In August 1889, the up-and-coming circus operator Paul Busch applies to the city of Altona, which did not yet belong to Hamburg, to build a “circus with stable buildings and a restoration/café-bar”. Permission is granted and the result is a dodecagonal gyro made of steel and corrugated iron. The main building measures thirty meters in diameter. It provided space for 3,000 spectators. The centerpiece was the arena, which was illuminated by a huge chandelier. In 1891 is the opening. After a few years, the exciting circus season ends in Altona. The reason is not a failure – on the contrary: Paul Busch is so successful that he bought the competitor Renz’s building in 1899. Busch moves his circus to this building at Millerntor, nowadays there still is the Zirkusweg there.
At the beginning of the 20th century Ernst Friedrich Michaelis from Lokstedt buys the empty building in Altona and transforms it into a theater. Great for Busch as it means he will not have to worry about other circuses in his former building. At the moment of sale it is the 100th anniversary of Friedrich Schiller’s death – Michaelis calls his new acquisition the Schiller-Theater in honor of the poet. The auditorium is designed in the manner of an amphitheater around a 12 meter wide and 16 meter deep stage. Around 1,500 visitors can be seated. The opening is scheduled for 19 April 1905. But had to be postponed for 1 day because of problems with the iron curtain.
At the time, the Schiller audience was not only offered spoken theater: in the summer Michaelis books the seasonally unemployed artists of the Staatsoper and lets them play in Altona. Also artist performances and even ring fights are on the board.
When the First World War begins in 1914, revenues collapse. In 1916, the architect Michaelis broke with his theater. The Schiller Theater changes hands several times. But war, revolution and the troubled post-war years do not give rise to any great blossoming. A merger with the Altonaer Stadttheater even brings public subsidies to the private Schiller Theater for the first time. And artistically, the house under Max Ellen, who takes the helm in 1923 in the hand, quite positive attention. But there is a lack of money to keep the house and pay the staff. In April 1931 the house is foreclosed. It falls for 28,500 Reichsmark to the Judge Dr. Otto Wolff from Altona.
Wolff has the theater rebuilt again – into an opera house. For the management, he hires the aspiring theater maker Hanns Walther Sattler. 1932 is opening with the “Freischütz”. Director Sattler, Social Democrat and Freemason, leaves the stage to left-wing activists at night. But he is forced to even condone the “Nazi guest performance stage” after the Nazi takeover – with a piece created by none other than Joseph Goebbels.
Sattler’s original ensemble is dwindling because more and more Jewish employees have to flee. For some time, Sattler can come to terms with the regime. He brings followers and Nazis into his house, but behaves loyally opposite to other employees, as witnesses stress later. The Schlingerkurs works until 1939. Then the authorities seal the Schiller opera. Official explanation: There is no air-raid shelter. The last program on New Year’s Eve is entitled “Three cheerful hours”.
During the Second World War, a firebomb destroyed the stage house and part of the roof. Soldiers now use the Schiller opera to shoot their vehicles before leaving for the front. In 1944, the former performance hall becomes a prisoner-of-war camp. As the historian Anke Rees revealed, the Nazis interned about 700 Italian soldiers there. They belong to the so-called Badoglio troops who had opposed the Germans allied with Italy. At least three people will die there during those times.
After the war, the building is empty. At first, there are considerations to convert it into an event center. But the building authority is against it, because the extent of the bomb damage is unclear. Alwin Hönisch, who has been the owner for several years, has another plan: he wants to set up a restaurant in the annexes of the Schiller Opera – and a pig mast in the large hall. But finally he decides to use the corrugated iron construction as “Autobahnhof”. Long-distance drivers should be able to have their lorries stored and repaired there and spend the night in the hotel converted extensions. In the official registration cards for the “Hotel Schiller-Oper”, however, there are numerous jobs for 1950, as historian Rees noted during her archival research, but no truck drivers. Especially women would have lived in the dorm-like building: artists and dancers, chambermaids, domestic workers, nurses, sales assistants. Finally, Hönisch goes bankrupt. In 1952, the Schiller opera is once again foreclosed.
Things are going better for the new owner Kurt Ehrhardt. He continues to run the Schiller-Oper as a dormitory – for the rapidly growing throng of foreign workers working in companies like the Blohm and Voss shipyards. In the 1960s, the house is quite popular among Italian “guest workers”. A compatriot runs a restaurant in the former foyer.
From 1970, a bizarre story begins about the future of the Schiller Opera. At that time, the media reported that the owners would like to rebuild the former performance building as a “commercial event center”. The district office, on the other hand, wants the building torn down and the site turned into a green space. The owners reject a sale to the city – they probably would not have too much money.
In the coming decades, the owners, the city and the district have such contradictory plans for the use of the complex that in the end, besides much work for architects’ offices, law firms and government employees – nothing comes out. After a fire in the mid-1970s, there is talk of a demolition and construction of a trade fair skyscraper, several times allegedly circus operators want to “make of the dilapidated building again a magnificent circus” Amongst them Gerd Siemoneit from Circus Barum and Berhard Paul from the Circus Roncalli. City planners dream of a “pavilion for exhibitions, music events and traveling theater performances with a youth club, a restaurant-café or a palm house”, sometimes a soccer ball. In the 1980s, the owners put forward plans for a media company and for a combination of theater and shopping market – but from the perspective of the city, the traffic situation with too few parking spaces argues against it.
In the 1990s, up to 100 asylum seekers were temporarily quartered in appalling circumstances in the additions to the Schiller Opera. The Social Welfare Office transfers hundreds of thousands of Deutschmarks to the owner. At the same time, he rents the former foyer to restaurateurs, who are building up a noble restaurant wall to wall to the asylum seeker’s bedrooms. Finally, the owner’s plans to demolish everything in order to build a new apartment building, offices and an event center. However, in 1998 the monument protection office announced that it would protect the Schiller opera with its special steel construction: “In fact, the circus architecture of the late 19th century is well documented in this complex, and the engineering structure of the industrial age is excellently preserved.”
Promptly there are new plans for the Schiller Opera: The office of star architect Hadi Teherani proposes to move the old circus rotunda a few meters to create space next door for a new building with offices, apartments, shops and restaurants. A roof should connect both parts to create an additional protected area. But the city refuses the consent – it should be a neighborhood compatible use.
In 2003 a young bookseller and an art historian take over the lease. They turn the battered rooms into a much acclaimed club with live music, DJs, swing nights, readings and wacky art actions. In 2004, they even managed to put on an appearance by an opera singer in the former performance hall. However, the public may not enter the rotunda for security reasons. In 2006, they close the club again.
Since the early 2000s, the owners had the conversion concept revised several times, until the city finally agrees with the draft. But – nothing happens. Instead, the heirs of Kurt Ehrhardt apply to demolish the Schiller opera in 2007. The monument protection office contradicts immediately. Even the later presented idea to dismantle the building and rebuild it at another location in Hamburg, finds no approval. In March 2012, the Schiller Opera will be definitively listed. An important step, as researcher Rees says: “This is the last such construction in the whole of Germany, and the Schiller Opera is a memorial place and a cultural monument of Hamburg.”
For several years, the Schiller Opera has a new owner – a real estate company. Most recently, a local resident initiative worked with an architect to come up with a new proposal. Thereafter, the steel skeleton of the old circus is to be exposed. Around it be residential buildings should be constructed.
Bei der Schilleroper