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Haus Vaterland: The lost pleasure palace of Potsdamer Platz

The legendary Haus Vaterland was once a vibrant epicentre of nightlife in Weimar-era Berlin, we look back on these remains of revelry.

Photo: IMAGO / Arkivi

Wandering through the 1990s micro-Manhattan of Potsdamer Platz, it’s nigh-on impossible to imagine what it was like a century ago, as Berlin’s most raucous and glittering square.

In 1924, a police constable inside the elevated booth that arguably constituted Europe’s first traffic light would have presided over the clamour of lurching trams and beetly black cars. There’s a replica version of the old light with its clock tower on the corner of Ebertstraße and Leipziger Straße today. Berlin’s oldest railway station, the 1838 Potsdamer Bahnhof, had been adorned to celebrate the beginning of the 20th century with a façade that was nothing short of palatial. A foggy night would diffuse the neon lights from the nearby Europa-Palast cinema, which was part of the Europahaus complex, the 1931 red-and-white steel-framed high-rise, which still stands today. The site of today’s Mall of Berlin off Leipziger Platz was once occupied by the fabulously-opulent Wertheim department store – 83 elevators!

4,000 bulbs twinkled in turn to make the building appear to be spinning, Coney-Island-style

Clubs run by the tuxedoed gangsters of Berlin’s criminal rings abounded, too: even the legendary bar and nightclub Moka Efti (lately of Babylon Berlin fame) was only a hop away on Friedrichstraße, then full of cabaret halls and opium dens. And on Bellevuestraße, once lined with opulent mansions the traces of which are almost completely lost, stood the pompous and imposing Königliches Wilhelms-Gymnasium. (The school was later used by the Nazis as one of the houses of the so-called ‘People’s Court’ and then bombed in an air raid in February 1945, during which its sinister Nazi judge Roland Freisler was killed.) But cast your eyes along Stresemannstraße in the direction of Kreuzberg, and you’ll hardly miss the hulk of red brick and glass on Potsdamer Platz 10, more or less the dimensions of the building which once stood on that very soil: the legendary Haus Vaterland.


Haus Vaterland was the name given to the pleasure palace that opened in 1928 inside the spectacular sandstone-on-steel Haus Potsdam’ then 15 years old. The architect was a certain Franz Heinrich Schwechten, who also constructed Berlin’s two most famous future ruins: Anhalter Bahnhof, the remaining sliver of which stands not far from Potsdamer Platz, and the Kaiser-Wilhelm Memorial Church near Zoo station, also cut down to a fraction of its former self, with its jagged steeple at eerie odds with the glamorous Kurfürstendamm skyline.

Haus Potsdam was an office building for various corporations, mainly Universum-Film Aktiengesellschaft, or UfA, a film and television conglomerate that had produced one of the most famous iterations of German Expressionism, Metropolis (1927). UfA would later temporarily become property of the Nazi Party and churn out propaganda. In fact, it’s still in operation today. With the production company dominating the building, it was no surprise that the Haus Potsdam also contained a cinema that could seat almost 1,200 and the Café Piccadilly, which could accommodate 2,500. Outside, in the midst of the hustle and bustle, sex workers would seek trade. (You can see two depicted in stretchy Expressionist style by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner in his 1914 painting ‘Potsdamer Platz’.)

There was also a speaker’s corner, where a rousing anti-war speech was made in 1916 by the comrade of Rosa Luxemburg and co-founder of the German Communist Party, Karl Liebknecht, who would be murdered by paramilitary Freikorps units three years later. (By the strange machinations of urban geography, that little bit of Potsdamer Platz would sit in the Soviet sector during the Cold War, while the rest of the square belonged to the West.) A monument to Liebknecht was conceived of in the early days of the DDR, but only the plinth was ever built, which then got stuck in the ‘death strip’ between the inner and exterior sections of the Berlin Wall – it was removed shortly after reunification, but is back in its old spot now.  


In the late 1920s, the Kempinski family, who were of Polish-Jewish origin and the owners of the world-famous Hotel Adlon, would transform Haus Potsdam into Haus Vaterland.

Carl Stahl-Urach, lighting designer for Fritz Lang, converted the roof’s copper dome into a rotunda of light – 4,000 bulbs twinkled in turn to make the building appear to be spinning, Coney-Island-style. The old Café Piccadilly was replaced by a multi-storey complex of 13 restaurants with a total capacity of 8,000.

Pioneering the very concept of experiential gastronomy, there was a Japanese teahouse, a Spanish tapas bar, a Viennese café with a special licence to sell Sachertorte, a Hungarian tavern, a Wild-West-style saloon. Most spectacular of all, the Rheinterrassen restaurant boasted a diorama of the Rhein river, twenty dancing ‘Rhineland maidens’ and an hourly pyrotechnic thunder-and-lightning storm. The complex boasted six bands – flamenco, polka, jazz – befitting the restaurants’ themes.

The ballroom, lined with palm trees, claimed to be a faithful copy of the Garden of Eden, and had a spring-bound dance floor to save its patrons’ ankles. Dining orders were sent via pneumatic tubes, and the dirty dishes returned to the kitchen on conveyor belts. The Haus Vaterland would celebrate the arrival of its millionth guest just a year after opening. But eventually, it would all disappear. 

Like the Wertheims, the Kempinskis had to flee Germany after they were compelled by the Nazis’ relentless policy of Aryanisation to sell up for a pittance in 1937. The Haus Vaterland continued to operate, even through air raids, until it was hit badly in 1943. By the time the war ended, only a shell remained of its upper storey, and yet it reopened briefly until it was burned out in the People’s Uprising of June 17, 1953. The windows were boarded up, and there it sat for years.

There was a Japanese teahouse, a Spanish tapas bar, a Viennese café… a Hungarian tavern, a Wild-West-style saloon

In 1961, it witnessed the Berlin Wall grow from barbed wire to concrete just metres away, flanking its ruins; part of Haus Vaterland sat in the curious liminal space of West Berlin just adjacent to the Wall. This was technically Soviet-occupied space, but abandoned to the Western Allies as a buffer zone to make sure the Wall would never stray onto their soil. A few metres down the long, wrecked façade, the rest of Haus Vaterland sat in West Berlin, but served little function other than sheltering the birds who would swoop down for rats scurrying about the ruins.

In the 1960s and 70s, the abandoned structure served as a convenient location for illicit and wild partying, especially by gay men from West Berlin seeking a venue free of police harassment, but before the 1970s were out, the ruins were demolished entirely. What was left of the Haus Vaterland, Berlin’s world-renowned pleasure palace, would be sold for scrap.

Nowadays, much like the rest of the surrounding area, it’s hard to conceive of the Haus Vaterland and the pulsating nightlife of the square, as you walk across the rather soulless patch of cement at Potsdamer Platz 10, where now only pigeons gather. But try to imagine it, next time you scurry past that sweep of red brick and glass.