role in logging the history of a city. At the same time though, it appears some history deserves more remembrance than others.

In front of the Großer Rebstock, a new build at the eastern edge of the district, he points to the ground floor arches, each of which is decorated with circles of rough stone harl.

“We took those stones from the Technisches Rathaus - that was about all the remembrance it deserved,” he says, drily.

Photo: Jörg Luyken

‘Brought Frankfurters nothing’

The Dom-Römer project, which started in 2012, was originally planned to cost in the region of €100 million. Current estimates put the final outlay at more than €200 million, though.

To a large extent, costs were supposed to be recouped though the sale of roughly 80 apartments inside the 35 buildings. As Guntersdorf explains, the district is once again meant to become a vibrant residential area.

But controversy has arisen, as critics claim that the apartments, which have all now been bought, were sold at below market value.

“These were state-built apartments at Dom Römer and the city sold them partly below their market value to private investors,” Eyup Yilmaz, the representative for Die Linke (the Left Party) on the city’s Dom-Römer oversight authority, told The Local.

“We at Die Linke wanted to rent the apartments out to people who really need them, but the city government insisted on selling them.”

“In Frankfurt we need every apartment we have,” Yilmaz argues, pointing out that 10,000 people are currently waiting to be provided with social housing by the city.

The left-wing politician points to the new Stadthaus - the largest building in the district, which alone cost €20 million to build - as a prime example of what he sees as the project’s elitism.

According to city authorities, the Stadthaus provides a much needed event space in the middle of the city. But Yilmaz says they misled the public about its use.

Photo: DPA

“The city government said people needed a space to celebrate birthdays and other such things. Now though they are going to rent it out for €3,500 a day - no normal person can afford that,” he says. “They have built this with tax money - if they do that, it should be affordable for every citizen.”

The new district "has brought the people of Frankfurt nothing," he states, flatly.

Guntersdorf, naturally, sees things differently. The historical accuracy of the rebuild means it can be used to teach school children about they city's past, he says. Meanwhile, the fact that chain shops are banned from the district will bestow it with a charm that distinguishes it from the more commercial parts of the city centre.

In mid-April, building implements are still scattered around the empty streets, reminding the visitor that the spotless medieval facades aren’t the real deal.

It is still a far cry from the "bustle and crowding that we feared to get lost in" that a young Johann Wolfgang von Goethe found when he visited the Krönungsweg in 1755.

If in a year's time the new district is as rambunctious as it was then, one suspects that arguments about costs will be lost in the hubbub, and that the scars of March 1944 will fade a little further into the past.

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