Why atheists want to save a historic wooden German church plank by plank

In the Harz mountains a historic church was threatened with vandalism and decay. The a group of villagers came to the rescue.

Why atheists want to save a historic wooden German church plank by plank
The interior of the church in the forests of the Harz mountains. Photo: DPA

Ask Hans Powalla if he is a believer and the immediate response is a firm “no”.

Yet he and other villagers in and around the German town of Stiege have embarked on the Herculean task of saving a picturesque church by moving it from the middle of a forest into the centre of town.

Former electrician Powalla, 74, said they were driven by the “unique architecture of the building” and the “meaning that it gives to the region” in the Harz mountains.

The object in question is a stave church, or wooden church, complete with dragon ornaments on the roof, built in the Nordic style in 1905. 

It is one of only three such churches from that era still standing in Germany, and is classed as a monument of national significance.

Unlike most churches which have prominent spots in town centres, this site of worship was built as a private sanctuary for patients recovering from lung diseases at a sanatorium located in the woods.

But the sanatorium was shut, and by 2009, the church fell out of use. Its isolated location makes it a target for vandals.

A fire broke out at the former lung clinic just a few metres away from the church in 2013, damaging its structure.

“From the village, we saw the black plumes of smoke and thought 'oh no, there goes the church',” said Regina Nowolski, 69, a member of the Stiege Stave Church Association, co-founded by Powalla.

But as it turned out, the church was undamaged.

“And there came the idea that something must be done now or the church will one day collapse,” said Regina Bierwisch, spokeswoman for the association.

“The only solution to save the church was to take it away.”

Like Lego

While the idea was clear-cut, it was far easier said than done.

The challenges were plentiful: getting permission to move the structure, finding a new home, and working out how to get it there.

At one point, lifting the whole building with a Bundeswehr military helicopter was mulled.

Linked to all those issues is the million-euro question of how to finance the project.

Undeterred, members of the association took the matter to the mayor, wrote to federal authorities on conservation and made public appeals to fundraise.

“In the beginning I found it a funny idea. But I quickly noticed that they're not giving up, they are there to see it through,” Ronald Fiebelkorn, mayor of the Oberharz am Brocken region, told AFP.

Buoyed by the wave of enthusiasm, Fiebelkorn took it to state and federal authorities whose initial reaction had been “you're crazy”.

Photo: DPA

But soon, the officials also relented.

With backing and funding secured, the 1.1 million euro project ($1.3 million) to move the church is now in its last lap.

A plot of land has been secured in Stiege town, offered by the regional authorities to the association at a symbolic price of one euro.

The association also purchased the private church from current owners, a real estate company in Berlin, for a single euro.

Groundbreaking at the new site began in November and once the concrete foundation is laid, from March, the church will be taken apart from top to bottom, plank by plank.

“Just like a Lego house,” said Bierwisch, noting that the wood must be rebuilt quickly at its new plot about five kilometres (about three miles) away, with completion targeted for September.

There is already a community church in Stiege itself, and Bierwisch made clear the intention is “not to compete” for believers.

Rather, in its new home, the association hopes the stave church will become an open space for community events as well as serve as a new attraction for visitors to the region.

Pointing out that the largest stave church in Germany is located just about 60 kilometres away in the town of Hahnenklee, also in the Harz mountains region, Bierwisch said: “That can become a tourism route, with churches as the highlights.

“The conservation of what people could do 100 years ago should be shown and be seen, respected in this beautiful tourist area.”

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Germany’s Scheffelbrücke: Everything you need to know about the ‘world’s most expensive bridge’

Germany's Scheffelbrücke might not seem like much to look at, but by some accounts it is the most expensive bridge in the world. Here’s what you need to know.

Germany's Scheffelbrücke: Everything you need to know about the ‘world’s most expensive bridge’
The Scheffelbrücke in Baden-Württemburg isn't known for its astounding beauty or engineering prowess - but it is known for its price tag. Photo: Heinz Seehagel, Creative Commons.

If you’re travelling near the Swiss border, you might come across the Scheffelbrücke – a quiet, two-lane bridge over the Radolfzeller Aach in Baden-Württemburg. 

By bridge standards, the 20-metre concrete construction seems relatively unremarkable – until you take a look at the engraved sign on the side which quotes the price tag. 

A sign on the bridge references the incredible price of the bridge: 1,520,940,901,926,024 Deutschmarks. 

That’s 1,500 trillion marks. 

Why is the Scheffelbrücke Germany’s most expensive bridge – and why is it so drab?

While Germany has the money and the landscape to have some expensive bridges, that over the Aach hardly rivals the Golden Gate, London Bridge or Sydney Harbour for elegance or ingenuity. 

The bridge, completed in 1923, takes the name of Joseph Victor von Scheffel, a German writer who will forever be associated with the glorified concrete slab. 

While one might suspect pork barrelling or crafty accounting as a reason for the astonishing cost – or perhaps a trick to reel in the tourists to the otherwise unassuming village of Singen – the cost is in fact real.

The high price is a consequence of the out of control post-World War One inflation which hit Germany, where money almost completely lost its value. 

A sign for the bridge reveals its extortionate building costs. Photo: Heinz Seehagel, Creative Commons.

Local authorities, wanting to boost the economy, signed off on the bridge as an infrastructure project. 

As a consequence, some local workers presumably became millionaires as a consequence – although there was perhaps little meaning to the idea of being a millionaire when a billion would only buy you a concrete bridge. 

Fortunately, Germany was able to bring inflation under control and wheelbarrows full of money were no longer required to purchase basic things.

And almost a century later, when not taking wacky inflation into account, Germany’s ‘most expensive bridge in the world’ no longer has that title. 

That goes to the Oakland Bay Bridge in San Francisco (no, not the Golden Gate but the other one), which cost 6.3 billion US dollars – or roughly 5.2 billion euro  – to build. 

The Oakland Bay Bridge however goes for eight kilometres and possesses some of the aesthetic qualities which one would expect from the most expensive bridge in the world.