Das Alte Rathaus

While I’ve admittedly relatively little experience with Leipzig, I’m comfortable saying that it never ceases to amaze me. As we get more settled and spend more time walking and generally becoming familiar with our surroundings, more and more starts becoming apparent. This is equally true in grocery and department stores as it is for our favorite streets downtown.

One seemingly paradoxical place that’s simultaneous so imposing in beauty and such a part of the scenery that you don’t even notice it at least half the time. Home to antiques, book, and souvenir shops as well as an excellent museum to Leipzig’s obnoxiously long history. I’m talking about the Altes Rathaus.

Leipzig’s Alte Rathaus in September, 2022. Leipzig, and really Germany as a whole, has done an absolutely fantastic job of blending old and new architecture. Coming from Providence, with a jarring juxtaposition of gorgeous old buildings and new construction so out of place it could be photoshopped, the near seamless transition from 16th to 21st century in this one picture is on of my favorite parts of being here.

The Alte Rathaus has its roots (kind of literally, actually) back in the 14th century when what’s roughly the site of the building became Leipzigs first town hall. The original building is long gone, but what stands today was built in the 16th century, along the original foundation. Interestingly, and something I hope to be able to get a picture of in the near future, the mid 16th century saw a combination of several buildings into the one we know and love. As a result, there’s a “kink” in the foundation visible between the first and second gables.

The oldest known view of das Alte Rathaus, it’s labeled with the antiquated spelling “Radthaus.” This image shows it before the renovations that combined it with the nearby buildings.

A few years after the above drawing was made, Hieronymus Lotter began the renovations that would transform the structure into the form we recognize it today.

A 1593 view of das Alte Rathaus is remarkably recognizable and it’s wonderful to be able to reflect on illustrations like these while walking through the market square. If you zoom in, you can read the museum’s caption for this image.
Over a century later, this 1730 copper engraving by artist Johann Christoph Dehne is awesomely detailed. I can’t tell if the facade is significantly changed from the pervious, or if this one is simply more accurate in detail. It has a banner above the Rathaus which says (translated, of course) “Prospectus of the Leipzig City Hall as seen from the market side.”
Zooming forward another 155 years, we are finally approaching the 20th century. This 1895 painting shows the Rathaus as it was shortly before it became the Altes Rathaus in 1905 (stay tuned for das Neue Rathaus). If you look at modern pictures you’ll see that the facade is now stone archways leading into the shops. I don’t know how the renovations were received, but I quite prefer the archways to the awnings.

As with much of Europe, das Alte Rathaus underwent some rapid and unplanned changes during the Second World War.

Not a great time. The final downfall of the Third Reich left a ravaged Germany; the inevitable outcome of Hitler’s unbridled, insane, and genocidal conquest. The roof and top of the tower were destroyed in the bombings.
Not long after the end of World War II, the rebuilding had already begun. You can see the framing of the new roof and the repairs having been started on the tower.

In 1945, the Leipzig Stadtgeschichtliches Museum (local history museum) opened up, with Das Altes Rathaus Museum following in 1952. It’s a fantastic museum with so much history packed into a space that’s seemingly got no business having so much.

A 16th century wheel lock pistol with an image of Leipzig’s market square being bombarded during the Thirty Years War engraved on it.
Rows of chairs show the functionality of this hall and how it would’ve looked when it was just das Rathaus.

The history of the building itself tells the history of Leipzig. Upon entering you’re immediately met with a huge 19th century diorama of the city, with buttons that light up key locations. Portraits of the city’s notable citizens line the walls, and chairs are set up in anticipation of a meeting’s start. Turn left and you learn the deeper history of the area, turn right and you learn the history of Saxony (our state) and of the building.

While it isn’t known if this armor was strictly ceremonial or actually used in battle, it’s definitely intimidating as hell.

To see such an impressive collection of artifacts spanning such a breadth of time and which are likely all very close to home is somewhat bewildering. To go from early pottery and ceremonial cups to grimacing suits of armor, to cannons, stoves, Wagner’s death mask, and 16th century stained glass is almost confusing.

An early 16th century cup used for medical tinctures.

But then you go upstairs (up a lot of stairs) to the “modern” Leipzig exhibit where early printing presses and DDR artifacts are laid out in a chronological time line that spans the length of the building. Here they don’t shy away from the Third Reich and its aftermath. There are Hitler Youth teddy bears and Nazi officers’ uniforms along with resistance movements and anti Hitler graffiti.

The lighting made it hard to focus, but you get one guess what’s on that armband.
A Soviet era stove is noticably less ornate than earlier artifacts.

Immediately after World War II there was a Soviet occupation in Germany, and we go straight through that period and into the Deutsche Demokratische Republik and through to reunification and how quickly East Germany transformed. It zooms us forward even more to Leipzig’s failed bid to host the 2012 Olympics, as well as the 1000th anniversary of the city, celebrated in 2015 despite it being quite a bit older (1015 is simply the first mention of the city in writing).

DDR era street signs with their current names across their DDR names.
Sports in 1980s Leipzig.

Coming from a biological anthropology background though moving into industrial and more recent labor and cultural histories as well, this museum ticked a lot of boxes that may not have originally satisfied me. Since finding my way to more “recent” cultural developments (meaning not looking at evidence for speech capabilities or bipedalism in fossil remains) I’ve found the deep history that can be uncovered by simply scraping the surface to be intoxicating.

Das Altes Rathaus Museum is that writ large, with almost 1400 years of history housed in a 16th century building with 20th century repairs that sits atop a 14th century foundation. I can see myself spending a lot of time here, but Leipzig has 49 locations in its Local History Museum, and so far I believe I’ve been to two of them.

2 thoughts on “Das Alte Rathaus

    • One of the reasons I’ve chosen buildings like this one is that their history is so deep that WWII is almost a blip on their radar. German history is so much more than the war and while it isn’t shied away from, it’s often inadvertently overshadowing everything else. To the point it’s a bit of work to find non-German sources for some of it. I hope to bring a lot more German history to light for people who know little other than the mid 20th century


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s