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If Buildings Could Talk...

DW staff / dpa (ncy)April 22, 2007

After years of standing empty, a new chapter is about to dawn for a Bauhaus-designed building in Berlin that was used by Hitler's Nazi Party and later as the East German Communist Party's headquarters.

From Nazis to communists to luxury club for the richImage: picture-alliance
A British investor, after having splashed out millions on buying the premises, is set to convert it the once handsome building in the city's Prenzlauer Berg district into an elite "Soho House Media Club," complete with 42-seat cinema, swimming pool, roof-top fitness club, bars, restaurants and posh apartments on two floors.

The club will be modeled on highly exclusive establishments found in London's Soho and New York's Manhattan districts, where entrance is restricted to club members and specially invited guests only, and membership costs around 900 euros ($1,224) annually.

The publicity-shy British investor has commissioned the JSK architectural bureau in Berlin to carry out renovations on the downtrodden Berlin building, which remains a listed property and is located near the former communist Palace of the Republic, which is now being demolished.

Department store turned party HQ

The building's history in Prenzlauer Berg dates back to 1928-29 when Jewish business partners Hermann Golluber and Hugo Halle invested their life savings in a department store in Lothringerstrasse, now renamed Torstrasse, where customers could purchase goods on credit.
Laden nach der Kristallnacht Nazi Deutschland
The Nazis forced all Jews out of businessImage: AP

But its history was chequered from the start. Within a few years, its two owners were to be robbed of their premises by the Nazis, and forced to flee the country. Golluber found refuge in America.

"Aryanized," by the new "German" owners, the building was later sold to the regime, which turned it into a Nazi Party Youth headquarters from 1942. The German Youth Leadership, or Reichsjugendfuerhrung, supervised leisure activities of 9 million members of the Hitler Youth from there.

Then, in the early postwar years, the building became the "Haus der Einheit," or House of Unity, and served as the seat of the East German Communist Party from 1946-56. Two powerful communist party leaders, Wilhelm Pieck and Otto Grotowohl worked there. The street also renamed Wilhem Pieck Strasse.

Later, the building housed the East German Communist Party archives, and the Central Committee's Historical Institute.

But that chapter ended in late 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell, and the East German Communist Party itself was confined to history's rubbish bin a few months later.

Years of neglect

For the past 12 years the building, within sight of the city's soaring TV tower on Alexanderplatz, has lain empty and was steadily decaying; its interior walls peeling, parquet floor rotting and electrical installations destroyed.
Alexanderplatz bei Nacht
The area around Alexanderplatz has undergone huge changes since the Wall went downImage: Kay Herschelmann

After the city's reunification, it was legally returned to the Jewish family descendants of the original owners, scattered across the world, who finally managed to sell the property to a British investor.

Earlier in the week, Rainer Eppelmann, a former fierce opponent of the East German communist regime, together with Andre Schmitz, a Berlin government (culture) state secretary, unveiled a stele outside the "Haus der Einheit."

Texts written in four languages and exhibited behind a sealed glass panel explain the building's turbulent, near 80-year-old history.

"Remembrance needs location, but remembrance also needs knowledge and recognition," said Eppelmann, when noting that there were today few survivors remaining to tell of the building's convulsive past.

"If houses could relate history, this one would have enough for a complete novel," Smitz said.

Converting the property into the Soho House Media Club is expected to take 16 months, and it is expected to open sometime in 2008.

Guenter P.J. Buerk, one of JSK's partners in Berlin, says the British investor's "Club-Hotel" project aims to create an exclusive meeting place for artists and top media representatives from around the world.