E. Berliners celebrate 750th - and looser purse strings

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

East Berliners have a special reason to cheer this year's 750th anniversary of their city. As with any special celebration, it looses East Germany's purse strings in an effort to get Berlin spiffed up for the occasion. And that means both new apartments and historical beautification of the old city center that at the end of World War II fell to the Soviet zone of occupation and thence to East Germany.

The activity is apparent to any visitor here in the warren of scaffolding and corrugated construction fences in downtown East Berlin. A new Grand Hotel (average room price $150, hard currency only) is going up on Unter den Linden avenue. Some 4,000 new apartments are being built along Friedrichstrasse, with arcades for shops and galleries on the first and second floors, explained the city's deputy chief architect Dorothea Krause to foreign correspondents on a special bus tour. Another 4,000 apartments are being rehabilitated there by adding toilets and heating to structures left from the 19th century.

Skilled workmen, who recently finished their restoration of the exterior of the early 19th-century Schauspielhaus of architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel, are turning their talents to the medieval Nikolai Church and its neighboring rococo Ephraim Palace, opening this spring for exhibits and concerts. Sophienstrasse is being restored to a typical turn-of-the-century craftsman's street.

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For East Berlin residents, the most important changes probably concern apartments. The 750th anniversary is providing a welcome impetus toward realizing the goal of enough housing for all adult East Germans to have rooms of their own by the year 1990. The places most urgently in need of such help are crowded cities like East Berlin, Leipzig, and Halle with their old housing stock. This year East Berlin is devoting $1.5 billion to apartment subsidies, Mayor and Communist Party Central Committee member Erhard Krack informed the journalists before launching them on their tour of construction. Some 33,400 apartments were built new or rehabilitated last year in East Berlin, to expand average apartment area to 62 square meters (690 square feet). And Mr. Krack is especially pleased that schools and shopping facilities have kept pace with apartment construction. School classes are down to an average 21.6 pupils per room, he said, and each school has its own gymnasium and garden, and access to a swimming pool for all pupils up to the fourth grade.

Until very recently, the two goals of housing and historical architectural preservation were even more incompatible here than in most big metropolises. In the years after World War II, the royal palace, one of Schinkel's masterpieces, was torn down rather than repaired. In its place, giant modern glass and cement boxes went up for government and party buildings. And the Socialist Unity (Communist) Party erected cheap prefabricated high rises with no regard for bourgeois architectural surroundings.

Beginning in the 1980s, the East Germans returned to appreciating their German roots, however, and a rekindling of interest in historical buildings accompanied it. The old statue of Frederick the Great was reinstalled on Unter den Linden. Remaining buildings designed by Schinkel, the author of Berlin as it was known in its century and a half as a world capital, were lovingly refurbished. Elsewhere in East Germany, churches associated with Martin Luther were restored for the 500th anniversary of the great reformer's birth in 1983.

Now the Grand Hotel, unlike its predecessors in the '60s and '70s, is being kept to a relatively unobtrusive eight stories. And even the new prefabricated apartments that are going up in the center of East Berlin are low storied and have softened contours that blend in somewhat better than do high-rise slabs with 19th-century neo-classicism. A purist might complain; certainly Peter Goralczyk, East Germany's new chief preserver of landmark buildings, did not waste many words on the new apartments on the other side of Academy Square as he explained the work that has gone into redoing the Schauspielhaus and its two flanking Protestant cathedrals. But the new apartments are a great improvement over the drab utilitarian high rises on Leipzigerstrasse. And the 800 families that will livein the apartments tucked away behind the 17th- and 18th-century facades in the Nikolai District will have a special reason to celebrate Berlin's 750th anniversary.

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