Decadence and Despair in Berlin’s Central-Hotel

When Berlin’s Central Hotel opened its doors for the first time on 2 October 1888, it was the city’s largest and most opulent such establishment. It boasted seven-hundred rooms, three salons, dining and reading rooms, bar, library, and a winter garden in which 3000 people could enjoy theatrical and musical entertainments. The hotel occupied a block on busy Friedrichstraße. Directly adjoining Friedrichstraße station, it was intended to welcome international travellers disembarking from Berlin’s new Stadtbahn railway.

Central-Hotel_FRONT
The Central Hotel, Berlin.

A new international hotel, a new city railway. The 1880s were an exciting time to be in Berlin: these were the years of the Gründerzeit, the founding years of the German Empire. In the wake of German unification in 1871, and the city’s elevation to capital of one of Europe’s most powerful nations, a host of expensive and ambitious building projects popped up across the city. All these projects had a shared ambition: to transform Berlin into a Weltstadt. In the decade that followed German unification, other major completed projects included the Alte Nationalgalerie (1876), the Kaiser Galerie (1875), the new Anhalter Bahnhof (1880), and a sea of factories and tenements in the city’s rapidly expanding industrial suburbs.

From the outset, the Central Hotel was intended to cater for international visitors, advertising itself in Bradshaw’s guides as ‘the most agreeable and comfortable habitation which Berlin can offer to Foreigners.’ Those with expensive tastes could be put up in rooms on the first floor, where were ‘fitted up in princely style’, while the more modest requirements of the ‘merchant and countryman’ could be accommodated on the second and third floors. Newspapers from across the Continent, as well as England and the USA, were offered in the reading room, along with directories of ‘every Capital and [the] most important Manufacturing Towns of the Globe’. The library stocked books in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Russian.1

Architecturally, the hotel was executed in a neo-Renaissance style like many of the other large-scale building projects taking place across the city at the time. Turrets topped with cupolas and flagstaffs stood at each end of its lengthy and rather austere façade along Friedrichstraße. At street level a parade of shops occupied the ground floor spaces overlooking the street, and included chocolate makers, umbrella makers, cigarette sellers, and stationers.

19061208_berlin_gruss_aus_dem_central_hotel_haupttreppe
Main staircase and lobby, Central-Hotel Berlin. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

The public rooms inside the hotel were the last word in opulence. They boasted marble columns, mahogany panelling, leather furnishings, and glass chandeliers. Neoclassical sculptures framed fireplaces and ornate mirrors filled entire walls. Not a single surface was left without some form of elaborate decoration.

It is one of life’s pleasures to steal into the lobbies and bars of the most expensive hotels and indulge in a spot of people watching. The hotel lobby is a space, as the Weimar cultural theorist Siegfried Kracauer put it, that ‘accommodates all who go there to meet no one’. They are spaces designed for transience, of checking in and checking out. To sit or stand still in a hotel lobby for as long as one can get away with it, is an opportunity to observe the transience of strangers; to observe individuals when their guards are down, and not subject to the conventions that dictate their normal lives.2

19061208_berlin_gruss_aus_dem_central_hotel_lesesaal
Reading Room, Central-Hotel Berlin. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Who would you have seen if you sat in the lobby of Berlin’s Central Hotel? Perhaps the American politician Frederick Holliday who visited in 1883, commenting in a letter to a friend that the hotel bore ‘the same relation to the houses around it that the elephant does to other animals.’3 Or the medical practitioner and aspiring author Arthur Conan Doyle, who stayed at the Central Hotel in November 1890 in order to examine firsthand the German physician Robert Koch’s claim to have found a cure for tuberculosis.4

You might also have seen a succession of suited and uniformed members of Berlin’s political and military elites. The hotel’s labyrinth of rooms, salons and lobbies, with their wing-back chairs, high ceilings and thick carpets, were the perfect backdrop to gossip and conduct political intrigues. During Alfred Dreyfus’s second trial in 1899 the court at Rennes heard from one witness who claimed to have eavesdropped on a conversation between two German officers at the Central Hotel in 1894, who were discussing documents alleged to have been sold by Dreyfus to the Germans.5

Other passersby that you might have seen in the Central Hotel’s lobby included, in 1897, the ecumenist William John Birkbeck, en route to St Petersburg to meet the Czar Nicholas II, and W C Fields, who was but one of a succession of famous early twentieth-century theatrical and vaudeville artists who stayed at the hotel while performing at the Wintergarden.

isadora_duncan_studies_5
Isadora Duncan, New York, 1915-1918. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

Later on, in the midst of the melodramas of the Weimar Republic, with all its excess and impoverishment, the sight of the American dancer Isadora Duncan, stranded and penniless at the Central Hotel, would not have seemed particularly out of place. Duncan wrote despairing letters from her room at the Central Hotel in Berlin (‘this awful city’), complaining that the hotel, ‘will serve [me] no more food’.6

Notes

  1. Bradshaw’s Illustrated Hand-Book for Travellers in Belgium, on the Rhine, and through portions of Rhenish Prussia (London: George Bradshaw, 1895?)
  2. Siegfried Kracauer, “The Hotel Lobby” in Thomas Y Levin (ed.) The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays (Harvard University Press, 1995), 173-188
  3. Frederick William Mackey Holliday, Letters of Travel through Great Britain, Ireland, France, Switzerland, Holland, Belgium, Germany and Austria (Baltimore: John Murphy & Co, 1883), 523 [https://archive.org/details/lettersoftravel121holl, accessed 1/6/18]
  4. Brian W Pugh, A Chronology of the Life of Arthur Conan Doyle (Andrews, 2011)
  5. “Dreyfuss Trial Today” The Globe, Wednesday 9 August 1899 [https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0001652/18990809/061/0007, accessed 1/6/18]
  6. Irma Duncan, Isadora Duncan’s Russian Days and her last years in France (London: Victor Gollancz, 1929), 302 [https://archive.org/details/isadoraduncansru00dunc, accessed 1/6/18]

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