"Upon this rock I will build my church," Jesus declared in the book of Matthew (16:18), revealing himself to be a prudent structural engineer and a proponent of solid foundations. It's surprising, then, that the German word "schief," which means "crooked" or "skewed," doesn't appear once in the Luther Bible.
Yet it is precisely this word that Frank Wessels, a pastor in the northwestern German village of Suurhusen, can't get out of his mind. He climbs tilted steps to reach the pulpit. His congregation worships before lopsided, off-kilter brick walls. But it's the church's 27.31-meter (89.6-foot) steeple that's particularly atilt, appearing as though it might break free from the nave at any moment and lurch away. The tower leans at an angle of 5.19 degrees -- more than its famous cousin in Pisa, which tips at just 3.99 degrees.
Wessels has no use for the Biblical saying, "The crooked shall be made straight." In fact, he's proudly registered the church with Guinness World Records, where it's officially known as the world's "farthest leaning tower." Since then, the small town in the East Frisia region near the North Sea has been playing up its cosmopolitan side. "Around 10,000 visitors come each year, some even from South Korea or India," the pastor says happily.
But Suurhusen now fears for its unique architectural claim after a number of mayors around Germany have challenged the church's title, claiming that their local buildings slant to an even greater degree.
Ruins Don't Count
Among the competitors is the picturesque town of Dausenau in the western German state of Rhineland-Palatinate, home to a medieval defense tower that has drifted 5.24 degrees from its original vertical position. With grass sprouting around its crown, the ruined tower hasn't been used in years. But to locals the old fortress is a sensation, and restaurants around its base serve up roulade and sauerbraten.
Local mayor Jürgen Linkenbach would be thrilled to see Dausenau's tower declared the world's most slanted. But last September Guinness World Records rejected his application on the grounds that the medieval tower is a crumbling ruin -- and thus ineligible.
But Suurhusen's steeple still has other rivals. One stands in the Swiss ski paradise of St. Moritz, where masons erected a narrow, 33-meter (108-foot) bell tower in the late Middle Ages. The site they chose was a rock-strewn plain that is gradually shifting downhill a centimeter at a time, taking the tower along with it.
Even 100 years ago, the nave of St. Mauritius Church was so crooked it was necessary to level it out again. The tower, too, tilted at a severe 5.4 degrees until a few years ago when congregation leaders intervened, shoring up the construction with hydraulic steel plates and reining the tower's angle back in to 5.08 degrees.
But the Alpine leaning tower continues to slide, sometimes "abruptly," according to local building authorities. But for now the work to stabilize the structure has put the St. Moritz landmark out of the running.
Competition Close to Home
Greater threats to Suurhusen's claim, in fact, are closer to home in East Frisia, a region characterized by wet, peaty soils. From the city of Emden to the town of Aurich, the region is full of structures -- sports halls, country estates, and city administrative buildings alike -- where walls list and tilt.
Detlef Böttcher calls the region an "El Dorado for stress cracks and settling." An expert on the structural preservation of historical buildings, he is constantly on the go with his measuring stick and hammer, inspecting old buildings under slow collapse.
"Frisians often built their houses on oak posts they drove up to 20 meters (65 feet) into the ground," he explains. But over time, as people dug canals and drained the land, the water table sank and the wooden posts began to rot.
This development has been particularly damaging to the many small medieval churches in East Frisia. "More than 70 percent of them are off-kilter," says Böttcher.
His measurements have turned up some new world records, including a bell tower in the village of Barstede that tilts at 6.16 degrees, and a steeple in Midlum teetering at a stunning 6.74 degrees. But no one knows about the latter, found behind the dikes of the North Sea, because the 64-year-old church council leader Udo Aalderks has put off sending his application to Guinness World Records for months.
"How do all these forms even work?" wonders Aalderks, an expert in farm machinery.
Angling for New Criteria
Should Aalderks clear the necessary bureaucratic hurdles, Guinness World Records may still deny his tower the crown of crookedness. Midlum's steeple stands just 14 meters (46 feet) high -- a miniature structure compared to Suurhusen's church. Despite the tower's extreme tilt, its top deviates from a vertical position by only about 1.6 meters (5.2 feet).
For this reason, some researchers are looking for new criteria in establishing a tower's slant. Instead of considering the angle of inclination alone, authorities should also include the total margin by which the tower deviates from the vertical, they say.
This would allow yet another building to emerge victorious -- a 53-meter (174 -foot) church bell tower in Bad Frankenhausen in the eastern German state of Thuringia. Only the most daring visitors are advised to climb the tower. Projecting 4.45 meters (14.6 feet) out from a vertical position, standing on top amounts to hanging over an abyss.
The spa town in the Kyffhäuser hills would be pleased to have such a tourist attraction. But the structure continues to sink despite the addition of concrete and steel supports, which have only slowed its inevitable descent. It sits on weak bedrock riddled with caves from which the city pumps water for its spas, further reducing stability. At the worst of times, the bell tower has slipped by six centimeters (2.4 inches) a year.
Demolition of the church was planned for this summer, but Mayor Matthias Strejc delayed its destruction with a new plan, unveiled two weeks ago. The €1.7-million project aims to fit the tower base with a steel corset from which two 20-meter (65-foot) support arms will extend.
Strejc is already dreaming of opening the "world's most tilted civil registry office" inside the building. He also plans to pressure Guinness World Records to review their calculations in hopes of beating Suurhusen.
A grand vision, but the city's coffers are empty. An online fundraising drive for the steeple's preservation has been sluggish. Meanwhile, the tower totters another two millimeters (0.08 inches) closer to the ground each month. Without intervention, it will collapse.