Hostelry Befitting a Commissar


September 18, 1991|By JOSEPH R.L. STERNE | JOSEPH R.L. STERNE,Joseph R.L. Sterne is editor of The Sun's editorial pages.

Leipzig, Germany. -- If you have ever wondered how members of the Politburo of the defunct East German Communist regime lived while on the road, the old town of Leipzig beckons. Here are beautifully restored medieval buildings, ancient churches, the largest railroad station in all Europe, the new headquarters of the renowned Gewandhaus orchestra and the site of the annual Leipzig Fair. But one place not mentioned even in the latest guidebooks is the Gaestehaus am Park, or guesthouse in the park, at 14 Schwaegrichenstrasse.

From an architectural point of view, this is a wise omission. In contrast to the marvelous baroque facades and forms seen throughout the city, not least in old streets lined with crumbling buildings, the Gaestehaus am Park can best be described as police-state functional.

It is a plain, drab building that could be seen only at a distance by the average East German. From the time the hotel was built two decades ago at the behest of the late, dreaded party chief, Walter Ulbricht, until his chosen successor, Erich Honecker, was overthrown late in 1989, it was off-limits to ordinary citizens. Security forces were stationed in nearby buildings. Traffic was cut off when anyone of importance was in town. A strong steel fence still blocks off the main entrance of the building, requiring pedestrians to approach obliquely along a semi-circular driveway.

Inside, the place is, well . . . laughable. The lobby is furnished and decorated in a style roughly reminiscent of poor imitations of the 1939 New York World's Fair. Lots of streamlining everywhere. Pathetic attempts at poshness. The German Democratic Republic couldn't even do this well although the guesthouse was the place where high- level political meetings were held and foreign business executives brought to discuss big deals. Tito slept there.

On the floors above, not a single, simple hotel room with, say, a bed and a bathroom, is to be found. Every door leads into a suite supposedly suitable for a member of the ruling group. A typical suite includes an entryway with adjoining powder room; a large living room with a conference table, a desk, an L-shaped couch, armchairs, a desk and cabinets; a large bathroom with a seven-foot tub 2 1/2 feet deep and two sinks just in case your typical Politburo member brought along his spouse; a separate toilet room about the size of the normal East German hotel room and finally a double bedroom with the usual closets and side tables.

All this must sound elaborate, which it is, and elegant, which it is not. The rugs are a functional plain green, the furniture mostly dark-blondish stuff that calls to mind cheap do-it-yourself on the American market 40 years ago. Yet it is doubtful visiting apparatchiks were put off. If they knew anything, they knew the normal traveler in East Germany either had to settle for a bed or a couch in a private residence (which often proved most enjoyable) or a Pullman-sized room in a worn hotel, generally with hardly enough space for a human body and a large suitcase.

Unfortunately, for the Truehandanstalt, the post-unification agency set up to sell off state-owned property, the Gaestehaus am Park is virtually unmarketable. The suites are laid out in such a way that they could not be converted into normal hotel rooms even if the building were gutted. And if it remains as it is, there are too few units covering too much space to be profitable.

So if you are consumed with curiosity about how the Communist elite lived, come to Leipzig before the wrecker's ball gets to work. You will find the accommodations at the Gaestehaus am Park memorable and instructive but hardly of five-star opulence or comfort.

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