Last updated on November 28, 2021
Sitting more or less opposite Berlin’s massive Hauptbahnhof on the Invalidenstraße is one of its predecessors, the Hamburger Bahnhof. It is almost inconspicuous, some distance away from the road, having assumed the guise of a modern art museum. In fact, the Hamburger Bahnhof has been a museum for much longer than it was ever a functioning railway station.
That it is still around is something of a miracle in itself, because it really should have disappeared almost a hundred and fifty years ago. But we’re fortunate that it is still amongst us, because the opening of the Hamburger1 in 1847 marks a crucial point in the development of railway stations in Berlin.
Although it’s often touted as the oldest remaining station building in Berlin, that is only very partly the case. And I mean that in a literal sense: only a section of the buildings we see today was ever a component of the original station. The shed, as well as both wings to the side of the main structure, were built much later, while a substantial part of the original complex was torn down. However, the distinctive middle section with its two towers has been part of the Berlin landscape since the station serving Hamburg first opened.
The first gateway to the north
By 1845, Berlin possessed railway connections to the south and southwest through the Potsdamer and Anhalter stations, to the east via the Frankfurter, and to the northeast via the Stettiner. What it lacked was a connection to Hamburg, which just happened to be Germany’s second-largest city and port at the time (after Bremen).2
Attempts to construct a railway between Hamburg and Berlin had preceded the opening of Prussia’s first railway in 1838. The reason why it took so long to establish this crucial transport link had much to do with the political constellation at a time when Germany was still politically fragmented. The railway company had to deal with Prussian, Mecklenburgian and Hamburgian authorities, each of which took their sweet time in anticipation of the others. By 1845, however, work on the line could begin.
The line to Hamburg covered a distance of some 300 kilometers. Since it traversed a mostly empty stretch of land, the number of stops remained limited and the trajectory of the line could be kept mostly straight. Both these factors allowed for relatively fast travel, and there was a good reason why this line was chosen to set the Fliegender Hamburger‘s speed records almost a hundred years later. Still, in those early years the journey could last nine hours.3
After some argument over the location, the Berlin-Hamburg Railway Company opted for a spot on the Invalidenstraße, one of northern Berlin’s main thoroughfares but at the time still relatively rural. Although this made it easy to reach, it also caused problems since the area was basically a swamp. Providing a solid foundation for the buildings and the tracks would turn the project into an expensive one.
The ideal railway station
The basic concept of the Hamburger Bahnhof building goes back to 1838, the year Berlin’s first station opened. The Architectonisches Album of that year contained a rather brief article by Reichsbaumeister Stüler and Strack, discussing the ideal layout for a railway station.4 The authors began by acknowledging that there aren’t yet any standards for these newfangled station building things, before laying out some of their own:
- A covered entrance hall, allowing passengers to board trains in comfort.
- Opposite, a similar hall for alighting, with a square in front of it for coaches to transport the passengers into town. The tracks should be placed between these halls.
- A portal building with towers, containing various “necessary spaces”.
- Offices and living quarters for employees of the railway company.
- Depots, workshops and storage sections.
Their end result already looks suspiciously like the Hamburger Bahnhof as it was finished nine years later, including the towers, the gallery between them, and the locomotive turntable. The innovations relative to Berlin’s older stations were obvious. Travellers were given some comfort, not only when entering trains but also when waiting for their arrival; and those arriving in the city could more easily find further transport.
There were conspicuous differences as well: the architect of the station, Friedrich Neuhaus, basically turned Stüler and Strack’s floorplan upside down, with the largest administrative building at the front instead of at the rear. Two gates at the front allowed the engine to leave the structure rather than stay inside, thereby preventing its smoke and soot from engulfing the unfortunate passengers. The engine, when detached, could be turned on a turntable at the front of the station, from where it could be driven away through the other gate. Although this arrangement sounded better than it worked in practice, it nonetheless shows the degree to which thought was put into the station’s design.
The exit and entrance building were swapped around, because in the meantime Prussia had settled on right-hand rail traffic. But broadly speaking, Neuhaus adopted most of Stüler and Strack’s design and organization cues – and the latter would remain a feature of Berlin stations for some time to come.
As far as we know, the Hamburger Bahnhof was the first truly modern railway station in Berlin, offering travelers the possibility to wait for their journey or alight under the cover of a roof.5 This was a sharp departure from earlier designs, which basically consisted of a “stationary umbrella” and a separate administration building. It was also a very large building for the time, and by far the city’s biggest railway station, containing a generously-proportioned shed (100 meters long, 18 meters wide, and 13 meters high) forged out of cast-iron beams.
The new station was also the first serious attempt at an integrated “transport hub” for the Prussian capital. It possessed dedicated sections of the building for entrance and exit, facilities for local transport (mostly coaches and cabs), a luggage department where luggage left by departing passengers at the entrance could be picked up again on arrival, and comfortable waiting rooms for the three classes of passengers. No longer were passengers forced to face snowstorms or downpours immediately after alighting, or go in a desperate search for further transportation.
Unfortunately, they were still subjected to gusts of wind. For all its cleverness, the Hamburger did come with some drawbacks too, showing just how experimental these structures still were. First of all, those two gates made the hall awfully drafty. The turntable was removed in 1874, and replaced by a sliding bed at the front of the hall. This allowed the portals to be covered with glass, which markedly improved the climate inside the shed.
The separation between arriving and departing passengers was even more strict than elsewhere since there was no common platform. But in practice, this hardly ever became a major issue because – contrary to, for instance, the Potsdamer Bahnhof – the station only served a single line.
Like almost every structure in Berlin, the new station was soon overwhelmed by the increase in passenger turnover as a result of the city’s explosive growth. When the line to Lehrte and Hannover was hooked up to Berlin’s rail network in 1869, the Berlin to Lehrte railway company opted to build an entirely new station for connections to the north, rather than rebuilding the Hamburger jointly with the Hamburg company.
For the time being, the Hamburger therefore remained in service, receiving a renovation in 1877 that lengthened the platforms to 140 meters so it could be used for twelve-axle trains. This was left to Neuhaus’s son Max, who took care to respect his father’s design for the original building.
However, after the construction of the Stadtbahn in 1882 most traffic to Lehrte was handled by the new line from the Schlesischer, which freed up the Lehrter Bahnhof as the station for Hamburg. The 1884 nationalization of the railway line was the nail in its coffin; schedules were rationalized and simplified, and the Hamburger found itself out of a job.
Living at the station
But unlike the Küstriner Bahnhof, where no one really knew what to do with a huge abandoned building, the Hamburger continued to do what it had done since the beginning: provide living quarters for railway (now state railway) personnel. The area was rife with railway installations, and to have staff housed in the vicinity was tremendously useful. The shed, platforms, and tracks were removed and turned into an (apparently quite pleasant) garden for the occupants.
Unfortunately for the tenants, it wouldn’t last. Plans to found a transport museum had been floating around since the 1870s. At one point, it was even considered using the then brand-new Lehrter station as an exhibition space as it was next to an exhibition area anyhow (the LDAP).
The First Museum
The question came to a head when no new home could be found for the many expensively made exhibits Germany had sent to the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exhibition in St. Louis. Within months of the issue becoming a political one, the old Hamburger station was chosen as the venue for the capital’s Verkehrs- und Baumuseum. Plans were made, tenants were evicted.
It is important to realize how much pride the German and Prussian authorities took in the presentation of German science and engineering during these years. In Munich, the foundation of the Deutsches Museum von Meisterwerken der Naturwissenschaft und Technik (“German Museum of Masterworks of Science and Technology”, opened 1907) was well underway, the Hygiene Museum in Dresden was in the works, and the first efforts towards the foundation of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society were undertaken.6 Surely, no effort was to be spared in erecting a museum dedicated to transport, one of Germany’s proudest technical areas of achievement?
As the old shed had been removed during the station’s conversion to an apartment block a new one, somewhat lower than the original, was installed as the main exhibition space.7 Further exhibits were set up in what used to be the entrance and exit buildings. The museum was not only dedicated to transport technology, but also to waterways and construction, and these were exhibited in the rooms next to the shed. The portals at the front now became the museum entrance (as they still are today).
On December 14, 1906, the new museum was ceremonially opened by Emperor Wilhelm II. From the outset, it proved to be a huge success and a massive audience magnet. However, soon a very Berlin-ish problem again reared its head. As new exhibits continued flooding in, lack of space became an issue, provoking the construction of two wings (in 1910 and 1915-6, respectively) at the front of the complex. Unlike some other cases (I’m looking at you, Ostbahnhof), the architect of these new extensions took great care to have them blend in with the older building. Even today, it’s difficult to make out they’re over fifty years younger.
Over the next thirty years, as the collections kept expanding, and the museum became one of Berlin’s most beloved venues. During the Nazi years, another renovation was undertaken, but they might as well not have bothered because with the hostilities of World War came the bombs. Situated in the middle of a rail yard and assorted industry, the museum’s fate was sealed.
Starting in 1943, the old station was hit repeatedly. The shed (and the objects kept inside) miraculously survived, but particularly the old exit and entrance buildings on the side suffered. The entire eastern flank of the building had burnt out to a shell by the time the Battle for Berlin started. At the end of April of 1945, a confrontation between Russian and German troops ensued over the bridge adjacent to the building; because it stood somewhat away from the road it was spared wholesale annihilation, but took multiple shells nonetheless.
To make matters worse, many of the smaller objects were plundered from the ruin after the war – by Russian soldiers and Berliners alike, it seems. Scarcity had turned the metals of which many objects were made into sought-after commodities, but wagons were also stripped of fabrics and even furniture to re-decorate the many ravaged houses in the city. Many of the larger objects were shipped off to the Soviet Union, including an imperial wagon that remains missing.8
Cold War Madness
What follows next is a cornucopia of absurdity only seen in Cold War Berlin. After the war, direction of the German railways was granted to the Soviets and, by consequence, to the German Democratic Republic after it was founded in 1949. The now-GDR Reichsbahn continued to own the museum, since it was formally a station building. The building itself was housed in the British sector of West Berlin, however.
When the West Berlin authorities took possession of their sector’s railway infrastructure in 1953, everyone forgot about the Hamburger Bahnhof. As a consequence, what remained of the building was left to decay, with only British military personnel being allowed to enter the museum. The structure itself continued to deteriorate into the 1980s. There was, however, an important upshot: due to this situation the building was saved from West Berlin’s post-war demolition drive.
In 1984, control over the S-Bahn was granted to the western authorities, who now also came to own the museum for the sum of three million Deutschmarks (a welcome injection of funds for the East German authorities).
This allowed for some admittedly basic maintenance works, but by that time the Hamburger’s time as Berlin’s traffic museum had already ended. In 1982, a new German Museum of Technology was opened to house many of its collections. Rather than using the crumbling ruin of the Hamburger, the new museum used the old roundhouses of the Anhalter Bahnhof locomotive depot to display its railway collection. With that, the building ceased to have any real purpose.
Museum Number Two
And just as had been the case with the transport museum, it was a collection waiting for a museum that led to the Hamburger becoming re-purposed, this time as an art museum. In the 1980s, the art collector Erich Marx had donated his collection to the city of Berlin. Looking for a suitable venue, the Berlin Senate decided to house it in the abandoned station.
While renovations were going on, the situation changed again in the early 1990s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall. From its peripheral position in a little-loved corner of a forgotten city, the Hamburger suddenly became a prominent building in the frenetically re-developed new center of the German capital.
This opened up new possibilities. When German President Richard von Weizsäcker opened the new museum in 1996, it had been transformed. Architect Joseph Paul Kleihues, like his predecessors, had the good sense to remain faithful to Neuhaus’s original style. Inside, however, it looks little like the original building, with the exception of the eastern wing, which still breathes some of the Wilhelmine spirit.
What you see today is a historical patchwork, and in spite of appearances little of the original station remains. Yet as an ensemble, it works very well, because each of the parties that added, extended, amended, and renovated took care to respect Neuhaus’s style. That shows a respect that, certainly in Berlin, is anything but self-evident.
Unfortunately, the status of the station building remains uncertain. Although the SPK (Stiftung Preussisches Kulturbesitz) exploits the museum, little appears to have been officially put to paper. It has no official lease, it seems, nor does it pay any rent. The owner of the complex, an Austrian investment firm, is currently building new housing on the site of the old Rieck halls. And although the state is in negotiations, at the time of writing nothing has really been concluded yet.
If you want to know more about the history of the station, there are unfortunately very few resources in English. As for German references, the most complete source of information is Holger Steinle’s Bahnhof auf dem Abstellgleis, written before the building was renovated in the 1990s. Christine Brühl’s Hamburger Bahnhof is a brief treatment of its history, which focuses rather more on its present role and therefore supplies a good addendum to Steinle’s book.
- Brühl, Christine. Der Hamburger Bahnhof. Der historische Ort 53. Berlin: Kai Homilius, 2003.
- Hallfahrt, Hans-Günter. “Berlin – Eisenbahn und Stadtentwicklung.” ICOMOS – Hefte des Deutschen Nationalkomitees 9 (1993): 48–59. https://doi.org/10/ghstcv.
- Steinle, Holger. Ein Bahnhof auf dem Abstellgleis. Der Ehemalige Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin und seine Geschichte. Berlin: Silberstreif, 1983.
- Stüler, Friedrich August, and Johann Heinrich Strack. “Entwurf zu einem Abfahrtsgebäude für Eisenbahnen oder einem Bahnhof.” Edited by Eduard Knoblauch, Wilhelm Salzenberg, Gotthilf Ludwig Runge, Friedrich August Stüler, and Johann Heinrich Strack. Architektonisches Album. Redigirt vom Architekten-Verein zu Berlin durch Stüler, Knoblauch, Salzenberg, Strack, Runge 2 (1838): 4–8, XI, XII.
- Winkler, Dirk. Eisenbahnmetropole Berlin 1894 bis 1934. Berlin: EK-Verlag, 2015.
Yes, I know this sounds weird to anyone used to consuming flattened beef patties, but I’m sticking with it. ↩
To give you an idea of numbers: in 1840 Berlin counted 322,000 inhabitants; Hamburg just under 140,000. Other larger cities such as Munich or Bremen remained well below 100,000 inhabitants at a time where Germany was still mostly an agrarian country. By the time the Hamburger Bahnhof opened, however, Berlin’s number had grown to over 400,000. That doesn’t include many suburbs that weren’t part of Berlin then but are now, such as Charlottenburg or Steglitz. ↩
Today, it’s just under two hours if you take a high-speed train, but can run for over four hours on slower connections. ↩
See Stüler & Strack 1838. ↩
I say this because there is so little information about the original Stettiner Bahnhof; but from what we have it looks like something not dissimilar from other early Berlin stations. ↩
The KWI was the forebear of today’s Max Planck Society. ↩
This new shed is often assumed to be the original one, further adding to the lore of “Berlin’s oldest preserved railway station”. See, for instance, Hallfahrt 1993. ↩
See Brühl 2003, p. 21. ↩