Danish women forge new future for historic hostel

The city of Hans Christian Andersen and Tivoli, the most imaginative amusement center in Europe, is an unusual combination of old and new. Its pedestrian malls, the first in Europe, thread their way through the ancient center of Copenhagen, taking the visitor past elegant shops on the ground floors of historic houses, past churches surrounded by old trees and fountains, and through squares where bands and performers of all kinds attract large crowds of strollers.

Among these historic buildings is Danner House, built in the middle of the 19 th century by Frederick VII for Countess Danner, his wife.

The countess established the house and foundation to provide "free shelter for women of the working classes," since she herself had known poverty as a child.

The house originally contained about 52 small flats in a huge, impressive brick structure on use of the main streets of downtown Copenhagen. While the foundation set up by the countess was expected to look after the building and its inhabitants, the premises were neglected until the early 1970s when only four elderly women lived there and the rest of the building was sealed up.

In 1978, 30 Danish women's groups got together to take over the building. They had heard that the sale of the house to a building firm was being negotiated and that it probably would be torn down.

When the negotiations failed, the women's groups took matters into their own hands and occupied the building in November 1979. The only historic women's house in Denmark was not to be destroyed.

To save the house, the Danish women's organizations combined their efforts to raise money. A countrywide campaign was launched and fund-raising projects of many kinds were organized. By the end of last April, more than 3 million Danish kroner had been collected and the house once more belonged to women.

Remodeling began last August according to plans drawn up by women architects. Women contractors and builders also were involved. Women will do all the upgrading, including the plumbing and writing.

The remodeling of the Danner House was accepted by the government as the country's largest unemployment program ever. In other words, instead of unemployment compensation, the government is paying people to work on projects such as the restoration of the Danner House.

Plans for the house, which has some magnificent high-ceilinged rooms, include a cultural center and meeting rooms for various women's groups and numerous educational programs. It has a restaurant, bookshops and printing shops, studios for art and gymnastics, a women's aid center, and repair shops of many kinds.

A shelter for battered women and their children also is included.

"Everyone knows the Danner House," a representative of one of the women's organizations told me recently as I toured the house.

"The house is a symbol of the independence of women in our society," she went on. "We could not let it be destroyed or be put to some other use."

Surrounded by a high iron fence and ancient trees, the four-story brick structure is a most impressive property to anyone who sees it. It is expected to reopen on May 1, 1981.

Meanwhile, even while the remodelling goes on, parts of the house still function as a women's shelter.

Danner House is a landmark of old Copenhagen. It is now being transformed for much- needed modern use, preserving its distinction and unique contribution as a haven, shelter, and center for women and represents the contribution of women to the Danish society.

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