Andre Gifkins cycles to the Spreewald to witness a one-of-a-kind royal train restoration…
I‘m a big fan of the fact Berlin has so many old buildings that have been left to rack and ruin. They look cool and suggest a history far, far beyond my personal experience.
Most decay slowly, before escalating land prices eventually entice developers into buying the property the building is on. The structure itself, perhaps an old wood mill or a water processing facility, is then promptly knocked to the earth.
The alternative—restoration and repurposing—is much harder work. So it was with surprise that I heard that one of my compatriots from New Zealand was doing exactly this in the small town of Halbe, about 60km to the south of Berlin. When I was further informed that he was restoring an entire railway station, I had to go and visit.
Realising that Halbe was within cycling distance of Berlin, I arranged to visit the owner, Peter Macky, and started planning the route.
Macky is a commercial lawyer from Auckland. Taking advantage of the hemispheres, he avoids the cold altogether with an annual migration to the welcoming warmth of the Berlin summer. Quickly developing an affinity both with Berlin’s architectural history and its way of life, he has been coming for several years now.
Cycling here was another revelation for Macky: Berlin’s flatness and generous cycling lanes are a positive epiphany for someone from New Zealand, or specifically Auckland, where cycling anywhere essentially means traversing the extinct volcanos upon which the city is built.
Relishing the freedom of the bicycle, Macky, with entrepreneurial gusto, set up a cycle tour business, which he operates largely for New Zealand tourists. It was on one of these trips that he came upon an abandoned railway station that was for sale. Curiosity bit and soon he found himself in a negotiation process that would, I suspect even to his own surprise, end up with him owning his very own piece of German rail history.
Our ride to Halbe was very pleasant, with country roads, lakes, forest and quiet towns colouring our route from Königs Wusterhausen southwards. The area feels very much a summer retreat for Berliners, with holiday homes and camping sites dotted around the lakes.
We rolled into town just after lunch and quickly found our destination: the great thing about train station is, of course, that you just follow the tracks. Peter was to be found in the woodshed, which serves as the project management office. He was busy discussing details with architect Sven Teske and a reporter from the local newspaper, so we decided to have a look round.
In its day, Halbe station was more than just your average Bahnhof. Built in 1865 during the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm I, it was a receiver train station reserved for the exclusive use of Germany’s emperors. Named the Kaiserbahnhof Halbe, it was used by Wilhelm’s son, Emperor Frederick III, and his grandson Kaiser Wilhelm II right up to 1912, when the station was converted to civilian residential use.
It was built by August Orth, who completed several buildings under the Kaiser’s patronage, and is generally regarded as one of the most important architects in Berlin in the second half of the 19th century. Orth was also the architect behind the original Görlitzer Bahnhof, which was all but destroyed in World War Two, although its service building still stands in what is now Görlitzer Park.
Serving mainly as the starting point for royal hunts around the Dahme-Spreewald region, the main room of the station would have been off limits to anyone but His Majesty and guests. The original interior comprised three rooms (‘Vestibule’, ‘Waiting room for the Emperor’ and ‘Room for the Attendants’) with complex and magnificent painted ceilings. In 1912, the space was converted into apartments with intermediate partition walls and ceilings that hid much of the original space.
Already in disrepair, the station was converted to housing during the latter part of the twentieth century, and has remained unused since the reunification of Germany. Inheriting a building with smashed windows, a rotten roof and heavily damaged brickwork, Macky has begun to return this historical building back to its former 1865 state glory—one step at a time. Up a narrow staircase on the top level, there is a room with picturesque views down the rail tracks and across the town which Macky is planning to convert into an apartment for his own use.
Despite the graceful archways and domed ceiling, however, I am surprised at the room’s humble proportions, although in all likelihood the Kaiser would have spent very little time here at all. Perhaps a cup of tea and a quick Kit-Kat was all they would have fancied before heading out to the hunt.
A new roof was finished in time for the last winter, and work has now turned to restoring the turrets and other masonry. Wanting to employ locally, Macky asked the mayor to recommend a bricklayer.
The mayor promptly reported back that this would be impossible, as the only bricklayer in the area was well and truly retired; but Macky refused to give up and succeeded in bringing this bricklayer, one Erich Pätschke, out of retirement. Erich can now be seen scaling the walls of the building, albeit at his own steady pace.
Macky wants the two main ground-floor rooms to house a café and a museum of the area’s history. And history is something the town has in spades. Halbe is home to Germany’s largest cemetery for soldiers from World War Two, with 15,000 German combatants buried there.
The town was a focal point towards the end of the war, with the 80,000 troops that made up the German 9th Army finding themselves encircled by Soviet forces. Realising the hopelessness of the situation, German commanders ignored the increasingly irrational orders coming from Berlin and made a last ditch attempt to break out through the Soviet lines in order to flee west and surrender to the Americans, the final chapter of this action becoming known as the Battle of Halbe.
In contrast to this sombre history, the Halbe district is also home to the truly bizarre Tropical Islands resort, the world’s largest indoor water park, where shivering, sun-starved punters can go for a bit of Caribbean-style R&R all year round. Not that we did, but I am intrigued…
The Bahnhof project has already attracted a lot of attention, as any major project in a town with little over 2,000 inhabitants is bound to do. The Brandenberg daily Markische Allgemeine has been following progress closely and Macky has hosted a couple of meet-and-greets with local authorities and businesses.
As the scale of the project quickly become apparent, Macky, who is only in Germany for part of the year, was estimating that it would take at least five years. Recently however, things have turned in his favour: Halbe and the surrounding district is an economically depressed area, and the government has been looking for projects such as these to inject growth into the region.
As such. the project has secured significant funding from both the Federal and State governments. There’s a catch, however: the Federal Government’s 2014 deadline means Erich the bricklayer is going to have to get moving.
The restoration was completed between 2016 and 2019 and include a new building, known as the ‘Neubau’, to the north of the Kaiserbahnhof. This new building houses the kitchen, lavatories and ‘back of house’ for the cafe. A major feature of the restoration was the garden, which is now fully restored, based on the 1865 plan. Also restored, were the two flagpoles which grace the building’s north and south gable. They were an important feature of August Orth’s 1865 design, were removed some time ago and have now been rebuilt.
You can find out more info and also see images of the finished project on the station’s dedicated website.