In Germany, one good turret deserves another

January 07, 1995|By Mary Williams Walsh | Mary Williams Walsh,Los Angeles Times

Berlin -- Want to go for the gold in the upmanship Olympics? Looking to pay for something to put an end to a life of nameless longings? Germany has just the thing.

The Federal Republic is selling a portfolio of status properties: dozens of castles, ducal manors, the odd monastery, even a medieval fortress atop its own mountain.

A catalog worked up by the German government describes real estate chock-a-block with towers, turrets, battlements, coats of arms, marble staircases, knights' halls, hunting lodges, tree-lined prospects, orangeries, reflecting pools and secret passageways.

One castle was home to a well-born lady who wrote a most charmingly titled memoir there, "The Green Tree of Life." Another appears in chronicles dating to the year 786. Still another is graced by its own fantastic, crenelated water tower.

Germany is unloading the castles because they stand in what used to be East Germany, and when that "people's dictatorship" collapsed, they ceased to be "people's" property.

After Germany reunited in 1990, an independent government agency acquired the castles -- along with East Germany's entire industrial stock -- and began the long process of sorting out who might lay legitimate ancestral claims to them and what to do with those with clear titles.

The first 20 unencumbered castles were put onto the international real estate market last year; the Bonn government says these represent but a "minuscule" fraction of all the noble properties it will eventually evaluate and sell.

But these 20 alone make up a medieval Monopoly board for the history-lover with a certain whimsical cast of mind -- and fairly deep pockets in his pantaloons.

There is, for instance, Manor Gera, an impressive half-timbered pile near the east-central German city of Gera. When the last of a line of aristocratic owners died in 1893, Manor Gera -- whose roots can be traced to 1403 -- fell into the upstart clutches of a succession of industrialists; they tarted it up with statues, rare trees, a swimming pool and an antique teahouse. They then went broke. When the Nazis came to power, the Gestapo made it into a forced-labor camp for women.

After the defeat of the Nazis, Manor Gera became, in succession, a Russian military hospital, a cluster of cooperative farms, a training center for East German judges, a school for Communist Party kids, a stable and, finally, an apartment building.

Now, says the government, all this history can be had for just $1.1 million.

Then there is Tempzin Monastery, or what is left of it, an 11th-century monastic hospital that once specialized in the care of victims of a mysterious ailment called "St. Anthony's fire." The Protestant Reformation, and the discovery that St. Anthony's fire was a form of gangrene caused by eating rotten bread, brought about the eclipse of Tempzin. Today it is little more than a clutch of crumbling, empty, brick buildings.

"But despite its ruined appearance, there is still an aura of greatness," says the government catalog, noting that the monastery's original foundations are still largely intact.

The years alone haven't driven castles into what the catalog politely suggests is a "decaying state." The East German regime did its share of damage, requisitioning stately residences, as Communist youth-league vacation homes, asylum-seeker hostels, construction material depots, grain silos, dance halls, restaurants, farm co-ops and migrant worker quarters. One castle became the lunchroom of a ball bearing factory.

The largest structure was the holiday home for the frolicsome ranks of the East German People's Army.

"The whole interior finish of the castle is now marked by this inappropriate use, which lasted for years," the disclaimer-rich catalog says of the People's Army resort.

Bidders, thus, must come up not only with the government's recommended sales price, but also with refurbishment funds and suitable proposals for future use.

Nobody keeps knights or serfs anymore. But investors have floated other imaginative schemes, including hotels, nursing homes, restaurants, clinics, convention centers, a stud farm, a recycling center, an animal shelter, two toy museums and an Indian-culture exhibition hall.

Most proposals and bids have so far come from Germany, America, Japan and Colombia.

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