Beelitz Heilstätten, Germany

In the middle of a forest 12 miles south of Potsdam lies a crumbling ruin of incredible scale and splendour. Originally commissioned in 1896 as a sanatorium and tuberculosis clinic to counter the high number of lung-related illnesses, the National Insurance Institute’s flagship facility ultimately comprised 64 buildings set in 340 hectares of pristine pine woodland.

Wide angle shot of a majestic building, slowly crumbling in the snow
Welcome to Beelitz – Enjoy your stay!

Tuberculosis was a problem for Berlin’s industry at the turn of the century. With almost every second death being attributable to the disease that filled your lungs with holes, phrases like “You’ll get Moths” soon worked their way into the regional vernacular. Something had to be done, starting with the purchase of 140 acres of land from the town of Beelitz in 1896. Architects Heino Schmieden and Julius Böthke presented grand plans: 600 beds in two large pavilions, women to the west and men to the east. The patients’ rooms were to have either two or four beds and as many as possible should include balconies, allowing for regular air baths in the therapeutic forest atmosphere. Workshops and utility rooms were typically on the ground floor along with day and visitation rooms, leaving space under the roof for staff accommodation. The clean Beelitz air would also be administered in 250-300m long reclining halls; single storey structures allowing large groups of patients to recuperate communally as close to the forest as possible.

A low wooden building standing amongst trees
Reclining Halls

The biggest of several therapy centres constructed in Germany around this time, Beelitz was a tremendous success, and capacity was increased by another 600 beds between 1905 and 1908 under the watchful eye of Fritz Schultz. Supporting infrastructure was needed too, so Schultz added a post office, restaurant, nursery, stables, beer garden, workshops, kitchens, bakery, butchers shop, and a power plant – the biggest in Germany at the time and survived to this day by its 44 meter high half-timbered water tower.

The outbreak of World War 1 saw Beelitz requisitioned as a military hospital by the red cross, making a total of 1,500 beds available for the treatment of those wounded by new horrors like machine guns and poison gas. By the end of the war in 1918 Beelitz had treated 12,500 soldiers, including a young infantry soldier named Adolf Hitler who had sustained a thigh injury at the hands of the British during the Battle of the Somme.

Corner-on photo of a large timber framed building
Women’s Pavilion

The facility was returned to therapeutic purposes in 1920, and patient numbers rose sharply with the formation of Greater Berlin. For the following three years only women were admitted, the men being shipped off to the mountains or the seaside for their dose of fresh air. Rising inflation throughout Germany put a stop to new admissions in 1923 and some wards had to be closed for almost a year before business resumed in 1924, this time admitting men once more. The period from 1902 to 1926 witnessed the treatment of 66,500 men, 44,000 women, and 6,500 children.

A person lies strapped to a light table while doctors and nurses prepare for a procedure
Women’s Operating Theatre

The inflation crisis of 1926 overcome, Germany stabilises and invests in infrastructure once more. Again Beelitz is expanded, this time through the addition of a women’s surgical building  – the Alpenhaus – where TB treatment evolved into what we recognise today as modern lung surgery. The facility now offers 950 beds for tuberculosis patients and 400 beds for the treatment of psychological disorders, rheumatism, stomach and heart disease, and spends the following decade growing its reputation as a leader in its field. World War 2 sees Beelitz requisitioned as a military hospital once more in 1939, with both the chapel and the Alpenhaus sustaining severe damage at the hands of the allies. The church was demolished completely and the Alpenhaus never fully rebuilt, existing today only as a shell of a building with a small forest on its roof.

Following the end of the war, Beelitz is taken over by the Soviets and remains a closed military zone, treating troops and senior communist party officials including Erich Honecker in 1990. Shortly afterwards, the former East German premier escaped to Moscow to avoid prosecution over the deaths of East German citizens who lost their lives while attempting to flee his “democratic republic”. Soviet military ultimately withdrew in 1994 following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and since 1997 some parts of the site have been redeveloped and used for neurological rehabilitation and Parkinson’s research.

Once at the forefront of pulmonary medicine, the largest grade II listed site in the Brandenburg region bows out with a supporting role in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist.

For years the impressive complex has sat unattended and unloved at the mercy of the elements and unscrupulous members of the public, some of whom seem to equate having a good time with mindless vandalism. This continues to be a problem for the few local residents whose houses remain dotted between the derelict buildings. Fed up with replacing broken windows and scrubbing away graffiti they take a dim view of uninvited guests, and are eager to see something done with the site once more.

Looking past the decaying window panes from an upper floor at another building across the yard
Present Day: The Bath House seen from Admin

Perhaps then it’s for the best that one company has started offering regular tours of Beelitz, aimed mainly at photographers and decay enthusiasts. For a small fee, will meet you at the Beelitz-Heilstätten railway station (also derelict) for a briefing, then open the doors to the three most impressive buildings before turning you loose. Strict warnings on personal safety and signed disclaimers are mandatory, bringing a model to pose in your own lingerie designs is optional. On the day we visited Go2Know also set up a butane heater and a small cooker, offering complimentary tea, coffee, and mulled wine to punters who had braved temperatures of -11 degrees to wander some of the finest ruins in Europe today.

After the architectural grandeur, one of the first things you notice is the sheer size of the buildings, let alone the entire complex. Our group consisted of about 25 visitors and we were only granted access to three buildings, yet we really only saw each other at the most popular of locations. One of these was the main hall of the bath house, whose domed ceiling towered three storeys above a recessed void that was patently too small to be called a pool. The tiles of this vast chamber are said to have been manufactured by Villeroy & Boch, which must have cost a pretty penny back in the day.

Some photographers like to bring props to derelict locations. We’re quite used to seeing suitably shabby children’s dolls and the occasional noose adding to the omnipresent graffiti, but I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen somebody carrying a dead dog to a shoot. Chances are it was sourced locally, though why it chose to climb a bedside table before shuffling off its mortal coil is a secret known only to the set designer.

Aside from the bathroom there wasn’t much else of interest in the first building, so we crossed the yard and availed ourselves of some mulled wine in the administrative block opposite. That one looked pretty trashed as well, but redeemed itself through the discovery of a small, self-contained flat high up under the eaves. My first thought was that this would have been staff accommodation, but closer inspection of the wallpaper near the bathroom door revealed some light pencil marks and writing, charting the annual growth of what must have been a 12-14 year old child. What was a kid doing up here? The rooms were clearly residential rather than institutional, and didn’t strike me as the type that you’d pick if you were bringing up a family.

Following the admin building we turned our attention to the men’s sanatorium, a massive block trying to slink into the shadow of a concrete soldier guarding one side of the square. Apart from the door that had been officially opened for us this place was well secured, an impressive feat given its size. We entered via a cavernous vestibule which opened out to reveal a setting I’ve seen all over the internet – Beelitz’ famous staircases. Now some derelict buildings need a little help by way of old photos or stories before the imaginative juices start to flow, and others go for the G-spot straight away. This was one of those. Wrought iron banisters connected three floors bound by peeling paint walls, dust motes playing lazily in shards of afternoon sunlight like water on a harp. Standing here looking up one could almost hear the distant clatter of patient trolleys and bedpans, yet at the same time you had a powerful feeling of having disturbed a peace centuries old.

A huge lizard has been painted on one wall of a derelict sports hall

The men’s sanatorium was to treat us to a few more gems before the day was out, each new discovery pushing our notion of what was possible to cram into such a seemingly compact building. A number of ornate communal balconies on the first floor must have been splendid little sun traps in their day, affording convenient respite for nearby patient’s rooms. On the ground floor we found an enormous gymnasium, whose achingly soviet olympic murals were joined on one wall by a giant rendering of an iguana. Never ones to let an open space get away with just one use, the Germans had designed the gymnasium with a stage at one end, set in which were several trap doors just begging to be explored. One of these led to a complex network of tunnels running all the way under the building and beyond, but time was running out and we’d need to get back to the Admin building if we didn’t want to get locked in.

With the tour over and everybody out, we decided to follow some of the other photographers to a local cafe just down the road where we gorged ourselves on schnitzel and beer, working life back into frozen limbs and bantering about the best bits of Beelitz. But the site had one last card up it’s sleeve, one final hurrah before home: the bombed-out women’s pavilion, or Alpenhaus. As the last daylight drained from the sky we drove just around the corner and parked up at the edge of a new housing development, in what is probably the location of choice for people with similar intentions. After a short walk in the now very dark forest, we came upon a huge building that stared back at us with so many blank windows, imposing and ever so slightly menacing because you couldn’t work out exactly where the top floor ended and the forest / night sky began. We soon realised the reason for this; the structure had stood for so long that trees were growing on the roof. Not just juvenile whips of hazel and elderberry, actual, fat pine trees that must have been pushing twenty years plus.

We had a mooch around but two things became apparent very quickly; the building was trashed and probably quite dangerous, and we should quit while we were ahead. Forsaking the roof for another time, we made our way back to the car through a dark, snowbound forest, but not before shooting off a couple of long exposures to finish the day. So long Beelitz. We’ll be back.

  3 comments for “Beelitz Heilstätten, Germany

  1. February 21, 2013 at 13:36

    Super cool – reminds me of a place I visited on Crete some years ago.

  2. February 21, 2013 at 13:39

    Wrong – Rhodes it was: – a place called “Profitis Ilias”

    • February 22, 2013 at 12:50

      That looks brilliant Lars, not to mention warmer than Berlin. Quite fancy a bit of sunshine now …

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