For his birthday I showed up at his apartment and told him I had a surprise. We hadn’t been broken up long, and it was probably too soon for friendship, but what the hell. We’d made enough mistakes already and what did one more matter?
We biked over the river and up the steep hill on the ass end of Sachsenhausen. Past a Vietnamese restaurant and almost to the top of the steep incline stood the old Henninger Brewery, empty now, on its way to being torn down, surrounded by a fence with a wide-open gate. It was 2006.
I wish I had gone back to take pictures of the facade. I remember a large empty square wreathed with red-brick, black-shuddered two story buildings: the offices. Nothing moved, nothing except the two people quiety creeping across the square and toward the brick buildings and a handful of crows whose presence solidified the feeling that we were about to enter the mad lair of a brilliant eccentric like Willy Wonka.
The back end of the square opened out into bigger buildings, and off to the left somewhere stood the infamous Henninger Tower, built in 1960 to store grain and topped with a rotating restaurant that travel websites still refer to as a city emblem.
We entered the offices through an open door. The second floor appeared to have been someone’s apartment. Old wallpaper peeled from walls where a calendar from another decade still hung. We held our breath as drunk voices floated up from the street, but they passed on. The bathroom was still intact; he laughed and decided to give it a try. “I wonder if it still works,” he said, pulling the metal chain. It did, and it felt louder than Niagra in that empty silence. But the drunks were gone, and only the crows remained to caw their derision from black-shudder perches.
There wasn’t a lot to see, so we crossed the square and entered the bigger buildings. It was dark, and we had one head lamp, one candle, and the flash of the camera. Stalactites covered the low ceilings of underground tunnels that led us under the street and then up, up, up a long, steep stair and to a locked grate on the other side of the road. We fantasized about the underground parties that would never happen, about how the guests would be told to arrive in small groups and slip quietly through that door and follow the tunnel into the brewing rooms where they’d dance for days without realizing that above them, the world plodded on.
What we assumed were once brewing rooms were rotting underground cathedrals: not ornate, but with huge arching ceilings two or three stories high. A metal stairwell led down and down, two cathedrals deep, then three, then four. I lost count at (I foggily think) six, and we didn’t go any further. My imagination filled each cavernous space with the elephantine vats that probably once filled them. So this is where they brew industrial quantities of beer…
There are things you will find in almost every abandoned industrial building: rubble, single shoes, and ancient pictures taped to the walls by long-gone squatters. Usually you find porn. This row of Bravo celebrity stickers lined a short dead-end passageway near the brewing rooms.
Further on in the other direction was a small room covered in celebrity posters. I took home a dusty picture of a freight train that I later lost in a move. Usually it is bad form to take anything from the abandoned buildings you explore. For the building’s future urban explorers and for the case that you happen to be found out by the police. But in the case of buildings in the process of being demolished, I feel a small souvenir is a nice way to let the building’s ghosts live on.
The small room had probably been squatted by several people sometime in the eighties, given the bands and celebrities featured on the posters. What had they done there? How long had they stayed? What was their story? My skin prickled, imagining the lives that had taken place in this damp, dark room beneath the earth. It felt as if they’d just left, but they must have been gone for at least a decade. Places unfrequented by tourists retain an imprint of everything that has happened there long after the last echo has faded away.
Lungs tired of the stale, damp air, we went up. The Henninger Tower was locked up tight, but the factory attic was not, and the empty A-framed room was littered with more debris than we had found anywhere else in the building.
I love abandoned buildings because they are filled with stories, and with ghosts. They have absorbed pieces of the hundreds of lives that have touched them, and their walls are full of whispers. But the whispers are only half-stories, beginnings and middles and ends, pieces, ruins. Never enough to complete the story and always enough to keep you coming back again and again and again.
In the attic I found Josef Schäfer’s 2nd grade report card from 1948, about the year that the factory was just getting back in full swing for the first time since the damage done during an air raid during October of 1943.
How the hell does a 2nd grader’s report card end up in the attic of an abandoned beer factory 58 years after it was printed? The question fills me with the good kind of chill. I don’t know if you noticed, but I like stories, and an object like that is like a portal into thousands of stories. Rabid though my imagination might be, I’d bet you that I still haven’t managed to imagine the truth, so beautifully improbably as it always is.
The factory has since been completely demolished. But did they fill in every story of the brewing cathedrals? Or do they lie sleeping and sighing beneath the earth, waiting for the next explorer whose ear they can fill with whispered secrets.
This report card—as well as many, many other finds from both abandoned buildings and the trash—is featured in issue one of my zine Gefunden. You can purchase copies from me at 2 euros a piece (plus postage) if abandoned places and objects tickle your fancy as they do mine. Until next time.