Last updated on December 23, 2021
Gorgeous, isn’t it? Once named the Küstriner Platz, this is today the Franz-Mehring-Platz in Friedrichshain (not to be confused with the far better known Mehringplatz in Kreuzberg). It’s dominated by the headquarters of Neues Deutschland, formerly the GDR’s state newspaper and now a marginal voice in the Berlin media landscape. It’s still housed in the building it once entirely occupied, along with various businesses and a furniture storage facility. The area has fallen upon hard times indeed, and the singularly uncharismatic, entirely too broad street doesn’t make things better.
Once, however, it was a lively area that housed a massive railway station. And no station in Berlin, and possibly the world, has seen a more diverse combination of uses than the Küstriner Bahnhof, once placed just north of today’s Ostbahnhof. During its life, it saw service as a station, restaurant, balloon workshop, and theatre. Sometimes simultaneously.
Now, if I were going to do this chronologically, we wouldn’t have arrived at the Küstriner Bahnhof quite yet, but I’m going to talk about it here since it represents a crucial step in the development of railway stations in Berlin. Or rather, the lukewarm reaction to its design provided the city’s station architecture with a unique new direction.
In fact, the history of the building shows how it was an afterthought in more than one sense. To begin with, it wasn’t called the “Küstriner Bahnhof”, but rather the Ostbahnhof (Eastern Station). When it was opened in 1867, however, all of the other stations were named after the destinations they served, and it made sense for people to refer to the new one in the same way. The more so since it was built on the Küstriner Platz (Küstrin Square), and the name “Ostbahnhof” had long been used colloquially to refer to the Frankfurter Bahnhof (as it was long the only station in the east of the city) a few hundred meters to the south – a station that now bears that name officially, by the way.
The station was built for two reasons: first, as the Berlin bookend of the Ostbahn (hence the name), Prussia’s first state-built rail line from Berlin, via Küstrin (today in Poland), to Dantzig (today Gdańsk) and Königsberg. This was an important line for the Prussian state, and it needed an important station. Now, in practice, there was already a station to serve lines from the east, the Frankfurter Bahnhof opened in 1843. However, by the mid-1860s it had become entirely unsuited for the massive amount and growth of traffic, just like the other stations of its generation (we shall return to this station later).
Problem was, it was the only station serving connections to the east, and the impending construction plans threatened to cut off passenger lines to Berlin’s city center. So you could say that the Küstriner was at least partly built as a stop-gap for the time the Frankfurter was under construction, and certainly to relieve pressure on that station.
In 1867, the new station was opened. It looked quite impressive, and its 188-by-38-metre shed was by far the largest of the city.1 From an engineering viewpoint, it was also an impressive achievement, and for the first time offered passengers a travel experience that wasn’t dominated by a battle with the elements.
However, reception of the new building was mixed. Baron Hausmann’s plans for Paris had impressed upon the Berliners that station buildings, as impressive structures along broad avenues, could help to give their city a more metropolitan, worldly air. In a time where Berlin was still at the beginning of its explosive growth and looking to escape its provincial reputation, this was an important consideration.
The Railway Palace
The Küstriner, with its monumental front building at the intersection of the Fruchtstraße and Grüner Weg, delivered that promise. The Küstriner Platz in front, moreover, offered a kind of display window for the new station, emphasizing its urban splendor. Not that the surroundings were that urban at this point, mind you; much of the area still consisted of fields and farms, but the city was definitely gaining ground.
Another aspect of the station, however, drew widespread criticism, and none more vocal than from architects. Like most monumental 19th-century buildings, the Berlin termini all made use of designs based on historical examples. The favored template that the Prussian state (and many private parties) drew on was that of the Italian renaissance Palazzo. As a consequence, buildings tended to look quite similar irrespective of function.
In the case of a station, the building also posed a stylistic contrast to the shed behind. This might have been all right two decades earlier, but in the meantime architects had started to integrate a building’s function into its design. The railways were a source of pride, moreover, and not something to be hidden from view.
Initially regarded as “stationary umbrellas”, station buildings were beginning to be used to add grandeur to the city. Architects, who described the Küstriner’s neo-renaissance front building as a “cake”, complained that the building in front of the shed reflected nothing of the structure or function.
The shed also drew criticism despite its innovative structure, with a roof built on steel arches. Most of the roof consisted of glass, but the central part was made out of sheet metal to keep weight down. That might have been a sensible structural consideration, but the optical effect was that it looked far more massive, and rather less elegant, than a roof fully made up of glass panes. In addition, it kept light out the shed, and was regarded as something of a blot on an otherwise beautiful building.
A more practical issue was that for the average traveller the front building, built out of red-glazed brick, was entirely useless: there were the traditional separated entrances and exits to both sides of the shed, and the front building mostly contained administrative services and housing for railway employees; the only travelers that could make use of facilities here were the royal ones. Arriving and departing passengers used their own entrances and exits, so for all intents and purposes it consisted of three, largely separated, buildings.
There might have been a narrow terminal platform, but it did not really serve any purpose because of this setup; it mainly made it possible to access the middle platform, which was used for excursion trains, and served railway staff that needed to use the turntable for engines.
This also meant that a huge potential benefit of a terminal station – the concentration of services – was left unused. Instead, waiting rooms, ticket offices, the vestibule and package services were spread out all over the building, and people wanting to transfer had to walk around the front of the building, from the exit to the entrance.2
A new age
In a way, the criticisms heaped upon the Küstriner’s caused railway architects to reconsider their designs. Where stations in the UK, the Netherlands, and Belgium often employed neo-gothic designs, the Berlin termini came to rely on a specific Rundbogen (“round arches”) -style, which drew from classical, medieval, renaissance and baroque examples to create an aggregate dominated by rounded forms.
We can see this most clearly in the slightly later Lehrter, Stettiner and Anhalter stations (1869, 1874, and 1880, respectively), where arched elements were central to the station’s design. This had the effect of extending the train shed’s shape towards the façade. Large British stations, by contrast, tended to have entrance buildings with their own stylistic identity; an autonomy often reinforced by the presence of an integrated hotel, which made the building functionally ambiguous. That duplicity did not exist in the Berlin stations – these buildings were purely intended for passenger rail traffic.
A quick end
For fifteen years, the station saw people coming and going on long-distance journeys to the Prussian hinterland. The Küstriner’s importance decreased markedly after the new Frankfurter Bahnhof opened in 1871. And in 1882 it came to an end altogether after that station, now re-christened the Schlesischer Bahnhof (after Silesia) was converted from a terminus into a through station and connected to the Stadtbahn, a new railway crossing Berlin’s center.3 Its capacity was enlarged simultaneously, which made the use of the Küstriner superfluous and impractical.
So by now, the Prussian railways possessed one of the largest buildings in the city without really knowing what to do with it. Maintenance was expensive, and attempts to rent it out initially proved unsuccesful. Thankfully, at least the front building had an occupant in the form of the restauranteur Gerhard Oppermann, whose restaurant Zum Ostbahnhof gained a good reputation throughout the city, drawing upper-class gourmets to what was increasingly becoming a working-class quarter.
Those magnificent men…
By 1884, a tenant for the train shed was found in the form of the Versuchsstation für Captivballons (Trial Station for Tethered Balloons), Germany’s first airborne army unit.
The long hall turned out to be quite useful to construct balloons, with all the accompanying rope work, while the smaller workshops could be housed in what used to be waiting and luggage rooms. While most balloons were developed for military reconnaisance and signaling, some also saw service to gather scientific data: during 65 manned and 29 unmanned flights, they were used to investigate the atmosphere above the planetary boundary layer. The aim of the Trial Station was to develop standardized ways of constructing (military) balloons; it turned out to be a first step towards later airships such as Zeppelins.
The problem was that by this time, the surrounding area had become a densely populated one and that, consequently, taking off in huge balloons filled with highly volatile compounds was regarded as less than advisable. The balloons therefore had to be transported to the Tempelhofer Feld in the south of the city (later turned into a fully fledged airport) to get airborne: a cumbersome procedure. After only two years, the Trial Regiment left the station again for a venue closer to the field. After another period without occupancy, the Red Cross began to use the shed for storage.
By 1910, the building was still used as a Red Cross storage facility, and people started to notice the bad state it was in. This showed the lack of maintenance, which was made worse by the fact that the station had originally been built on the cheap, using not-quite-grade-A materials.
The restaurant in the front building continued to attract the better crowd of the area – insofar as there was one – but plaster had long ago started to crumble from the walls, the thrown-in glass windows were boarded up all over the place, and even the widows of railway staff that lived on the upper floors had begun to move out. The once-grand Küstriner Bahnhof was beginning to look as useless as it was.
To make matters even worse, in 1919 it ended up in the middle of the de facto civil war the engulfed Berlin after the German loss in World War I. And in 1926 the restaurant concluded that the area was far too proletarian to provide enough of its high-class clientele, moved out, and was immediately proven right by a series of skirmishes between disgruntled workers and police, that managed to do even more damage, both in real estate and reputation, to the already tortured building.
However, ironically that episode also saved it for another decade and a half. The owner of Charlottenburg’s fancy Scala Theatre, Jules Marx, wished to start a similar venture, but one serving to working-class audiences. Looking for a suitable venue that also happened to be in the middle of an area where his core audience had been expressing their right to free speech so ardently, he ended up at the Küstriner Bahnhof. Desperate to get the behemoth out of their ledgers, the Reichsbahn offered him a 25-year lease on very favorable terms. For instance, the theatre was allowed to draw power not from the regular mains, but from the railway’s electrical system.
But turning the crumbling structure into an entertainment palace also required a sizeable investment. In the astonishingly brief period of about six months, the station was gutted, and a theatre tower created in the middle of the former train shed. Interestingly, the aft part of the shed continued to be used as railway storage space. The front building, now for the first time in its life used as the station’s entrance, was restored to its former splendor.
Renamed the Plaza, the Küstriner opened on new year’s eve, 1929. Its programme was expressly aimed at lower-income audiences: “the biggest programme with the smallest prices and the highest perfection”4. The huge hall was covered by a dome that let through light with a reddish shine to the audience.
Initially, Marx’ commercial gamble appeared to pay off; reviews were good, intake steady, and ever more famous artists prepared to face the admittedly rowdy crowd at the Plaza. Unfortunately, the economic crisis of 1929 and subsequent slump in attendance proved fatal to the venture, and in 1931, the company had to file for bankrupcy. The theatre, suffering from increasingly heavy losses, continued under Marx’ direction but with a heavily cut programme.
Like everything in Germany, however, the Plaza was also heavily impacted by the Nazi power grab of 1933. Marx, a Jew, was soon replaced by a trusted NSDAP member, the Plaza taken over by a regime-friendly organization and the theatre now came to concentrate on “Jew-Free” operettas.5 This immediately presented a few problems. Firstly, finding repertoire that no Jewish text writer or composer had contributed turned out to be rather difficult: some Suppé and Léhar was all that was left, basically, and attempts to develop new works met with little success. In addition, the Plaza’s cavernous acoustics proved rather less than ideal for the genre.
After that experiment ended in 1937, the theatre returned to more traditional variety theatre reviews, this time staged by Kraft durch Freude, the Nazi Party’s leisure activity organization. This would also be the last incumbent of the Plaza. And as time progressed, the programme became more and more a vehicle for Nazi propaganda.
As will come as a surprise to exactly no one, it didn’t end well. Friedrichshain experienced its first bombardment in 1943, but the station building didn’t get badly hit until February of 1945. However, it was the Battle for Berlin that finished it off for good. The SS appropriated the Plaza as a temporary HQ, making it a prime target for Russian artillery, with a predictable outcome. By the time the Nazi surrender was announced on May 8th, nothing but a burnt-out shell remained.
And where the Schlesischer Bahnhof would be resurrected and become a main transport hub for the German Democratic Republic, the Küstriner quickly disappeared altogether. 1949 saw the beginning of demolition, and three years later nothing remained to remember anyone of what had been opened as Berlin’s largest railway station a little over eighty years earlier.
As we saw at the beginning, today there is very little that reminds of the area’s past. Not only the station, but most of the other buildings were razed, to be replaced by anonymous housing blocks. It will take some effort to bring this area of the city back to its former, lively (sometimes too lively) self.
Thanks to Ger Dijkstra and Mark Thomas for text-checking!
- Bley, Peter. 150 Jahre Eisenbahn Berlin – Frankfurt/Oder. 1. Edition. Düsseldorf: Alba Publikation, 1992.
- Brauchitsch, Boris von. Unter Dampf: historische Fotografien von Berliner Fern- und Regionalbahnhöfen. Berlin: Braus, 2018.
- Demps, Laurenz. Der Schlesische Bahnhof in Berlin. Ein Kapitel preußischer Eisenbahn-Geschichte. Berlin: TranzPress, 1991.
- Dienes, Gerhard M. “Über Bahnhöfe. Bemerkungen zu einem weit gefächerten Thema.” Sonderbände der Zeitschrift des Historischen Vereines für Steiermark, 445-462, 25 (2000).
- Gottwaldt, Alfred B. Berliner Fernbahnhöfe. Erinnerungen an ihre große Zeit. Düsseldorf: Alba, 1982.
- Krings, Ulrich. Deutsche Großstadt-Bahnhöfe des Historismus. München: Prestel, 1985.
- Uebel, Lothar. Eisenbahner, Artisten und Zeitungsmacher. Zur Geschichte des ehemaligen Küstriner Bahnhofs. Berlin: Grundstücksgesellschaft Franz-Mehring-Platz, 2011.
It needs to be said that at the time, three stations were being constructed that were of similar size: the new Frankfurter and Potsdamer Bahnhof complexes, and the all-new Görlitzer Bahnhof. But the Küstriner was the first of this new generation to enter service. ↩
Contrary to the slightly later Potsdamer Station, the Küstriner never possessed an underground tunnel from one side of the building to the other, to allow for easy transfer. ↩
And yes, that’s the one you’ll most likely be traveling on when you visit Berlin ↩
“Das größte Programm bei den kleinsten Preisen in höchster Vollendung”. See Uebel 2011. ↩
Operettas are a mix of opera, comedy, and melodrama that gained huge popularity around 1900. It usually treats rather less lofty topics than opera, and the added comedic elements made it particularly popular with less snobbish audiences. ↩