A paradise for children in East Berlin

‘Es weihnachtet sehr in Berlin’, as the Germans say. Christmas is in the air. A festive Christmas market on every square, shopping malls filled with people looking for the perfect gift or outfit and kids bouncing around hyped up on excitement and the sugar in their Christmas cookies. If you were shopping for Christmas gifts with your kids in GDR times, there was one place you and your little ones certainly wouldn’t have wanted to miss: Strausberger Platz and its famous Haus des Kindes. Truth be told: now I know about this, I feel sorry I didn’t grow up in East Berlin.

‘Haus des Kindes’, home of the child: big, stylish letters on top of the 12-storey building made sure no visitor to Karl-Marx-Allee would miss this children’s paradise at Strausberger Platz. Coming from Alexanderplatz, it was housed in the right one of the two towers that flank the entrance to Strausberger Platz. Three floors of the building were filled with kid’s fashion, shoes, accessories for sports and trekking, toys, children’s books, vinyl records and school equipment. Whatever gifts you wanted to give your kids (within the limitations of the GDR, that is), you would find it at Strausberger Platz 19. Shopping here was even more fun because of the beautiful mosaics on the walls and the Sputnik-model ‘flying’ around.

No adults please

But there was more: on the ground floor parents could bring their children to a kindergarten, where the kids could play and read while their parents did the shopping – a kind of Smalland with educated staff, in other words. The best part of the building, however, must have been the two top floors. Not only because of the view, but also because of the key rule here: adults were only allowed entry when accompanied by a child. This was a ‘Kinder-Café’, a café especially for children. Until 1966, there was also a puppet theatre/movie theatre with 150 seats in the basement of the building. There were daily shows here, for example (in 1956) a puppet show of ‘King Thrushbeard’, one of the fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm.

Nowadays, a ‘Haus des Kindes’ would probably be a project of some sort of multinational toy manufacturing company or a kid’s TV channel. Not so in the GDR. This was a government initiative and it was opened in October 1954 by the first and only President of the GDR himself, Wilhelm Pieck. As with so many things in the GDR, even the opening date was not chosen randomly: the opening of the ‘first childrens department store of the whole of Germany’ at the 18th of October 1954 was in the same month as the fifth birthday of the GDR. The idea for a Kinderkaufhaus wasn’t entirely new, however: there was one in Prague already. On the outside of the building, there was a quote from Goethe‘s Faust: “Solch ein Gewimmel möchte ich sehn, auf freiem Grund mit freiem Volke stehn.” (Such a throng I would fain see, standing with a free people on a free soil)

Fairytales and emperors

The ideas for the interior design came from this project in Prague, but also from the neo-classicist palace Charlottenhof in Potsdam, the former imperial residence close to Berlin. As a result, the entrance of the building is filled with marble and columns, and has a big painting on the wall. The stairwells were decorated with small, iron animals from fairy tales, made by the famous Kunstschmiede Berlin. There were apartments on the floors between the store and the cafe. Even the architect of Strausberger Platz, Hermann Henselmann, liked this building so much that he decided to move into two of these apartments with his family. Interesting fact for architects: when built, the two towers on Strausberger Platz were the only prefabricated buildings on Karl-Marx-Allee and their frames are made out of reinforced steel components.

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Painting in the entrance hall. Image courtesy of Daphne Damiaans

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Detail of the entrance hall (2). Image courtesy of Daphne Damiaans

Cockroaches and the Stasi

So as always there’s the inevitable question: what happened after the fall of the Wall? After being renovated in 1985, the Kinderkaufhaus had to close its doors permanently in 1990. The café on the top floor had already been shut down 20 years before, due to massive complaints about cockroaches. The story goes that afterwards the Stasi, the GDR secret service, used the top floors of the building to observe the East Berliners – in 1990, employers of the housing corporation found camera mounts in the building. Interesting fact, not just for architects: members of the Stasi were called “Kakerlaken”, cockroaches, by opponents of the GDR system.

 

Nowadays, there are lofts on the 11th and 12th floor, both occupying an amazing 300 square metres (3,200 square feet). The Sputnik has disappeared, but the drawings in the entrance hall are still there, together with the marble and the columns. Unfortunately, the fairy tale animals in the staircases were removed during renovations in the 1990’s. Someone who did survive, however, is former President Wilhelm Pieck: a plaque on the outside of the building still proudly commemorates him opening the Haus des Kindes on the 18th of October 1954. The two lower floors stood empty for almost 10 years until a suitable new owner was found in 1999: a shop selling design furniture. Not much Christmas fun for kids there anymore, but probably all the more for the owners of the lofts on the top floors.

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Still there: this plaque states that the GDR’s first president opened the Haus des Kindes in 1954. Image courtesy of Daphne Damiaans

Tip: If you’re Christmas shopping in Berlin (or visit the city at any other point during the year), there’s still a place to enjoy Strausberger Platz from above, comparable with the view the visitors of the Kinder-Café once had: Haus Berlin, the other ‘tower’ on Strausberger Platz, houses a dancing school/panorama bar on its top floor. It’s open every night, just ring the doorbell on the ground floor and take the elevator to the top.