For this edition of Bar of the Week, we’re stepping back in search of the old Weimar Berlin: a lost city that for a brief moment between the two World Wars, was the most decadent and dazzling of all the cities in Europe. Berlin “had a jewel-like sparkle, especially at night, that didn’t exist in Paris,” recalled Josephine Baker.
At its glitziest height, there over nine hundred dance halls alone in Berlin, and countless more cellar bars, cocktail lounge and nightclubs. Today, virtually nothing remains of this old Berlin, except for one place: dust down your finest flapper dresses and pinstripe suits, as we head into the underworld and the last old dance hall left in Berlin: Clärchen’s Ballhaus.
We’re on Auguststraße in Mitte-Berlin, about to step inside a faded, gilded treasure. Clärchen’s Ballhaus has survived the fall of the Kaiser, the brutal, jackbooted clamp down of National Socialism, the firestorm that destroyed virtually all of Berlin during the latter days of World War II, the Berlin Wall, and Germany’s dramatic re-unification.
The original building on Auguststraße dates back to the 1890s. But it was in 1913 that Fritz Bühler and his wife Clara opened the dance hall; Fritz named the joint Clärchen, in her honour. With a leafy beer garden in the courtyard and a dance hall downstairs, it soon become a popular night spot as it still is today.
But it is upstairs where you are swiftly transported to the Berlin of a century ago. Up a narrow staircase is the Spiegelsaal, the Hall of Mirrors. Whilst not as opulent as its namesake in the Palace of Versailles, the Hall of Mirrors upstairs at Clärchen’s is perhaps more magical: The room is graced with cracked mirrors, faded gilt frames, peeling paint and the air of being in a place undisturbed for a hundred years.
But the Ballhaus is far from a dusty relic; it is a thriving, pulsating place to spend the evening. Dancing takes place all week long, with specific nights for swing, cha-cha, foxtrot and tangos, whilst candlelit dinners are held upstairs in this living time capsule of the old Weimar Republic. “It’s a place that exists outside of time that is accessible to all,” says Marion Kiesow, who has written a recent book on the fabled history of the dance hall.
The Nazi ban on American swing music saw the ballroom briefly close in 1942. During the Battle for Berlin it was commandeered by the Wehrmacht as a command centre. Clärchen’s eventually felt the force of the Allied bombing of Berlin in February 1945, when the front of the building was partially destroyed. But the dancing soon returned in July the same year amidst the smouldering rubble of Berlin; Clara Bühler recalls finding old city battle maps which she used as makeshift table clothes in place of scarce to find linens.
During the Cold War, Clärchen’s Ballhaus struggled through life behind the Berlin wall. “The dance hall had a bad reputation during the Communist era,” Kiesow says. “But that didn’t start until after Clara’s death in 1971.” It soon developed a seedier reputation as a centre for the black market and vice.
The decline of the dance hall saw on the verge of finally being demolished until in 2005 it was rescued by David Regehr and Christian Schulz. The pair re-invigorated the storied venue and today it thrives with regular dance classes, old fashioned dancing, a restaurant and bar set amidst the faded grandeur of old Berlin.
It attracts old and young alike. One of the oldest regulars is 91 year old Lona Jakob who still comes to be twirled around the old floorboards. It is where she met her husband over sixty years ago. “I love it here because it’s where I met my beloved.”
An earlier version of this article was written for the always excellent www.messynessychic.com