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The White Hall

July 19, 2018

A modern heating system for the Kaiser

by Antoinette Lepper

The huge ventilator that used to form part of a heating system in the Berlin Palace will be shown in the basement of the future Humboldt Forum. As one of the few surviving examples of the mechanical equipment used in buildings in times of the German Empire, it has been carefully documented and restored by students from the Hochschule für Technik und Wirtschaft (HTW, University of Applied Sciences) in Berlin.

A part of the original cellar of the Berlin Palace will be accessible to the public in the basement level of the Humboldt Forum. It was not far from there, explains Dr Ruth Keller of HTW’S Conservation and Restoration department, that the ventilator was salvaged one cold January day in 2012 using heavy equipment.

Archaeologists from the Landesdenkmalamt (Land Authority for the Protection of Listed Monuments) had originally uncovered this and another ventilator back in 1995/1996. Both belonged to a central heating and ventilation system that Kaiser Wilhelm II had had installed in the palace basement in 1894 as part of expanding the stately reception hall known as the Weisse Saal. A welcome development for the Kaiser’s guests, given that the old heating system had also allowed unpleasant odours and noxious fumes to waft into the largest ballroom of the Berlin Palace – not to mention soot particles, which had soiled and ruined the dresses of the ladies.

Boiler room in the Reichstag building
Ventilator of the Berlin Palace
Air shaft
The White Hall

The new system installed in the late 19th century was among the most modern of its time. Its designers had been advised by Hermann Rietschel, who since 1885 had held the world’s first teaching chair for Ventilation and Heating at Berlin’s Royal Technical University. The ventilators took in fresh air from outside that was then filtered, warmed in heating chambers, and conveyed to the reception hall through an intricate network of pipes. This made the system quite special, according to Ruth Keller: At a time when the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph was still having the Hofburg in Vienna lit with candles and petrol lamps, Wilhelm II was indulging his love of technical progress by having his palaces outfitted with cutting-edge equipment, thus also adding to his prestige.

Many of the past innovations have not survived. The government of the German Democratic Republic had the electric engines that powered the ventilators removed in 1950, shortly before the palace was demolished. Other elements were disposed of during subsequent excavation work. This makes it all the more vital for today’s researchers to preserve the ventilator as an industrial artefact of cultural and historical value and to exhibit it to the public.

In a project supported by the Land Authority for the Protection of Listed Monuments, the ventilator has now been documented, stabilised, and cleaned by students from HTW’s Conservation and Restoration department under the aegis of Ruth Keller and restorer Christian Bode. The plan is to move this behemoth, which is extremely heavy, back to the palace cellar in the fall of next year.

Dr Antoinette Lepper is a research associate at the History of the Site unit of the Stiftung Humboldt Forum im Berliner Schloss. She has been responsible for the presentation of objects in the exhibition spaces “Schlosskeller” (palace cellar) and Skulpturensaal (sculpture gallery) since July of 2016. In addition to these tasks, she is contributing to a film installation on the history of the site.

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