Fire in the Hohenzollernhaus: a little bit of luck in misfortune - Namibia Safari and Lodges - Gondwana Collection

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Fire in the Hohenzollernhaus: a little bit of luck in misfortune

Avatar of inke inke - 24. June 2019 - Tourism

The Hohenzollernhaus on fire. Photo: Walter McClaren

Howling sirens, worry, bewilderment. Another fire alarm in Swakopmund! Not long ago the Dolphin Pharmacy was on fire, followed by the Metro wholesale. Only a week ago a fire in a hut in the Mondesa district devastated a family's belongings. Now part of a penthouse apartment in the historically valuable Hohenzollernhaus was on fire. Thanks to the rapid deployment of the fire brigade, a cultural-historical catastrophe could be prevented. The damage is limited.

The Swakopmund fire brigade received the emergency call on 19 June 2019 at 18:45. The men were on the scene within a few minutes. "Ten minutes later we had the fire under control," confirmed firefighter Adri Goosen. Fortunately the fire had raged in only one of the garrets of the attic flat. They were also able to prevent the flames from spreading (by the east wind) to the directly adjacent dwelling house.

"I wouldn't have dared to go to work if we hadn't been able to save this building," Goosen told Gondwana News. The cause of the fire is still being investigated. However, it is assumed that something went wrong during the renovation work on the roof. 

Since its completion, the Atlas statue on the roof carries the rumour that the Hohenzollernhaus was a house of pleasure. But it is said to have been no more than games of chance. Photo: Kirsten Kraft

The Hohenzollernhaus is now 114 years old and a popular photo motif among tourists. Hermann Dietz, a native of Thuringia, erected the impressive building: A new baroque style with renaissance echoes, as described in the book "Baukunst in Südwestafrika (1884-1904)" by Walter Peters. Dietz was 26 years old when in 1904 - together with a technical draughtsman - he put this design to paper.

According to the archive, Dietz received the building permit from the city on 19 September 1904. Croatians, who at that time moved from country to country and probably came to Swakopmund for the narrow-gauge railway project from South Africa, gave Dietz a hand. They also carried out the facades, ornamental and figurative stucco work. The Atlas figure, the bearer of the world high up on the roof, is also said to have been made by the Croatians. "Known as masters of their trade," Dietz praised his bricklayers.

Croatian guest workers helped Hermann Dietz to erect a magnificent building with ornamental and figural stucco work. Photo: Namibia Scientific Society

According to Greek mythology, Atlas was a Titan and the king of Atlantis. In the fight against the gods he wanted to storm the sky with his entourage. Zeus punished him for this. He condemned Atlas to the edge of the earth, where he was doomed to carry the celestial heavens on his shoulders forever.

He had been carrying the burden for years  when Heracles arrived one day and suggested an exchange deal. Atlas had to steal the golden apples of the Hesperides for him, guarded by the dragon Ladon. Thereafter, Heracles would take the burden off his shoulders. Atlas agreed, but when he returned with the apples, Heracles asked him to hold the globe again so that he could get a cushion for his aching shoulders. With this excuse, Heracles took off with the apples. Atlas, the deceiver, became the deceived.

It is not known why Hermann Dietz decided on an Atlas figure at the Hohenzollernhaus. However, since the beginning of construction, the walls have carried a symbolic load, which probably began with the first trade union strike of Swakopmund. The construction workers demanded higher wages for their masterwork, but Dietz was not immediately willing to respond to this demand. Thus, the Croatians stopped working. It is said that they walked past the building site and mocked Dietz at the top of their voices. Dietz had no choice but to respond to their demands in order to complete his "multi-purpose building".

The Hohenzollern Atlas with its heavenly body carries the world on his shoulders. Photo: Kirsten Kraft

As soon as 75 percent of the work on the ground floor had been completed, the next "Atlas burdens" emerged: The unquenchable thirst of the Swakopmunders and the urge to gossip. Dietz opened a hotel and bar. Every order of building material from Germany was delivered with several wooden crates of beer bottles in straw husks. The men liked to stay here after work, and so it didn't take long until the bar was said to be a brothel.

"I absolutely disagree with the sensationalist statements from journalists and idlers to temporarily create a house of pleasure of the Hohenzollern", Fritz Dietz, son of Hermann Dietz, advocated for the good reputation in a short biography about the Hohenzollernhaus. "Then all similar companies - and there were many of them at that time - would have to be classified in the same way. It is well known that during this period there were sufficient opportunities to devote oneself more discreetly to the oldest trade in the world.”

Nevertheless, the splendid building was most probably not as innocent as indicated. Less than two years after completion, a certain Benkwitz took over the management of the house. Not long afterwards, the police withdrew his license. The house – except for one room - was closed due to alleged dilapidation. Were the defects just a pretext to stop gambling and alleged prostitution, or had the entire back building, consisting of pressed plaster straw panels, become dilapidated?

In 1908, the new landlord Hagemeister renovated the hotel. In 1912 another "burden" was added: the city council moved into the rooms for a while and sent out the bills from there.

In 1912, the city council moved into the rooms for a while. Today there are private apartments in the Hohenzollernhaus. Photo: Namibia Scientific Society

In 1930 the flat roof was replaced by a gable roof. This was intended to provide permanent weather protection against moisture. "The gas lighting for hotel operations and street lighting, which was one of the first private facilities, was also impressive and worth mentioning at the time," recalled Fritz Dietz.

At present, the rooms of Hohenzollernhaus are divided into private apartments.

"Thus, a building was created that resisted all storms of nature throughout time", Dietz noted. Until the day when a fire showed its power... Thanks to the quick response, luck was on its side again. Everything could have been in ruins.

At night the fire in the Hohenzollernhaus looked worse than it was. The damage to the roof truss is already being repaired. Photo: Kirsten Kraft
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