Aachen's city hall dates back to the 14th century (Photo: http://drakin.com)



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Aachen City Hall
By Urs Enke

19 February 2006: Rumour has it that some people on their first visit to Aachen mistake the historical City Hall for part of Charlemagne's famous Cathedral. While the former does have a carillon, but hardly looks like a church, the error is probably due to the City Hall’s massive appearance and its situation on higher ground than the neighbouring Cathedral, whose relatively modest size scarcely lives up to its fame.

First built 1330-49 on a Karolingian palace's remnants, only one of the City Hall's lateral towers (Granusturm) dates back to Charlemagne's time. Conceived as a symbol of pride of the citizens of Aachen, which back then had the special status of an 'Imperial Free City' in the Holy Roman Empire, the City Hall started hosting the banquets that followed the crowning of German kings - a title usually preluding emperorship - in the Cathedral nearby.

In 1656, destruction caused by a large fire prompted the rebuilding of some roofs and towers in baroque style of the gothic building. Further changes turned it into a baroque palace in the 18th century, but these were reversed in the 19th alongside the addition of neo-gothic paintings, reliefs and sculptures, among them a an array of 50 statues of German kings on the elaborate north facade. Another fire in 1883 as well as World War II once again destroyed roofs and towers, whose reconstruction was not completed until 1978.

The contemporary appearance of Aachen's City Hall is thus an amalgamation of the works of various eras, with many interesting and playful details incorporated. Historical art can also be found inside, but the Imperial Treasures on display are mere copies of originals now exhibited in Vienna's Imperial Palace.

Today, the building only partly does justice to the term 'City Hall': The city council still convenes there, but the daily administrative work takes place elsewhere. The prestigious rooms, especially the Coronation Hall, find a far more fitting use in the form of various festivities, most notably the annual ceremony during which the city's famous Charlemagne Prize is awarded. The prize honours individuals or organizations, who have made outstanding contributions to the European cause – nowadays by more peaceful means than those employed by Charlemagne himself.

Most citizens of Aachen, however, enjoy their City Hall as a magnificient backdrop for any public events taking place on the market square or on the ‘Katschhof’ square between the City Hall and the Cathedral, especially the traditional Christmas Fair.

Currently, the city administration is planning a modern, glass-faced museum to join the two historical buildings in a surely controversial redevelopment move, yet one fully in line with 1200 years' tradition of architectural change. Citizens and tourists alike have definitely not seen the last of it.


Aachen's historic skyline (Photo: Andreas Herrmann / VVA)


Introducing
the City of Aachen

Lacking any kind of river or even a significant brook, the city of Aachen owes its existence to its hot springs. Having attracted people for thousands of years, they first supplied the Romans with water for (military) baths and later prompted Frankish king Pippin to establish a court in what he called "Aquis villa", the "Town of the Waters". His son Charlemagne, founder of the Holy Roman Empire, later chose the place as his residence, building a chapel and a palace, which should later become (the site of) Cathedral and City Hall.

For 600 years, Aachen was to be the coronation site of German kings. Yet even in 1600, the town's population hardly exceeded 14,000, and the fire of 1656 reportedly destroyed almost 90 per cent of its houses. Its wealth and size increased in the course of the 18th century, Aachen became an important spa and thus a popular destination for eminent Europeans.

Meanwhile ranking as a city (population surpassed 100,000 in 1890) and having been left comparably untouched by World War I, destruction came upon Aachen again in World War II, leaving only every third house inhabitable. At the time the city became western Germany's first to be entered by Allied troops, only 11,000 inhabitants remained.

Since then, however, European integration once again gave Aachen the opportunity to benefit from its location at the heart of Europe, on the borders to Belgium and the Netherlands. The city’s international status is further underlined by some 6.000 foreign students at Aachen's two universities, which with 40,000 students in total also constitute an important economic factor for the city of 260,000.