The Hall Houses of Görlitz

The city of Görlitz is applying for UNESCO World Heritage site status for the many well-preserved hall houses in the city. These houses are unique to Görlitz because they were built in a unique style during a time when the city was flourishing and tradesman were looking to create spaces where they could both show off their goods and live in style. If you ever have the opportunity to peek inside any of the buildings in Görlitz, you should take the chance. They are every bit as fascinating inside as they are outside! In particular the hall houses, of which we have 35 in Görlitz. Today I will introduce you to two of them: the Biblisches Haus and Brüderstraße 9.

Görlitz in its heyday

Görlitz was situated on a very important trade route called the Via Regia, or the King’s Road. It was called that because it was protected by the king. Extending from France to Russia, it was one of the most important west-east trade routes in Europe. Not only were goods transported on this road, but also knowledge, cultures, worldviews and ideas! Görlitz’s location on the crossing of the river Neisse meant the Via Regia ran straight through town, up Neißstraße and out past the Reichenbach Tower. Having this trade route pass through was a very lucky thing for the city and made Görlitz very prosperous very quickly. In the late Middle Ages, the city was the most important trading center between Erfurt and Wrocław. One of the most important trades in the city was weaving and the production and trade of cloth and woad – a plant used to dye fabric blue.

Hall houses were about both functionality and flaunting wealth

Successful merchants built these massive hall houses from 1480-1560 in Gothic and Renaissance style. These structures were not only about functionality but also were meant to be an outward expression of the wealth and influence of the family. In these large spaces, they could combine their living space with their business, creating an exhibition space for their goods. They could also have breweries – something that only the wealthiest and most important families in town were allowed to have. Many of these hall houses therefore have cellars carved deep into the rock to store their beer, sometimes two or three levels down. At this point the layout of buildings in the city was pretty unchanging and structures were packed in tight. The only way to expand was to build up, which normally meant that the lower levels became very dark and uninviting. In contrast, the hall houses in Görlitz solved this problem in an innovative and dramatic way with their eye-catching entrance halls – wide open with high vaulted ceilings and open space reaching all the way to the top with a skylight, providing natural light and air circulation to all levels of the home.

The Biblical House

The Biblische Haus (Biblical House) on Neißstraße 29 in Görlitz gets its name because of its spectacular façade, which shows scenes from the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. Carved into sandstone that was sourced in Görlitz itself, the façade is said to be extremely thick and remains in its original state. After a fire devastated parts of the city in 1525, a man named Hans Heinze bought the property in 1570 and had it rebuilt much as you see it today, but with one major difference. The house once had a Renaissance stone gable facing the street, but after another fire in 1726 many of these gables in the city were changed for better fire safety. When the gables faced the front the fires spread more easily along the roofs of the houses.

The sculptor Hans Kramer was commissioned to complete the sandstone carvings. He worked in Gdansk and Dresden, where he helped reconstruct the Moritzburg Castle. He also completed other works inside the house, including the piece pictured above, which was moved at the beginning of the 1900s to the museum and then moved back, unfortunately all record of where it was originally located in the building has been lost and so it sits on display currently in the entry.

Carved in the sandstone are the words “Gott ist mein Helfer, Erlöser und Tröster, auf den verlasse ich mich alleine” (“God is my helper, redeemer and comforter, I rely on him alone.” and above the portal are the words “Gott bewahre deinen Ein- und Ausgang zu ewigen Zeiten” (“God safeguard your entrance and exit for all time”).

The facade of the Biblical House shows scenes from the New Testament carved in sandstone.

The portal is topped with what’s called a Gaff head (Gaffkopf), the representation of a head or bust looking down at us from above. They often have exaggerated features and were popular in Renaissance façade design.

The top row shows scenes from the New Testament: the Annunciation, the birth of Christ, his baptism in the Jordan, and the Last Supper. The lower row shows Eve being created from Adam’s rib, the Fall of Man, the Binding of Isaac, and Moses receiving the Ten Commandments. The two rows are meant to be juxtaposed to show the relationship between Law (Old Testament) and the Gospel (New Testament), one of the important tenets of Lutheranism. The reformation was adopted in Görlitz quite early, challenging the authority of the Catholic Church after Martin Luther published his 95 Theses in 1517. The first Lutheran sermons were given here in Görlitz in 1521.

Inside, the Biblical House has the typical vaulted ceilings and opening up to the ceiling allowing light to flow through. During the early 1900s this entry area was split into several shops to sell and display goods, as were most of the houses in Görlitz. There is a cellar where the owner stored the beer he brewed. You can imagine the patrons lining benches here to sample the goods.

A room on an upper level includes wooden ceilings with paintings that were hidden behind a stuccoed ceiling for decades. Later the building was divided up into smaller apartments and was inhabited by residents until the 1980s. There are hopes to make the Biblical House open to the public in the future in conjunction with the city museum, but for the time being it’s only open for weekly tours in German. Click here to find out more.

Brüderstraße 9

So, now your interest is piqued and you’d like to see inside one of these hall houses? How would you like to see one that hasn’t been renovated yet, in all of its glory? Then head over to Brüderstraße 9! They currently have a free (!) exhibition open six days a week (click here for more information).

The hall house at Brüderstraße 9 is open to visitors

As part of the application for UNESCO World Heritage Site, the house is being exhibited along with a photo installation, 3D models and an animated film showing the historical origins of the hall houses in Görlitz. The unique thing about this house is through records of ownership and renovation you can trace the many changes to the building over the centuries. Not only that, but as a visitor you can really see it – all the way from its Renaissance bones to its more recent GDR facelift (the last tenant moved out in 1993!). It’s truly fascinating to take a look inside this house and you can’t beat the price, so don’t miss it while you are here!

Interested in seeing other hall houses in Görlitz? Many of them are in use as residences but you can also see other examples at the Schlesisches Museum or Hotel Frenzelhof.