74 years on Frankfurt’s Old Town is finally back

If you are recreating a medieval town in the 21st Century there are some searching questions to be answered. How you do you balance yesteryear authenticity with contemporary Health and Safety? How do you serve-up seamless public transport with architectural timbered nostalgia? How do you create meandering alleyways without cholera and dysentery?

Designers have worked hard to recreate the splendour of the Old TownFrankfurt was Germany’s best preserved and most visited medieval town until the bombing of March 1944. It has taken the phoenix of Old Frankfurt, Gothic-style timbered houses and cobbled streets, over seventy years to rise from the ashes.

Allied Bombers obliterated Frankfurt’s Old Town on two devastating March nights in 1944. Firefighters were able to save just one of the historic timbered houses, opposite the renovated Rent Tower, on the banks of the River Main.

For Frankfurt’s people, the apocalyptic firestorm of bombing on 22nd March, accounting for many of the 27,000 tons of bombs dropped on the city that month, was a cataclysmic day. With around 1,000 citizens dead and thousands more homeless, as a result of the Allies’ “dehousing” bombing policy, it seemed like Armageddon. Particularly as the 22nd March was the anniversary of Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe’s death: Frankfurt’s multi-tasking cultural hero who was critic, dramatist, novelist, scientist and statesman.

After the war Frankfurt focussed on rapidly building drab, functional dwellings, using the rubble to make bricks, that were urgently needed. The old Hansel-and-Gretel School of Architecture was a luxury belonging to easier times. The city’s glorious heritage was forgotten.

Already the New Town is popular with visitors © #visitfrankfurt, Holger UllmannTwelve centuries ago, the walk through the original town from cathedral to town hall was the Emperor Charlemagne’s triumphant coronation procession: the Emperor generously providing a fountain of red wine for his people to lavishly celebrate. It become a route followed by numerous Emperors of the Holy Roman Empire for their coronations. But post-war that walk was merely through a huge car-park of dusty Volkswagens.

“You’re crazy,” was the reaction when Dominic Mangellman, a Masters student at Mainz University in 2004, suggested rebuilding the Old Town. Yet steadily the project became a reality, eventually backed by €200 million Euros.

History may be pretty to look it but you wouldn’t necessarily want to live in it: particularly when up to 40 people shared a toilet in medieval times. Today’s Health and Safety Laws ban alleys as narrow as the originals whilst stringent Fire Safety regulations removed the possibility of fully timbered houses. So, the “New” Old Town is a “creative reconstruction.”

Finally the New “Old Town” has become a reality © #visitfrankfurt, Holger UllmannMedieval towns didn’t have underground systems either. The Dom-Römer U-Bahn Station, close to the free walk-in museum recording the Archaeology of Frankfurt’s Roman heritage, is easy to miss. The design of the U-Bahn station’s entrance halls is more understated Roman Baths than 21st Century urban transport system.

Many artists, modellers and photographers had recorded the beauty of the Old Town so there was no lack of a blueprint for architects rebuilding the city. 

After the war people had scavenged door steps, lintels and timbers from the rubble. An appeal for these to be returned had some success. But the facade of the House with Golden Scales, the home of an affluent 17th Century confectioner from Holland, had been reused in a summerhouse. The owners agreed to a 3D scan. Now the €8 million reconstruction, opposite the Cathedral, is the jewel of the New Old Town.

A restored lintelBut what would be the purpose of the new town? Inevitably there were fears that it would become a soulless plastic Disneyland or an investment opportunity for shrewd overseas buyers. Consequently, ground floors have been devoted to a wine bar, small museums, cafes and shops with residential accommodation above. When buyers apply, they have to provide evidence of Frankfurt heritage in their family tree.

Although the New Old Town opens with three days of celebrations from 28th to 30th September in 2018 it may be a few months before all of the cafes, museums and shops are open. When they are the development will bring a balance to the power city nicknamed “Manhattan am Main” with its skyscraper skyline. Throw in the many museums of the South Bank and Frankfurt is becoming a very attractive weekend break.

Shops feature on the ground floorMore information

Fly to Frankfurt with Lufthansa.

Take the S9 or S8 train to travel from airport to the city centre in just fifteen minutes.

Stay at the luxurious 99 metres high Jumeirah Frankfurt which is centrally located a mere 3-minute walk from the Hauptwache station.

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Michael Edwards

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