Restorations bring buildings back to life


June 30, 1993|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Berlin Bureau

MULLROSE, Germany -- In the time of the old German Democratic Republic, architects Christiane and Ulf Holzmann designed barns and stables for collective farms and dreamed of buildings nobody would allow them to build.

Now they bring churches back to life.

During East Germany's 40 years of communism, religion was grudgingly tolerated, often discouraged, never encouraged. Churches were neglected and frequently fell into disrepair and ruin. Now congregations throughout eastern Germany are restoring their churches.

In Brandenburg, the biggest of the east German states, there are at least 400 "Dorfkirchen" -- village churches, most protected by historical preservation laws, and most needing repair.

The Holzmanns are restoring 15 of them.

In East Germany, they worked with 75 other architects in an office in Frankfurt-am-Oder, the big town of this region along the Polish border, about 10 miles north of Mullrose. They designed buildings according to the dictates of central planners.

"There was absolutely no inspiration," Mr. Holzmann says. "There was absolutely no enjoyment. We could only make one design."

"In the German Democratic Republic everything was prescribed. We couldn't change anything. After work I used to design things like this," Mrs. Holzmann says, spreading out the sample plans of houses they've designed for the new times -- solid, traditional German homes with individual twists.

They're both 30 and graduates of the same engineering university, a handsome couple, now upwardly mobile in a free enterprise society.

Soon after unification, Mrs. Holzmann was already doing historical preservation work as a volunteer. Mr. Holzmann had a job in another architect's office. A pastor asked him if he'd like to renovate a church after hours. He thought it would be too much work.

"We decided to open our own office," he says. They took on the church renovation contract and got a couple more.

"We got a reputation for doing things like this," he says. "One dorf sees another one repairing its church and they say, 'Why shouldn't we repair ours?' "

In doing historical preservation work, Mrs. Holzmann had analyzed old buildings, seen what was wrong and what was needed to correct it.

"In the G.D.R. time, repairs had often been completely wrong," she says.

Lack of materials

It wasn't that people were stupid, she says; they simply didn't have the materials needed to do the job right.

"It's good that they did what they did because we have a chance to correct it," Mr. Holzmann says. "The buildings are there for us to preserve. Every dorf has a church. Most are old and need something done. We have enough work for the next five years."

One of the churches they're restoring dates back to the 1300s. Most were built in the 16th or 17th centuries. The village churches in Brandenburg are mostly small, plain, stone or brick churches of enormous integrity, thrusting a foursquare steeple of stone or wood toward the sky like hands folded in prayer.

Brandenburg is just north and east of the Saxon countryside where Martin Luther walked as he spread the Protestant reformation. So far, all the churches they're fixing up are Lutheran, the historically predominant religion of the area.

Neither of the Holzmanns is Lutheran or even religious. But they have enormous respect for the churches they're restoring. They're not just applying cosmetics to a ravaged face.

"If everything is smooth and even, then it doesn't look natural," he says, in the church they're just finishing at a dorf called Gross Lindow.

"The whole room has to breathe. It has to live. It has to be alive. That's why we try to do things in the original way and preserve what is there."

The Gross Lindow church is their youngest, only 150 years old, a brick neo-Gothic building they've made airy and bright where once it was dark and damp. They've preserved everything that was not too seriously damaged to save: the oak pulpit and altar, the floor of hexagonal brick plaquettes, the galleries and choir loft of pine.

The walls have been painted white and illuminated with discreet modern wall fixtures. The half-dome over the altar will be painted a heavenly blue with gold stars as it once was. The woodwork was left natural or grained or painted in warm earth tones of beige, brown and terra cotta. This was farm and mining country when the church was built in the last century.

Original building respected

"We respect the original building," Mr. Holzmann says. "We want to keep the churches as they used to be and eliminate foreign elements. We try to rebuild them the way they were and use the same materials."

The renovation of the Gross Lindow church will cost 500,000 marks, more than $300,000.

The church will seat about 250 when all the work is done. But the regular congregation now is only about 20 souls. It's full at Easter and Christmas and for confirmations, Mr. Holzmann says.

"The churches were very broken down; you couldn't really use them," he says. "When you can use them, then people will come."

He may be right. Gross Lindow will certainly be bright and attractive when it's finished.

The average church restoration costs a million marks ($630,000). Their most expensive job is a 14th-century church that still bears damage inflicted by shelling at the end of World War II. It will cost 6 million marks ($3.77 million) to restore.

The money comes from historic preservation funds, which are relatively generous in Germany; Kirchensteuer, the church tax which in Germany is taken out of members' paychecks like income tax; and donations, which generally make up only a small amount of the cost.

As architects, the Holzmanns get 10 percent of the restoration contract, which makes them among the few people in the east who get paid at parity with western salaries.

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