Until a few years ago, I could tell my stories about Eisenhüttenstadt and 99% of people wouldn’t know what the hell I was talking about. Then Tom Hanks went and ruined it. After the actor’s 2011 visit, and subsequent storytelling of it on the Letterman Show, “Iron Hut City” now occupies a tiny space in the popular consciousness and even the local tourism board has gotten into the action creating an unintentionally amusing video that uses Hanks’ visit as a jumping off point to lure visitors to eastern Brandenburg, an endeavour likely to bear little fruit.
Which is not to denigrate Eisenhüttenstadt. While it may have little to attract the average tourist, those with a passion for architecture, city planning and East German history will find much to explore. Over the years, I have the opportunity to visit “Hütte” four times and In this week’s post I’ll give a bit of background on the city history and share my experiences exploring the German Democratic Republic’s first “socialist city”.
1987 photo of Eisenhüttenstadt’s main street, Leninallee, which leads to the city’s steel mill (photo: Peukert).
Whenever I’m in Germany, I try to spend some time in places which evoke the former-East. With the passage of time, this has become increasingly difficult, but there’s one destination which has never failed to engage my powers of imagination: Berlin’s Karl-Marx-Allee. I think part of the reason is that the Allee today is quite dead, the relative calm allowing one to project one’s thoughts onto the scene without much competition from a contradictory present.
The Allee was in two phases between the early 1950s and mid-1960s and as a result the street manages to embody a significant chunk of the GDR’s architectural history and since it also served as the stage for some of the country’s most important events, there’s never a shortage of interesting things to observe and consider. (I’ve written a lengthy piece on the Allee’s history which includes a number of, if I do say so myself, fine pictures, so if you have have any interest in that angle on things, I’d encourage you to click here.)
Meissen Porcelain Tile
Meissen porcelain tile removed from Allee block during renovations – approx. 30 cm X 22 cm
Backside of tile
First up is an original Meissen porcelain tile removed from one of the Allee’s apartment blocks during the renovations which took place in the 1990s/early 2000s. The choice of Meissen porcelain for the facades of the Allee’s buildings was intended to underscore their status as “Workers’ Palaces”, however, the material proved ill-suited for the task at hand and by late-period GDR, falling tiles were a real hazard on the Allee. During renovations in the late 90s/early 00s, all the exterior tiles were removed a number of these were saved to be sold as a fundraiser (how I got mine) for a social service agency which operates the Cafe Sibylle, one of the few GDR-era businesses to have survived unification. Even if you’re not keen to acquire a porcelain tile from the Karl-Marx-Allee as a souvenir, it’s worth seeking out the cafe if you visit Berlin as they have lovely homemade cakes and a very good exhibit on the history of the Allee.