Historic Old Town of Frankfurt Until the Bombing

Old Town Frankfurt showing the Chicken Market (Hühnermarkt) in 1900

The Chicken Market (Hühnermarkt) in 1900 before it was later destroyed

Up until the Second World War, the original Frankfurt Old Town with its winding streets was the city’s great pride, even if many people considered it dusty in terms of urban planning at the time. The historic Old Town consisted of the medieval town center, which was fortified with the surrounding Staufen Wall. The Old Town (Altstadt) has been surrounded by the so-called New Town (Neustadt) within the Wallanlagen since the 14th century. The Neustadt is now part of the city center district (Innenstadt) and the Old Town is the smallest district of Frankfurt.

The historic Frankfurt Old Town comprised 1,250 half-timbered houses, mostly from the Middle Ages, and was one of the largest half-timbered towns in Germany. In addition, the city had spacious exhibition courtyards, the main stone buildings of which were erected over exhibition vaults, as well as medieval city castles of the Frankfurt patriciate.

Historic Old Town Frankfurt - Goldhutgasse in 1902

The Goldhutgasse alley in 1902

The Old Town (Altstadt) buildings had up to five full floors and (due to the usual, very steep roofs) several attic floors. Many of the upper floors protruded significantly from the previous one, so that the residents of the upper floors could partially shake hands across the alley. The majority of Frankfurt’s population lived in the densely populated old town, while the New Town (Neustadt) retained the character of a suburb with loosely built-up buildings and even agricultural areas well into the 18th century.

Visiting the old town with its cantilevered half-timbered houses was fascinating for visitors and locals alike. The densely built houses in the historic Old Town were one of the most important attractions for tourists in Germany.

Urban Structure

Frankfurt Old Town in 1942 before the destruction - aerial photo

In terms of urban planning, the medieval Old Town had a clear structure with three north-south axes: In the west, the Kornmarkt ran between the Bockenheimer Pforte (also called Katharinenpforte after the Katharinenkirche was later built there) and the Leonhardstor next to the Leonhardskirche at the river Main. In the middle, the Neue Kräme connected the two largest squares in the Old Town, the Liebfrauenberg with the Römerberg and further with the Fahrtor on the banks of the Main to the south and the port there. To the east of the cathedral, the Fahrgasse ran from the Bornheimer Pforte near today’s Konstablerwache to the Main Bridge. It was the busiest street in Frankfurt until the 20th century.

The six east-west axes were less clearly visible in the cityscape. The important Weckmarkt-Saalgasse-Alte Mainzer Gasse road ran near what was then the northern bank of the Main, with the Bendergasse-Limpurgergasse-Münzgasse and Kannengießergasse-Markt-Wedelgasse-Barfüßergasse connections to the north. Other important east-west connections were the Schnurgasse, which ran roughly along today’s Berliner Strasse, and the Töngesgasse-Bleidenstrasse-Großer Hirschgraben road. The wooden moat marked the northern edge of the Old Town.

Old Town Frankfurt destructed by WW2

The Old Town of Frankfurt, which was completely erased by the Second World War (the city model of the destroyed Frankfurt can be seen in the Historical Museum).

During the Second World War, the entire medieval Old Town was wiped out. The Old Town of Frankfurt was selected for a major attack on October 4, 1943, because the proportion of wood in the total building mass was highest in the Old Town and there was a close distribution of buildings.

From this time on, the pride of the Frankfurters in their city died out almost suddenly. But the people were longing for the Old Town and its fame remained.

Reconstruction of Individual Buildings

St. Paul's Church Frankfurt - Old Town (Altstadt)

St. Paul’s Church (Paulskirche in German) in 2009: easily recognizable in the north, buildings from the 1950s and 1960s were quickly erected. At the top left you can see the now demolished Technical City Hall, at the top right the rebuilt Ostzeile on the Römerberg square.

Large parts of the old town were completely rebuilt after the destruction of the Second World War, so that only very few buildings with historical structures have been preserved. After the rubble had been cleared – as was often the case during this period – modernizers and keepers faced each other, so that construction was initially halted until 1952.

The keepers, mainly represented by the Association of Friends of the Old Town, did not advocate a large-scale reconstruction of the old town, but above all the preservation of the old road network with small-scale rebuilding and the reconstruction of some important buildings.

A mixed solution was finally found, with a clear tendency towards modernizers: some prominent architectural monuments were reconstructed, including the St. Paul’s Church in 1947 and the Goethe House in 1949. After 1952, the Römer Town Hall, the Staufen Wall, the Stone House, the Saalhof, the Carmelite Monastery and the Canvas House followed. The cathedral, the Old Nikolai Church, the Church of Our Beloved Lady and the Dominican Monastery were rebuilt from urban funds from 1952 to 1962 from the destroyed endowment churches in the old town. The burned-out ruins of the Gothic Weißfrauenkirche and the classicist German Reformed Church were removed in 1953.

Goethe House Frankfurt - old vs new

Old vs new: The Goethe House around 1870 (left) and 2019 (right).

Houses in the Frankfurt Old Town district from the 1950s and 1960s

Old Town does not mean old buildings: The majority of the houses in the Altstadt district are now functional buildings from the 1950s and 1960s.

Of the rebuilt buildings, only the Goethe House has been restored largely true to the original. Most of the other reconstructions were more or less simplified (for example the houses Silberberg, Frauenstein and Salzhaus in the Römer complex) or with modern extensions (for example the stone house).

Much of the former old town was built in the simple style of the 1950s. In the process, multi-storey residential buildings emerged, partly as perimeter block development, partly as loosened-up row buildings, often with green courtyards. In addition, large-scale functional buildings such as the building of the Federal Audit Office (meanwhile replaced by a commercial complex), the Kleinmarkthalle and numerous parking garages were built, including the Hauptwache car park in 1956 as the first public car park in Germany.

Furthermore, new main roads were drawn through the rubble desert, rejecting the historical layout. This meant that the car-friendly Frankfurt, which was often desired even before the war, was to become a reality. This was realized in the form of the east-west axis, inaugurated on November 16, 1953 as the street at the Paulskirche and from 1955 until today known as Berliner Strasse. It connects the also widened Weißfrauenstrasse with the north-south axis of Kurt-Schumacher-Strasse, which runs through the eastern city center. In 1955, the ten-story high-rise at the intersection of Berliner Strasse and Fahrgasse was completed. With a height of 30 meters, it is the tallest residential building in the old town.

Dom Römer area in 1956

The area between the cathedral and Römerberg (above) in 1956: a fallow area for decades.

The area between the cathedral and the Römer initially remained a wasteland, the development of which was debated for a long time. In the early 1970s, the Technical City Hall (1972–1974) and the Historical Museum (1971/72) were two large monolithic buildings in a brutalist concrete style, regardless of historical floor plans and shapes. The Technical City Hall has meanwhile been torn down to make room for the New Old Town. The Historical Museum has also been demolished in the meantime and replaced by new buildings that try to take up an old design language.

Between 1981 and 1983 the historic east side of the Römerberg was reconstructed with five half-timbered buildings, above all the famous Grosser Engel community center. The other reconstructions, which particularly fortunately represent all forms of the local half-timbered building from Gothic to Classicism, can be seen as prototypes of the urban effect of the development of the entire district that was preserved until 1944.

At the same time as the historicizing Ostzeile, the Art Gallery Schirn (Kunsthalle Schirn) and the postmodern new buildings on Saalgasse were built. In 1991 the Museum of Modern Art opened on Braubachstrasse. The House at the Cathedral was built in 2007 on Domstrasse on the preserved substructure of the former main customs office from 1927.

Between 2010 and 2018, the reconstructed Old Town was finally built on the Dom-Römer area of ​​the former Technical City Hall. The New Old Town has received many praise for its exemplary implementation and the combination of imitated original architecture and new buildings. Since it opened, the old town has attracted an even greater number of visitors each year.