06/08/2012 12:31 PM

Castles without Kings

Saving the Palaces of the German Hinterland


The landed gentry filled the northeastern German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania with magnificent castles, manors and estates. But hundreds of them are now abandoned and falling apart. Will dreamers from the West come to the rescue?

Torsten Kunert originally wanted to buy a vacation house in the Aeolian Islands, north of Sicily. He also looked around in Tuscany and on the island of Mallorca, off Spain. In the end, the 50-year-old father of four chose a nearby castle, instead.

The Berlin businessman is standing at Lake Kummerow, a two-hour drive north of the German capital, pointing at his new property. It has a Baroque façade, 2,500 square meters (about 27,000 square feet) of living space and park-like gardens designed by the Prussian landscape architect Peter Joseph Lenné.

When asked what he paid for it, he hesitates before saying: "€136,000 ($171,000). A foreclosure auction."

During the ensuing tour, however, it quickly becomes obvious that he'll have to hire painters. Faded Lenin slogans cover the walls on the second floor. The building was used as a brothel after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Thieves stole the valuable floor tiles in the entrance hall. The columns are covered with dozens of coats of paint.

The new owner expects to pay between €4 million and €5 million to renovate the building, which he wants to turn into a photography museum -- and a residence for his family.

A perplexed look crosses his face as he gazes at the layers of dilapidation, consisting of crumbling plaster and collapsed stables. Perhaps the only reason Kunert is standing here is that his wife is from the United States. "In America," he says, "the concept of the pioneer is still alive and well. People there are still willing to take risks."

A Crumbling Architectural Heritage

Terms like Bonanza, Big Valley and the German period of rapid industrial expansion known as the Gründerzeit (Founding Period) come to mind. This kind of enthusiastic determination has become rare in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. The entire state feels despondent and powerless, and now it even stands to lose it architectural heritage.

Renaissance buildings, classical castles and Tudor-style manor houses are abundant in Germany's northeastern corner. Many are from the days in the 19th century when the landed gentry explosively increased their crop yields by introducing fertilizer made from bird droppings (guano).

But many of these once-magnificent structures are now in a state of severe disrepair. For the first time, the State Office of Historic Preservation in Schwerin, the state capital, has taken an inventory and inspected its crumbling legacy. Officials discovered that more than 400 feudal structures are in poor condition, require renovation or are in the process of falling apart.

A Battle against Time

Beatrix Dräger, a member of a group dedicated to preserving historic buildings in rural areas, spreads out a map covered with pink castle icons -- 203 in all. "Pink means empty," she says.

A string of haunted castles extends from the Elbe River, in the west, to the Baltic Sea island of Usedom, in the east. At the actual sites, though, pink means more than just empty; it means dripping gutters, crumbling plaster ceilings and the stench of mold and excessive moisture. Vandals have ripped out precious mantles, gardens are overgrown and moats have become marshy.

For some of the estates, it's already too late. A moated castle in Divitz, near the Baltic Sea town of Barth, is crumbling. The Löwitz Manor was bulldozed in April. Grellenbert Castle collapsed without any outside help.

Dräger reacts with frustration and removes the ruins from the list of historic landmarks. "We would need a bailout fund for acute structural damage," she says.

Too Much Opulence, Too Little Money

While Berlin's elites like to vacation in Sardinia or refurbish dilapidated wineries in the south of France, Germany's historical legacy is wasting away in their own backyard.

After German reunification, many old-house enthusiasts came to the area and converted run-down aristocratic estates into museums, nursing homes and drug-rehab clinics. Others converted historic structures into hotels, and the idea worked well. From Schaalsee Lake to the Oder River, guests can now stay in renovated castles and manors in which Kaiser Wilhelm may have once spent the night.

But the investors lacked the financial wherewithal to save all of the magnificent buildings from disintegration. The nobility of what was once called the East Elbia region had simply lived too ostentatiously, leaving behind a denser concentration of stately estates than anywhere else in Europe.

According to a study by the Ministry of Culture in Schwerin, there are 2,192 aristocratic estates in the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, of which 1,012 are registered as protected historical buildings. The condition of the others is unknown, meaning that some could be in even greater disrepair than expected.

Kingdoms for Pennies

Looking at Dräger's alarming map, one sees that the largest numbers of pink castle icons appears in areas away from the coast.

Cornelia Stoll lives in one of these zones of dilapidation. She runs a real estate agency specializing in very old properties in the town of Anklam, not far from the border with Poland. She is currently listing nine feudal structures, all at bargain-basement prices. One of them is Wrangelsburg Castle.

The entrance to the stucco building, named after a Swedish general from the Thirty Year' War, is reached by walking up a dilapidated ramp. Until recently, the town used the building for afternoon coffee parties. Old fitness equipment once used by young people in the village stands in the winter garden.

"It's a very quiet location," says Stoll, the broker, though "dead" might be a better word for the area. The population density in the municipality has declined to only 14 residents per square kilometer. But the price -- €120,000 -- is right.

Lüssow Castle, which lies near the Peene Valley, one of the most beautiful glacial valleys in northern Europe, can be had for even less: €100,000. With its towers and gables, the castle, built in 1867, could almost compete with Bavaria's fairy-tale Neuschwanstein Castle -- that is, if it weren't so run-down.

The 2,200-square-meter castle is filled with dark, gloomy ballrooms and suites. The windows are boarded up. "The current owner wanted to convert it into a retirement home," Stoll says. "He envisioned the old people driving tractors and making jam."

But the plan failed.

Dreams of Living in Castles

The broker is constantly hearing about such half-baked plans for using the estates. "We often see private individuals who dream of living the life of Rosamunde Pilcher," she says, referring to the British romance novelist who is hugely popular in Germany. A 2,000-square-meter house wouldn't deter these romantics. "They say: 'Well, our in-laws are going to move in with us."

But even commercial developers are often off the mark. When Treuhand, the government agency that privatized state-owned property and companies in the former East Germany after the Wall came down, sold the estates for little money in 1990, many dreamers seized the opportunity. One developer envisioned a children's hotel, while another hoped to build a four-story club for swingers. The adventurers promised booming businesses -- but, in the end, everything collapsed.

The baroque Bothmer Castle, on a 345-meter-long artificial island, was sold to an eccentric political scientist from western Germany for the symbolic price of one deutsche mark -- and then it fell apart.

According to the historic preservation agency, 121 of the uninhabited castles are currently "without prospects." They are threatened with "meteorological destruction," in other words, destruction by the elements.

From Dream to Dump

Ivenack Castle is in the worst shape of them all. The enormous Baroque estate -- which has "extremely high historical documentation value," according to preservation office files -- covers an area the size of 10 soccer fields. It includes a castle, a church, a teahouse, an orangery, royal stables and a caretaker's building. Roughly 2,000 serfs worked under the count who lived there around 1750.

The estate was famous for breeding thoroughbred horses. Napoleon had the stallion "Herodot" stolen from Ivenack. The poet Fritz Reuter compared the remote place to a "sleeping naiad."

Today, Ivenack looks like the biblical city of Sodom after God had punished it with fire and brimstone. The reason it's so dilapidated is that the estate has been owned since 1999 by a parquet-floor manufacturer from Stuttgart, in the opposite corner of Germany, who quickly ran out of money.

After visiting the site, Marion von Keller, 72, has to fight back the tears. "I used to play in the castle's attic as a child," she says. "It belonged to my uncle, we drove a carriage and it was the best time of my life." Now there is grass growing in the old decorative pond. Vaulted passageways exude a musty odor.

Fantasies about 'the Good Investors'

In all fairness to the owner, it should be pointed out that Ivenack already stood empty for certain stretches of time in the 1920s. Refugees lived there at the end of World War II, and the building was used as a nursing home during the East German era.

Almost all castles in eastern Germany suffered similar fates, sometimes because they were used and run into the ground by the socialist system. In many cases, this meant that their deterioration progressed even more rapidly. In Ivenack, a storm recently tore holes in the roof, and now water drips into the manor house, causing oak beams to rot and mold to grow in doorframes.

Every owner is subject to an "obligation to preserve" his property. But if they do nothing, the authorities can conduct repair work on their own initiative. But this costs money, which is usually a deterrent for cash-strapped local governments. "We are toothless tigers," says Dräger, the member of the historical preservation group.

But some angry communities are starting to fight back. A court recently ordered the buyers of the Johannstorf Manor to sell the dilapidated property back to the city of Dassow for €108,000.

Still, these are exceptions. Historic preservation agencies continue to cling to their visions of the good investor. Ideally, he or she is someone who appreciates art, is well-heeled and is sufficiently masochistic to want to spend his or her time fixing crumbly wooden dormers and, for reasons of authenticity, is willing to do without window seals.

Commitment and Sweat

But where are all these enthusiasts supposed to come from? How can the buildings be put to sensible use? While Berlin prides itself on being "poor but sexy," Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania has all the poverty but none of the sexiness. For some, it's too remote; for others, the Baltic Sea region is too cold.

And yet there are some people, those settling here with the pioneering spirit in their blood, who are bucking the trend and trying to keep the area's population from continuing to plummet and the countryside from being abandoned.

What the region need is a new Gründerzeit, says Burghard Rübcke von Veltheim, a period of fresh ideas and investments. The gray-haired owner of Quitzin Castle sits, with his calloused hands, in front of a blazing fire and says: "You have to commit yourself to the state and want to live here."

Rübcke is actually a minister. After German reunification, he paid a visit to the hunting estate that had once been in the family for the first time -- and was shocked by what he found. The roof was covered with corrugated metal, and some of the windows had been walled shut.

Rübcke wanted to buy back the estate. At a meeting with locals, he looked into the tanned faces of simple field hands and combine operators. "You really have to welcome us and accept our children," he said, "or we won't come."

The village mayor, a blacksmith, hesitated for a moment, but then he shook his hand and nodded.

The minister moved into the ramshackle manor house in this remote corner of Germany. Brownish water came out of the taps. The family slept on cots at first. Rübcke drove a tractor, learned how to farm and rebuilt the roof himself. He paved, dug, laid bricks and planted. He also worked part-time as a minister.

Today, the castle is a jewel, surrounded by parklands and billowing fields of grain.

"There's no reason for pessimism," Rübcke says. Despite the many problems, he believes that things are improving in the region. His fellow castle owner Torsten Kunert is even calling it a "boom."

Sings of an Upswing

Demand is already increasing in the most desirable areas. Stoll, the real estate broker in Anklam, is even reporting brisk demand in property in the remote area -- if only because of the tempting prices. Her cheapest listing is a run-down estate in the style of an English country house, complete with 40,000 square meters (almost 10 acres) of land. The asking price is €35,000.

No one can say whether the depressed region has finally bottomed out. But one thing is clear: The sunshine on Mallorca isn't any more appealing. The beaches of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania are covered with fine, white sand, and the region is blessed with exceptional wildlife.

"Nothing is about to turn into a wasteland here," says Rübcke as he walks us up his paved driveway to the wrought-iron gate. "Germany is far too industrialized and populous. We'll never be able to afford empty spots on the map."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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