More than the headquarters of a store and chocolate museum, the Meßberg building, number 1, in Hamburg, carries a strong and sad story. The building was projected in the 1920’s by the brothers Hans and Oskar Gerson, also responsible by other great constructions in Hamburg and filled with prestige on that time.
Among their work is the incredible Sprinkenhof, made in partnership with Fritz Höger. The building is known for its symmetry on the details and the intercalated clinker bricks. I usually play by saying that this building is the dream of those obsessed with organization, for every brick and detail follows an unmistaken sequence. Nowadays, the Sprinkenhof, as well as the Meßberghof, are part of the buildings that are considered Heritage by UNESCO.
Initially, the project was conceived to house the HAPAG shipping company (HAPAG-Lloyd, nowadays), and it was baptized as ‘Ballinhaus’ in reference to its director’s name, Albert Ballin (by the way, a very present character in Hamburg History before the World War II, and that has revolutionized the hosting and traveling concepts as we know today). Mr. Ballin’s story deserves another post. Let’s go back to the Gerson brothers.
Even without finishing his college degree in Architecture, Hans and Oskar Gerson started to get international acknowledgement by their projects. They used to keep their Architecture office in the neighborhood of Altona and, later, their younger brother Ernst joined them in the business.
But then, in 1930’s, the brothers, who came from a Jewish family, started being followed by de Nazis. In 1931, Hans, at age 50, dies. Two years later, Oskar and Ernst are excluded from the German Architect Association, for not being ‘Aryan architects’, and start having permission to only work in construction sites commissioned by Jewish businessmen. In 1939, Oskar runs away to the United States with his family, and the Ballinhaus is renamed by the Nazis as ‘Meßberghof’, in relation to the address of the place.
If the Gerson brothers’ tragic story isn’t enough, all the work designed by them starts being used by the Nazis as an office for the company “Tesch und Stabenow”. If this name doesn’t ring a bell, this was the company that produced Zyklon-B, the same gas used in concentration camps. It wasn’t the factory that was placed in that location, but all the bureaucracy so that the material was taken to its horrible destiny. After the war ended, during the Hamburg occupation by the British Army, the owners of the company were tried by the British Military Court for being co-responsible for the deaths on concentration camps, since they knew what the toxic gas was used for, and they were sentenced to hanging in 1946.
After a lot of consideration as in how to transform the location in a memorial, in 1997 the Hamburg City Hall incorporated, on the side of the building, a plaque in honor of the victims, with a brief story of the place. Nowadays, besides the Chocoversum museum, the building also hosts the Jewish association Ebenezer, for cultural and philanthropical purposes.
In the end, Ernst took his family to New Zealand. Oskar went to the other side of the world. First London and then, United States, where he worked projecting private homes, and he lived in California until his death in 1966. He was 80 years old.
Other Gerson brothers work are alive and well preserved in Hamburg, such as the Thaliahaus and some buildings in other neighborhoods of the town, like Uhlenhorst and Othmarschen.
For those who are interested in Modern Architecture in Germany, I also recommend a visitation to Chilehaus, near Hamburg central station, right beside Chocoversum. The building is from 1924 and it was designed by Fritz Höger, who worked in a few projects with the Gerson brothers. Chilehaus is, until today, one of the most iconic and photographed buildings in town. Its shape is unique, imitating the a ship’s bow, and its side reminds us of a wave movement.