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  • Writer's pictureLucy Walker

A Brief History of the Rotes Rathaus in Berlin

What is the Rotes Rathaus?

The Rotes Rathaus is a Red-brick town hall in Berlin that was built in the 1860s and that serves as the seat of the Mayor and Senate of Berlin.

Rotes Rathaus History

Late-13th-century Berlin was an economically thriving settlement, thanks to its far-reaching trade routes along the River Spree. Its commercial success was recognised with an urban charter, which granted Berliners the right to govern themselves. Wealthy merchants and craftsmen, who aimed to promote Berlin’s commercial interests, would have dominated the new town council. An administrative centre was built in the 1270s to accommodate this new government. It comprised a town hall, a court arbour and a clock tower. The court arbour, which was moved to Babelsberg Park in Potsdam, was one of the oldest surviving secular buildings in Berlin.

By the mid-19th century, the old town hall had become dilapidated and could no longer accommodate all the administrative functions of a rapidly expanding city. It was razed to its foundations, despite a local campaign to preserve the historic building. The foundations were unearthed during the recent construction of the Rotes Rathaus U-Bahn station, and can be glimpsed through a glass archaeological window.

The new hall is colloquially known as Rotes Rathaus (or Red Town Hall) because of its façade, but historically it’s also been red in the political sense. When Berlin was partitioned in the 1940s, the town hall fell into the hands of the East German government who, in need of a municipal base, restored the bombed out Rathaus in great haste. In contrast to its tiny predecessor the new Rathaus is disproportionately large for a local government building; it has 247 rooms, which is nearly twice as many as the White House.

Close up of clock on the tower of Rotes Rathaus

The structure itself is a historicist hybrid of Renaissance and Romanesque styles while its round arched windows reference early-Christian Byzantine architecture. This mix of eras is typical of mid-19th-century European civic architecture when architects made a conscious move away from the rigid and stylistically limited Neoclassicism that had dominated much of the previous century. A terracotta frieze runs around the exterior of the Rathaus. It’s composed of 36 relief panels, which chart the history of Berlin, from the city’s founding in the 13th century to the beginnings of the German empire 600 years later.

With the unlikely intervention of the Soviet East German authorities, the Rathaus has survived into the 21st century and is today the seat of the Mayor and the Senate of Berlin. It’s adapted to the present time with a solar panel system on the building’s flat roof. In the winter months it serves as a picturesque backdrop to a traditional German Christmas market.

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