Where WWII bombs once laid waste, a Dresden gem shines again

The newly reopened Green Vault displays artifacts amassed by King Augustus – if not his legendary ability to snap horseshoes bare-handed.

Augustus the Strong was one of Europe's most powerful – and colorful – monarchs.

King of Poland and Elector of Saxony, legend has it he snapped horseshoes with his bare hands and sired hundreds of children (all but one illegitimate).

In 1723, he began renovating his treasure chambers, filling eight rooms in a sunny corner of his palace.

When it was completed in 1730, Augustus's "Green Vault" contained everything from cameos carved onto cherry pits to gold wine buckets the size of washtubs. The objects were housed in exquisitely painted rooms covered with mirrors and gilt.

Then he threw open the doors, creating what curators here call Europe's first public museum.

"The vault was the political propaganda of the 18th century," says Dirk Syndram, a curator for the Dresden State Art Collections. "It was designed to show his subjects and visitors what a great king he was."

Last month, after a $57 million restoration project, the vault reopened, looking just as it did the day Augustus died 273 years ago – not a glass enclosure or security barrier to be seen.

Nearly 3,000 artifacts, worth billions of dollars, are displayed on open shelves.

Themed rooms are filled with carved amber clocks, gilded silver sculptures, precious stones, crystal carved in fanciful shapes, and sparkling gems embedded in everything from swords to shoe buckles. Most of the objects are arranged on fancy tables and gilded shelves, with no glass cases.

From WWII rubble to urban renewal

The Vault, for which almost 100,000 tickets were presold as early as February, is the latest step in an urban renewal unrivaled in Germany. Once referred to as "Florence on the Elbe" for its architecture and rich art collections, Dresden's historic center was destroyed by British and American bombers in 1945.

(Most of the city's art collections, including the vault's contents, survived the war hidden deep in mountain caves.)

Socialist planners in the former East Germany rebuilt with brutal, modern concrete, and left some of the city's architectural icons in ruins for decades.

But Germany's reunification gave Dresdeners new energy. Private donations funded the reconstruction of the iconic Church of Our Lady for the city's 800th anniversary this year. The 12-museum Dresden State Art Collection is renovating the legendary Albertinum Gallery, which is slated to reopen in 2009.

And the Royal Porcelain collection – another legacy of Augustus, who founded Europe's first porcelain factory in Meissen – reopens in a new facility this month.

The historic main train station's new roof is a billowing, Teflon-coated membrane designed by architect Norman Foster. The German Military History Museum recently commissioned Daniel Libeskind – the architect who designed New York's planned 9/11 memorial, the Freedom Tower – to modernize the 19th-century main building.

The rapid urban restoration landed Dresden on UNESCO's World Heritage List in 2004. "It was a really fast decision," says Dieter Offenhäusser, deputy secretary general of the German UNESCO commission.

"Dresden is definitely on top of the tourist attractions of Germany."

Back to 1730 – via modern gadgetry

Curators at Augustus's vault say they view their museum as a time machine. But it turns out that creating an experience that takes visitors back three centuries requires a lot of 21st-century gadgetry.

Tickets are stamped with specific times, limiting the number of visitors to 100 per hour. A moving doormat scrubs the bottom of visitors' shoes before they are ushered into a combination airlock and "dust sluice" designed to suck away excess particles.

The vault's air quality rivals a microchip manufacturer's clean room: Because the artifacts aren't protected by cases, massive machines under the floor constantly, silently filter the atmosphere and control the temperature.

No glass barriers or roped-off areas

Aside from a few subtly placed security cameras,it's tough to tell exactly what's standing between a visitor, a carved, eye-catching rhinoceros-horn goblet, and a mad dash for the doors.

Mr. Syndram, the vault's director, says that's no accident.

"There's no other museum as original as this. There's not even something to prevent you from touching the objects – although I hope you won't," he says.

When pressed for details on the security system, he laughs.

"The first part of a good security concept," he says, "is that you shouldn't tell anyone what the security concept is."

For Dresden residents, the Green Vault, the Church of Our Lady, and other projects are about restoring pride.

Dresdener Bernd Hoffman was one of the first people through the airlock when the vault opened to the public Sept. 15.

"This is as important to Dresden as the White House is to Washington," says Hoffman.

"It's a long process, but we're so happy to see it all rebuilt, little by little."

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