What is the Nikolaiviertel?
The Nikolaiviertel is a historic quarter of Berlin that was established in the 13th century and then restored and rebuilt in the 20th century.
Berlin’s medieval origins are not widely known, partly because hardly any of its early architecture has survived. The area you’re standing in, now known as Nikolaiviertel (or Nicholas Quarter), was the earliest incarnation of Berlin, the site of a diminutive town which sprung up in the early 13th century.
800 years ago, the River Spree was an important trade route connecting as it does with the Elbe, which runs towards modern-day Czech Republic, in one direction, and towards Hamburg and the ocean in the other. Watermills were built where the road crossed the river, and the ford constructed here became known as Mühlendamm (literally ‘mill dam’). Tradesmen and labourers, eager for work, settled on either side of this busy river crossing, and a bridge was built to serve the area’s growing industries. The first written reference to these settlements, called Berlin (or nowadays Old Berlin) and Cölln, which merged in the early 18th century, was made in two mid-13th-century deeds. Nikolaiviertel is named after the medieval church of St Nicholas, which dates from around the same time, and is the oldest surviving church in the city.
The last working mill in Nikolaiviertel was shut down in 1888, and by 1892 it had been demolished; within four short years of dereliction, a milling tradition of several centuries had vanished. The area was mostly destroyed in the Battle of Berlin at the very end of the Second World War, but a fragment of the ancient city wall survived the bombing, which you’ll find on Littenstrasse (just east of here).
The Berlin Wall was erected in 1961, and Nikolaiviertel was caught on the Eastern side. Beyond the reach of unregulated capital’s ceaseless appetite for development, it lay in ruins until the 1980s, when the East German government decided to rebuild the medieval quarter to commemorate Berlin’s 750th year. Behind the project lay an ulterior motive: it was intended to cultivate the national pride and loyalty of East Germans, as Soviet influence and the ideology of socialist internationalism weakened throughout eastern Europe and Germany. It took eight years to design and rebuild Nikolaiviertel; within just three years of its completion the Berlin Wall had fallen.
The new Nikolaiviertel is far from an authentic recreation of what came before, and over the years this has provoked criticism. Some buildings, such as the ‘13th-century’ courthouse and the Zum Nussbaum inn, have been sympathetically replicated. Others, though, feature Gothic arches mixed with 19th-century and Baroque ornamentation. The paving stones and pillars of many buildings are made from concrete block, a visual reference to the Soviet origins of the project. Of course, many buildings across Europe display a hodgepodge of architectural features and styles; it’s easy to forget that buildings outlive us, and can be added to. What’s more, Günter Stahn, the architect who oversaw the project, never claimed historical accuracy. He wanted to rebuild the historic centre from the memory of its citizens, and envisaged his project as the outcome of Berliners’ collective imagination.
One of Nikolaiviertel’s most straightforwardly faithful reconstructions is the Ephraim-Palais, which sits on the corner of Poststrasse. However, it’s not a medieval building, and its elaborate Rococo façade gives it away. It was built in the 1760s and belonged to Veitel Heine Ephraim, the Jewish court jeweller and mint master to King Frederick II of Prussia (also known as Frederick the Great), who had become one of Berlin's wealthiest men. In 1936, it was dismantled to make way for a housing development and its façade was stored in West Berlin for decades, only to be returned to the East in the 1980s to aid Nikolaiviertel’s reconstruction. Today, the restored Ephraim-Palais sits just a few metres away from its original site.
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