Castles without Kings: Saving the Palaces of the German Hinterland

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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.

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