The Nikolai Quarter is the oldest settlement area in Berlin and is one of the four areas that belong to historic Old Berlin. It is located in the Mitte district.
The name of the quarter is derived from the Nikolai Church, which is located relatively centrally in the middle of the area. Today, the banks of the Spree, Rathausstraße, Spandauer Straße, Mühlendamm and Molkenmarkt border the district. Within the area lies a spacious pedestrian zone.
History of the Nikolai Quarter
In the town of Berlin, which was founded around 1220-1230, the church of St. Nikolai was built around 1230. The late Romanesque fieldstone basilica was located on the eastern bank of the Spree, while St. Peter’s Church stood on the western side in the town of Kölln. Not much is known about the early years of the two villages. It is known, however, that the two towns quickly grew together and united to form Berlin-Kölln. From 1486, the elector of the time moved his seat to the city, making it a residential town. In the 14th century, the two towns joined the Hanseatic League and developed into an important trading centre.
The growing prosperity was also reflected in the construction of St. Nicholas Church. It began to be converted into a Gothic hall church. Despite all the alterations, however, the asymmetrical medieval façade remained a feature for many years. From 1870, the church tower was replaced by a neo-Gothic double tower.
Around the quarter, Berlin continued to grow. However, the Nikolai Quarter hardly changed. The narrow, winding streets remained and it was mainly craftsmen who lived and worked around the church. However, commercial buildings were also built and, at the end of the 19th century, the Nathan Israel department stores’.
The Nikolai Quarter after the Second World War
During the Second World War, the Nikolai Quarter was destroyed by aerial bombing and in street fighting. After the war, the buildings were demolished and then nothing happened for a while. The administration in East Berlin was interested in housing and representative buildings. Plans were made to turn the Nikolai Quarter into a harbour basin for excursion boats.
The plans changed as the 750th anniversary of Berlin (1987) approached. Suddenly the historical values of the city were in the foreground and a district attractive to tourists was to be created.
The Nikolai Church, which had been destroyed down to its outer walls, was rebuilt almost true to the original. The small town houses in the immediate vicinity of the church were also rebuilt in their historical form. They used the industrial prefabricated construction method and added gables, ornaments and wrought-iron decoration. However, they did not want to do without modern tilt-up windows for the flats that were built. On Mühlendamm, the Ephraim-Palais, which had been demolished in 1936, was not rebuilt on its original site, but with original parts of the façade. On Nikolaiplatz, a copy of the “Zum Nußbaum” inn was built. The original, which once stood in Alt-Kölln, was once Heinrich Zille’s favourite pub.
The court arbour of the Old Town Hall, which originally stood on the corner of Spandauer Straße and Rathausstraße, was reconstructed and rebuilt in Poststraße.
The streets and alleys still correspond to the surviving plans and are almost completely paved according to historical models.
After the new construction of the Nikolai Quarter, about 800 flats, 33 shops, 22 restaurants and several museums had been built. A new tourist destination had emerged in East Berlin.
Stroll through the Nikolai Quarter
Today, the Nikolai Quarter is still a tourist destination in Berlin. I am rather ambivalent about this Berlin quarter. There really are buildings that don’t look like they’ve been reconstructed. They seem coherent and fitting. Other buildings, on the other hand, exude the charm of prefabricated housing and seem to me like a disturbing element in the overall picture. Nevertheless, it is worth taking a short walk through the Nikolai Quarter.
The Ephraim-Palais with its rococo architecture is one of the most beautiful corners of Berlin and the Knoblauchhaus with its late baroque style is also really worth seeing architecturally.
What I discovered during my tour, and didn’t know before, is that Lessing lived in the Nikolai Quarter for a time. There is a commemorative plaque on the so-called Lessing House indicating that he completed his play “Minna von Barnheim” there.
I am most enthusiastic about the area directly around the Nikolaikirche. Directly in front of the church is the Gründungs- / Wappenbrunnen (Foundation / Coat of Arms Fountain). This is supposed to commemorate the founding of Berlin. In the middle is a column with a bear holding a coat of arms with an eagle. Coats of arms are attached to the octagonal fountain basin.
If you walk around the church, you can see two beautiful bronze sculptures by Albert Wolff. The “Allegory of Science” and “Klio” once belonged to an equestrian statue of Frederick William III that stood in the Lustgarten. The equestrian statue originally consisted of six plinth figures. The monument was melted down during the Second World War. Only these two figures survived relatively undamaged.
Another impressive statue is located on the banks of the Spree. Here stands the statue of St. George, the dragon slayer. According to legend, he freed an entire city from the dragon and also saved a princess. Originally, the monument stood in the courtyard of the city palace until it was blown up. It was then placed in the Volkspark Friedrichshain and moved back to the city centre after the reconstruction of the Nikolai quarter. The depiction is very detailed. I am fascinated by the dragon’s head, but also by the certain brutality that the dragon slayer exudes.
One reason for me to visit the Nikolai Quarter again are definitely the museums in the Knoblauchhaus and Ephraim-Palais. But I’m also tempted by the Hemp Museum, and I’m particularly excited about the Zille Museum and a visit to the Theater am Nikolai Quarter, where plays are performed that really incorporate the Berlin snark.