Targeted by the RAF during World War II for seven weeks in 1943 with round-the-clock air attacks, including a single night when more than 700 bombers were used against the city, Düsseldorf lost more than 60 percent of its built-up areas. But high-octane reconstruction after the war transformed this wrecked city into a viable engine of Germany’s economic growth. With all those new buildings, I was glad to see some pre-war survivors. Some escaped relatively unscathed; others suffered serious damage and were rebuilt. These are my favorites.
#1 St. Andrew’s Church (Andreaskirche)
On my way to the Christmas markets in Düsseldorf, St. Andrew’s Church was the first building to catch my eye, what with its putty and cheerful yellow façade, twin towers, and arched and porthole windows. I was puzzled by its understated frontispiece, given the church’s pedigree—a South German baroque house of worship completed in 1629 after only seven years of construction for the Jesuits (and now the priory church for the local Dominican friars). A Sunday morning service was letting out, so I decided to pop in for a peek, and was shocked and utterly delighted by the grandeur belied by the exterior. With its fine life-size sculptures of the apostles and of saints of the Society Jesus standing on consoles of different designs; wonderful organ; ornate pulpit encrusted with sculpted figures, angels, fruits, and nuts; and a high altar built in 1960 after the old one was destroyed during the Second World War (and which doesn’t really blend in well), St. Andrew’s was proving a veritable feast for my eyes. But it’s the church’s incredible stucco work that makes it so unforgettable. White stucco sculpting that looks like rich, delicate meringue frosts the church’s surfaces, from the ceiling down, to the pendentives and the different paterae in the soffits of the arches, to the winged angel heads above the statues. Gold leaf, used sparingly, shows up in little flashes, like the trim of an apostle’s robe or a shooting star. Dozens of religious figures are sculpted into triangular panels, and I spent a fair amount of time hunting for my favorites—St. Stephen on his knees in supplication, holding one of the stones that killed him; St. Mark hard at work writing his gospel, accompanied by his symbolic lion; St. George slaying the dragon with a lance through the beast’s eye. This luscious craftsmanship remains unmatched in the city.
#2 Basilica of St. Lambertus (Sankt Lambertus Basilika)
Facing the Rhine River and surrounded by cobblestone walkways, the Basilica of St. Lambertus stands as the oldest building in the city’s Old Town. Completed in 1394 (and reworked after a fire in 1815), it also holds a titillating little tale that is pure urban legend. Pope Paul VI designated the big brick church dedicated to St. Lambertus, a martyr who was murdered in 705, a minor basilica in 1974. I circumvented the building, admiring the tall Gothic windows in between buttresses. An outdoor sculptural grouping portrays the Crucifixion scene at Golgotha, with Christ on the cross flanked by the two thieves on their crosses (one turning to Him, hoping for redemption; the other turning away) and with Mary and John the Apostle. Inside, the three-aisled church mixes old and new. Four side altars, the elaborate pulpit and sounding board, confessionals from 1698, the exquisite sacrament house from 1478, the Pietà from 1400, and murals from the 15th century, for example, co-exist with windows from the 1960s and the tower organ from 1999. Simple, untitled Stations of the Cross line the walls of the ambulatory that wraps around the high altar. When I went back outside, I looked up at one of the oddest elements of Düsseldorf’s skyline—the spire. With clocks and turrets at its base, the spire rises and twists up to its point. The true story of its heteroclite form (a poor choice of materials) pales by comparison to the myths. Following the 1815 fire, the spire burned down and was rebuilt using unseasoned, damp timber, which twisted as it dried. The legends are better. One waxes that the devil, in a pique of rage, tried to rip the church right out of the ground but managed only to deform the spire. Another holds that an experienced bride scandalously getting married in a white dress in the church tried to pass herself as a virgin, and the spire twisted in shame; it will straighten itself out again when a true virgin marries in the church. Fact or fiction, this oddity is so well regarded by the city’s population that, after the spire was damaged during the Second World War, they requested it be rebuilt—with the twist.
#3 Steel Court (Stahlhof)
The seat of the city’s administrative court since 1971, this spectacular building began its life in 1908 as an office building for up to 500 employees of the German Steelworks Association. No one could have imagined the role it would play over the next few decades. During World War I, the German Steel Federation took up residency here, coordinating iron and steel deliveries to the military. After Germany’s defeat, French units seized the building, booted out the steelworks, and used it as their command center and as accommodations for its general staff. After Germany’s next loss, in World War II, the building, which escaped the conflict practically unscathed, became the command center for first the American and then the British occupying forces, the latter of which remained until 1958. Here, decisions were made regarding the creation of states and provinces in the new West Germany, and Düsseldorf was designated the capital of a newly founded state. The building’s architecture—a blend of Gothic and Art Nouveau—is as impressive as its history. Completed in only 27 months, this monumental gem employed only fireproof materials. Clad in attractive red sandstone, the façade is articulated by projections and recesses, decorated generously with sculptural figures representing industry and trade. Elongated pilasters rise up to carved human heads. Gables of various shapes and sizes define the roofline. The main entrance, with its soaring archway, is especially rich, particularly toward the top. A wonderful gable with piers with mechanical gears and sculptural groups, including a bunch of chained muscular men to the right, bears the name of the building in gold capital letters. Two eagles, with wings spread open, top the gable. Behind it, the copper roof turret, capped by a tall sail ship, has turned verdigris green and rests on a roof of eye-catching fish scale tiles of green, red, and yellow.
#4 Arts Academy (Kunstakadamie)
Astride the Rhine River, the massive Arts Academy has been attracting professors of high repute, as well as future artists entering as students, for a couple of centuries. Although the academy was founded in 1762 as a school of drawing, it didn’t arrive at its current home until more than 100 years later, when this building was completed in 1879. Like an Italian Renaissance palace on steroids, the three-story building is clad in limestone and brick, resting on an ashlar basement. Generously fenestrated with large windows, some arched, to allow plenty of light to enter artists’ studios, the building features an irregularly stepped roofline with balustrades, some topped with acroteria. A frieze that wraps around the building bears the names of 65 artists, from Michelangelo and Titian to Frans Hals, Donatello, van Eyck, and Rembrandt. Above the frieze, coats of arms of seven European cities fill in the spaces between window bays, and along the top floor, 18 artist portraits in medallions add flashes of color. Air raids during World War II severely damaged the academy, destroying its spectacular auditorium. After the war, it was rebuilt with a modern interior, but the outer walls that I found so attractive were retained. And for those attending classes here, an engraving in the stairway of the main entrance assures them of continued excellence despite the changes: “For our students, only the best.”
#5 Old Town Hall (Altes Rathaus)
Düsseldorf’s Old Town Hall provides a wonderful backdrop to the Christmas market right outside its doors in the market square, towering over the decorated trees and peaked roofs of the vendors’ stalls. Completed in the Renaissance style in 1573 as an office building and meeting place for mayors, lay judges, and the city council, its construction was a sign of the city’s upward trajectory. One end of the asymmetrical building is attached to a newer edifice; a gable terminates the other end. The main brick façade has two windowed gables with flagpoles on either side of a five-story, eight-sided stair tower that projects outward. The tower is a total treat, with something different on each level, separated by little cornices, starting with a pair of bright blue entrance doors on the ground level, and, heading north, a panel with the coat of arms of both the city and the United Duchy of Jülich-Kleve-Berg, to which the city belonged; a niche with a statue of blindfolded Justice, holding her scales; a simple window; and a clock. A lovely weathervane caps the tower. To the left of the tower, a three-step staircase leads to another couple of bright blue doors that grant entry into the main part of the building where wool weavers and other guilds used to sell their wares in two large halls. Above, the city’s coat of arms, golden lions with tongues lolling, holding an anchor, is incorporated into the grillwork. A small blindfolded head, Justice served again, is part of the stonework surrounding the door, and a small balcony above it all provides a space for a breath of fresh air for anyone inside, for a statesman to announce apprisals to a crowd in the square…or perhaps for Santa Claus to announce his arrival.
- St. John’s Church (Johanneskirche; 1881)
- Kaufhof Department Store (1909)
- Lion House (Lieferhaus; 1288)
- Church of the Immaculate Conception of St. Mary (Marienkirche, 1896)
- Gorres-Gymnasium (1906)
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