Art Deco Roots in Hamburg

Words and photos by Lachlan Finlayson, edited and expanded by Adam Watson Brown

Hamburg is probably best known for Brick Expressionist architecture, but there are many buildings from the post-World War One era that incorporate elements of later Art Deco design.

On my recent trip I enjoyed visiting and photographing both the exterior and interior of these lovely old buildings. Most are public buildings so access is relatively easy during office hours. With many people working remotely, lobbies and public areas are relatively quiet, providing ideal photo opportunities.


Originally constructed in the 1870s to plans by Martin Haller, of whom more below, Stellahaus was one of the first high-rise building in Hamburg, providing offices. The upper five floors were added in the 1920s, creating a stunning, modern light-coloured building, close to the harbour. Various external decorative features reflect the times and the importance of the maritime industry to Hamburg, notably the famous Hamburg cog boats, by omnipresent local sculptor Richard Kuöhl. Internal light fittings, doorways and staircases include attractive Art Deco features.


The Twenties extension required engineering expertise as the old building could not support the weight of the extra floors. This explains why a veritable committee of architects worked on the plans:  Albert Lindhorst, Edwin Reith, Christian Zauleck and Franz Hormann. The solution was to give the extension its own foundations using an iron structure. Stellahaus is listed and still a prestige address for your Buro today.


Altstädter Hof

On a busy street close to Hamburg’s Central Station, Altstädter Hof is a housing development from the mid-thirties. The big archway entrances recall those of the Viennese worker estates, referenced in the society’s Kensal House article. Doorways incorporate an attractive Art Deco design, many with statues above, also by Kuöhl. One doorway has the construction date above, in large numerals. In the somewhat grimy courtyard behind, there is a statue commemorating the 1936 Olympics. The facades and the statues are definitely in need of a scrub. More pictures, from the Hamburg Archive are here.


Also close to the Central Station is Bieberhaus, built in 1909. This massive building takes up the better part of a city block. It has particularly attractive front and rear entrances, with features perhaps foreshadowing the Art Deco trend to come in later years.


Bieberhaus translates as beaver house, but set aside those industrious animals. Herr Bieber was the headmaster of the school which stood on the site previously. The building has recently undergone extensive renovation. Back in the day, one could dance in the Bieberhaus café, and the building has had many tenants since, ranging from a theatre to a tax office and a refugee centre. The theatre is back on site, offering its plays in ‘low German’ dialect.

Hotel Reichshof

A beautiful and grand hotel near Bieberhaus, fully restored in recent years, while maintaining Art Deco style and features. Of particular note is the ceiling, light fittings and wall decorations in the 1910 Bar.  Glass chandeliers are a particularly stunning feature of the hotel lobby.

Back when it first opened in 1909, this was one of the largest hotels in Europe, with running water, electricity and telephone connections in every room; and your Daimler-Benz was safely berthed in the garage below.

Chandelier in hotel lobby

The main restaurant  was kitted out to resemble an ocean liner by ship outfitters Friese, the owner Herr Langer having been a director of the Hapag shipping line. Parts of the hotel were destroyed in WWII. The Art Deco bar was restored in 2015; so members should head to that first.


The Handwerkskammer, Chamber of Crafts, building is located in the Neustadt area, immediately to the west of the main city area. Completed after the First World War, with multiple modifications and repairs thereafter, this grand building has several impressive features. In particular, the various staircases, where light-coloured steps and walls contrast with black decorative railings in a visually pleasing geometric pattern.  A series of art glass windows representing various Hamburg artisans and tradesmen were damaged during the Second World War. Most of these have now been replaced and feature prominently in the Great Hall. Numerous other Art Deco influences can be seen throughout the building.


Hamburg architecture seems to have been a small world. The building was designed Prof Fritz Schumacher, whose star student was, obviously, Richard Kuöhl. Schumacher was Hamburg’s building director and designed a number of good-looking buildings across the city during his tenure from 1909 up to his retirement in 1933. Per Wiki, he continues to inspire Hamburg architects to this day.    


Kontorhaus District

Close to the main central shopping area is the Kontorhaus District, or office district, which has several spectacular buildings from the 1920s. Most are Brick Expressionist buildings with many Art Deco elements included in both exterior and interior design.

Chile Haus

Chile Haus is an iconic Hamburg building with an exterior design that recalls the streamlined bow and decks of a modern ocean-going ship. The building was commissioned by a trader with close ties to Chile. Interior areas retain the original tiled walls with decorative wooden and metal staircases. The sculptures in the staircases and on the facade are by – drum roll – Richard Kuöhl.

Nearby is another Brick Expressionist construction, the Sprinkenhof office building, built during the late 1920s and 1930s, and still advertising for tenants. It is a complex of massive buildings rather than an individual structure. The exterior includes ornamentation reflecting the maritime and industrial history of Hamburg. The interior includes a beautiful circular staircase with brightly coloured and chromed handrails.

Also in the Kontorhaus District is Miramarhaus which was built in the early 1920s. Another Brick Expressionist building with an elaborate entrance incorporating Art Deco features. These include the name ‘Miramar’ in dramatic gold text and also multiple sculptures, representing typical professions on which the Hamburg economy is based; an angel hovers above: all courtesy of the indefatigable Kuöhl. The interior features a beautiful stone, metal and wood staircase.


Nearby Afrika Haus is another office building, built at the very beginning of the 20th century. The name comes from the original tenant’s business, trade with East Africa. Although closed during my visit, decorative features reflecting the buildings history were evident including a sculpture at the entrance to the building and elephant sculptures in the courtyard. Other features, especially external tiling, are said to reflecting African design, but also seem to foreshadow the Art Deco designs of future years. The architect, Martin Haller, who designed Stellahaus above, was a prominent critic of Art Nouveau. By his death in 1925 at the age of ninety, Jugendstihl, as he would have called it, was dead.

I am grateful to the staff of the Hotel Reichshof for providing access and permission to photograph internal areas. Historical information regarding the other buildings visited comes predominantly from Wikipedia, supplemented by the German language version, which provides more detail than the EN version. Hat tip to Google Translate!


The omnipresence of Richard Kuöhl – afterword

‘He was probably the busiest sculptor in the city’, per Wiki DE, as you will have guessed. This was thanks to his mentor Schumacher who passed much public sector work to him. The same article reveals another secret of his success, the ability to tame any style to popular taste. If you wanted middle of the road, tamed Expressionism, Kuöhl was your man. There is an echo here of the career of Richard Bayes, in this society article.

Kuöhl didn’t miss a beat when the Nazis came to power, producing war memorials in the fascist monumental style to appeal to party members. One of them is still controversial, even now. After the war he received a good knuckle-rapping and pivoted his practice toward fifties-style Christian war memorials: faithful to his style-shifter-reshaper muse until the end.    

Richard Kuöhl 1880 –1961

Photo at header of article: Staircase at Miramarhaus.

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