A Historical Walk Through Hamburg's Warehouse District

Discover the past of Hamburg's World Heritage Site.

Historical walk 1

Welcome to our historical city walk around the Hamburg warehouse district! The bridge we are standing on now is called Brooksbrücke. It has been – and still is – one of the main entrances to the warehouse district, coming from the city centre.

Brooksbrücke after the celebration (29 October 1888) by unbekanntSpeicherstadt und Kontorhausviertel mit Chilehaus

Historical walk 2

Kaiser Wilhelm II ceremoniously put the keystone in its place on 29 October 1888. It was a so-called Emperor’s Day – all the children had a day off school and thousands of people came to witness the grandiose inauguration of the warehouse district by the highest authority’s own hands.

The bridge`s delicate and ornate gate made of bricks fell prey to the bombings to the bombings of World War II. The keystone however was saved ...

Historical walk 3

… and is now part of the flood protection wall, easily recognisable due to its golden letters.  

Historical walk 4

Having crossed the bridge, we can now look back at the city centre. On the pedestal you see a statue resembling Kaiser Friedrich Barbarossa. Allegedly, on 7 May 1189 he issued a document which allowed merchants to store their goods customs-free in Hamburg. We now know that this document was in fact a forgery that the sly inhabitants of Hamburg had issued themselves 75 years after this date. Nevertheless, 7 May still is a day of celebration in Hamburg – we call it “Hafengeburtstag”, the birthday of Hamburg harbour.

Even though Kaiser Friedrich Barbarossa hadn’t applied his signature to any such document, the exemption from duty stayed in effect for centuries. However, when Hamburg became part of the German Empire in 1871, it was only a matter of time before the city merged into the German customs territory, effective in 1888.

Brooksfleet (27 June 1932) by Gustav WerbeckSpeicherstadt und Kontorhausviertel mit Chilehaus

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But the clever Hamburgers obtained an exceptional regulation: The free harbour was an area unattached to the customs territory. The warehouse district became the free harbour’s key storage area. Therefore, goods remained “uncleared” until they left the warehouse district.

Historical walk 6

Having walked another 50 metres into the warehouse district, we are now standing on “Sandbrücke”, or Sand Bridge. Along the waterway you can see a typical array of storage buildings opposite the boiler house.

Back in the day, the boiler house used to be the powerhouse of the warehouse district, producing the energy needed to power the hydraulically operated rope winches used in each and every storage unit. At the top of the buildings you can see green oriel-like structures – this is where the ropes emerged, hooks attached to their ends, to lift the goods up to the different floors. These rope winches must have seemed very advanced to the people back then, leaving them almost as much in awe as they probably were about the electric lights! The warehouse district was the first place in Hamburg where you could literally flip the switch. The power, of course, came from the boiler house.

Construction of the steel structure of block E (1890) by Georg KoppmannSpeicherstadt und Kontorhausviertel mit Chilehaus

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The warehouse district’s first sector was built in next to no time. Its construction only took five years, and the inauguration was in 1888, as you already know. Little by little, other sectors were quickly added over the following decades, as by the time of the inauguration, the first sector was already far too small.

Brooksgraben (1880) by Johann Heinrich StrumperSpeicherstadt und Kontorhausviertel mit Chilehaus

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But what was this place like before the warehouse district was built? There are no remains of any buildings left today. The reason is that they were knocked down mercilessly, meaning some 20,000 people were forced to resettle – and all to make room for the storehouses.

This picture is from 1880, only a few years before the warehouse district was built. A big part of this area consisted of lean, crammed houses and narrow alleys. Hygenic standards were low and diseases could spread easily.

Historical walk 9

This waterway we are passing now could tell us a story of days long passed: It is called “Wandrahmsfleet”, the bridge in front of us is called “Wandrahmsfleetbrücke”. The “Wandrahm” used to be a small river island where cloth manufacturers made cloth and garments up until the 17th century. After dying and milling the fabric, they stretched it onto large frames and put it out to dry right here.

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Here we find another hint of what the warehouse district was like before the construction of its storehouses. The sign reads “Holländischfleet-Brücke”. During the 17th and 18th centuries, merchants from the Netherlands took up residence here. While the western part of the area was populated mainly by workers and craftsmen crammed together in narrow alleyway neighbourhoods, this place shone in splendour, displaying the most beautiful bourgeois townhouses. All the same, even those were demolished to make room for the warehouse buildings.

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Nevertheless, in the end the reorganisation produced some quite pretty buildings, too. You have probably already noticed the so-called water castle here, standing a little apart. This building was the home and workplace of the workers that operated and maintained the warehouse district’s many rope winches. They were some of the few people that were privileged to live inside the warehouse district.

Administration office of the "Hamburger Freihafen-Lagerhaus-Gesellschaft" (c. 1905) by Franz Schmidt, Otto KofahlSpeicherstadt und Kontorhausviertel mit Chilehaus

Historical walk 12

This building here is quite impressive even set against the high standard of its surroundings, isn’t it? No wonder people call it “the town hall of the warehouse district”. One reason for its evocative name is that since 1903 it has been the home of the institution in charge of the construction and administration of the warehouse district: Hamburger Freihafen Lagerhaus-Gesellschaft, today known as Hamburg Harbour Logistics Incorporated. But this "town hall" got its nickname for another reason, as the architects in charge of planning the actual town hall in the city centre also planned this building.

Historical walk 13

And this is how the building looks today. On the other side of the road, in stark contrast, you can see a very modern building, the former “Freihafenamt” or free harbour office. After World War II, this building emerged as part of the reconstruction of the warehouse district. Rebuilding the warehouse district is inextricably linked with the architect Werner Kallmorgen. It was he who also planned this building.

Block R after the offensive in 1944 (July 1944) by Herausgeber: Strom- und HafenbauSpeicherstadt und Kontorhausviertel mit Chilehaus

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These are the ruins of the storage building that stood here before. The picture was taken after an air raid in July 1944.

After the war, half of the warehouse district lay in ruins. Newly constructed buildings, like the one we just saw before, were established in the parts beyond remedy.

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However, wherever Kallmorgen saw the slightest opportunity of restoring an area, he took another path: Although the frontage of this building opposing the boiler house had been badly hit, he had the bomb damage repaired little by little – a very fiddly process indeed! Parts destroyed beyond repair were restored true to the original – brick by brick. You can easily point out old and new parts thanks to the different colour scheme of the brickworks.

The warehouse district has been under monumental protection since 1991. In 2015, UNESCO listed the area as World Heritage Site. It is highly likely that Kallmorgen’s detailed restoration work contributed to this honour.

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Having reached the end of the walk, let’s have a look at the warehouse district in the world of today. The street “Am Sandtorkai” below us marks the southern boundry of the warehouse district. Today, it is also the crossing point to the neighbouring HafenCity. Therefore, we are standing between the mega construction project of the past and the mega construction project of today. Back then, here was Sandtorhafen, brought into operation in 1866 – 20 years before the warehouse district – at that time one of the most modern harbours of the world.

Credits: Story

Author: Johannes Huhmann, Waterkant Touren
Speaker: Alexander Böhm

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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