Bricks and Stones Breathe History in North German City

A medieval powerhouse and home to literary giant Thomas Mann now tells its tale as a 'world heritage site.'

It is not a bad idea for a journalist to take a break from the standard news agenda to take a longer look - a look over a period of centuries, for instance.

Thus the Monitor's Bonn bureau became, over a recent weekend, the Lubeck bureau. This north German city, in medieval times the headquarters of the Hanseatic League, was in its heyday the third-largest city in Europe, after Prague and Cologne. Its gabled-facade architecture was widely imitated within the countries along the Baltic and North Seas, especially in the Netherlands. In fact, the Dutch are credited with inventing the style, which rankles Lubeckers.

Ten years ago, the United Nations listed the entire old city, an egg-shaped island surrounded by rivers and canals, as a "world heritage site." It was a tribute not only to the city's historic preservation but its restoration as well, after damage from Allied bombing raids in World War II. Some houses have been partly redone - plain faades for the lower two or three floors, elegant gables above - and the world-heritage designation gives hope that at least in some cases the job may someday be completed.

But a city as a theme park? Not quite. Even the old city has a pedestrian main street of soulless postwar chain stores that could be anywhere in Germany.

Despite this mixed bag, or perhaps because of it, Lubeck is a good place to consider what the question of an architectural heritage, or cultural heritage generally, mean to the life of a city.

Lubeck has another, more recent claim to fame. It is the birthplace of Thomas Mann, the literary giant of 20th-century Germany, and his older brother Heinrich, also a noted writer. Thomas Mann set his autobiographical novel, "Buddenbrooks," the story of the decline of a north German merchant family in the 19th century, in Lubeck.

"Here you have the most popular German novel of this century, written by the most popular German author of this century, and it all takes place right here," says Klaus von Sobbel, the guide of a literary walking tour. He is gathering his charges in front of Buddenbrook House, which once belonged to Mann's grandparents and whose presence in the novel is so strong it almost seems to be one of the main characters. "This is unique in Germany. You can go to Weimar," he says, referring to another city that is an important cultural center, "and you see references to [Johann Wolfgang von] Goethe and [Frederich von] Schiller all over. But you don't see Weimar in their writings."

When he says the novel was set here, he means here. The shopping street around the corner turns out to be the site of the birthplaces of the two brothers. A stone's throw from the Buddenbrook House is the Marienkirche, where young Thomas and his fictional alter ego took lessons on the magnificent organ.

The Stadttheater, around another corner, has received a new (1908) facade since the Manns were boys. But it was there that Thomas learned to love the music of Richard Wagner, which became a strong influence on Mann's literary works.

Thus, in a concrete sense - or perhaps one should say in a brick-and-cobblestone sense - this makes Lubeck an excellent place to consider the interplay of place and culture. Here past is present, and culture gives depth to even a flat facade.

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