Uncertainty Over a Palace of Parking

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BERLIN -- The preservation of a sooty parking garage covered with graffiti is a tough sell in a city whose landmarks include fragments of the wall that for decades defined the cold war, a jagged church tower that stands as testament to the ravages of World War II and elegant Prussian palaces where German leaders host visiting dignitaries.

With its name spelled in black letters set in yellow blocks that run down the side of the six-story brick-and-glass building, the Kant Garage hardly stands out as a landmark. Yet fans of the modernist style of architecture that marked Weimar-era Berlin flock to the building, on a busy thoroughfare in a western neighborhood, to marvel at design features like the intertwined double-helix ramps, considered revolutionary at the time of the garage's construction in 1929.

The building's owners want to tear it down, and they took the first step last month by applying to end its status as a landmark, granted in 1991. Their argument is that the structure is weakening and that repairs would be too costly for the income the garage generates.

So the future of a building that survived Allied bombing during World War II and the postwar push to replace older structures now hangs in the balance of today's market realities. Germany has 1.3 million recognized memorials, historically protected buildings and sites, many of them considered crucial living testimony to a painful past. But in an age of public austerity, landmarks, too, must pay their way.

The Kant Garage does not lack for supporters, who see it as a symbol of the reunified Berlin that has emerged as Europe's capital of creativity, embracing an influx of artists and intellectuals last seen here during the heyday of the 1920s. For the 80th anniversary this year of Hitler's rise to power, the city is honoring the lost contributions of those Jews, Gypsies and others who fled the Nazi terror, including the garage's Jewish architect, Hermann Zweigenthal.

"It is historically protected and, as such, worth preserving," said Marc Schulte, a Berlin city councilor who received the petition from the company that owns the garage, Karl H. Pepper Vermögensverwaltung, to remove its protected status. The decision will be made jointly by the city and the state authority for landmarks and will take several more weeks, he said.

Mr. Schulte emphasized that regardless of historical significance, the authorities could not force an owner to hold on to a building that does not generate enough income to cover its maintenance costs. "We all agree the building is worth keeping," Mr. Schulte said. "The question is, who is going to pay for it?"

Like the street on which it sits, the garage is named for the philosopher Immanuel Kant. From the street, the glass facade juts out between two brick walls like a soaring bay window. Viewed from the train line that runs behind it, the towering glass wall at the back of the garage gives it an unusual air of grandiosity, despite the cracks and graffiti. But its most ingenious details are revealed only to those who head past the Sprint gas station and up one of two concentric helical ramps, leading to several dozen parking stalls on each floor.

Antony Herrey, Mr. Zweigenthal's son, who lives in Cambridge, Mass., said he believed that the ramps might have been inspired by a visit to the chateau at Chambord, France, with its famed double-helix staircase that many attribute to Leonardo da Vinci."My father was a great lover of art and architecture, and he had been at Chambord," Mr. Herrey, who goes by the surname his father adopted after fleeing Nazi Germany in 1933, said in a telephone interview. "I can't tell you for sure that was his inspiration, but it makes sense."

Perhaps that connection explains how the building was called the Kant Garage Palace when it first opened. It is remarkable not only for the ingenuity of its ramps, but also for the way natural light filtered onto every floor, where automobile owners could park their cars in individual, walled-in spaces resembling box stalls, secured by rolling steel doors. Secret deals, including a prisoner transfer involving members of the Red Army Faction, a far-left guerrilla group, are believed to have taken place behind those doors, adding to West Berlin's postwar legend.

The company declined to comment on the building or its financial situation. Local news media have reported that the garage's more than 200 parking spaces each rent for 80 euros, or about $106, a month and that all have tenants.

But the recent fates of other threatened landmark buildings in Berlin do not bode well for the garage. Two years ago, work crews demolished the Deutschlandhalle arena inaugurated by Hitler and used for the 1936 Summer Olympics. The Palace of the Republic, which had housed East Germany's Parliament, several art galleries, a theater and a bowling alley, was torn down in 2008, despite a public outcry and a lengthy legal battle.

The younger a building is, the harder it is to make a case for its preservation, said Ursula Schirmer of the German Foundation for Monument Protection, which raises awareness about landmarks and appeals for private donations to help cover costs for repair and maintenance. She noted the importance that Berlin city officials had placed on the modernist housing estates that were designed by contemporaries of Mr. Zweigenthal in the late 1920s and recognized by the United Nations cultural agency in 2008.

"With a pretty half-timbered house or a romantic castle, it is much easier," Ms. Schirmer said. "An automobile garage is just not as nice looking. Or perhaps we have not yet learned to appreciate the beauty of such a building."

Mr. Herrey, 81, said he had met with the garage's owners over the years to discuss ideas for redeveloping the space to make it profitable. He even considered tackling the job himself, but said he never had enough time or money. Historians, students from Berlin's Technical University and others have sought to find a way to restore the building to its original splendor and secure its financial future, but nothing has come of it so far.

Although the Austrian-born Mr. Zweigenthal, under the name Hermann Herrey, went on to design homes on Long Island, work on several planning projects for New York City and re-establish a successful career as a theater designer in the 1950s before his death in 1968 at 64, his son said that nothing he did after the garage could rival it.

"He was moderately successful in the United States, but he never achieved what he did before he left Germany," Mr. Herrey said. "That's what makes this a tragedy."

Victor Homola contributed reporting.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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