Gothic Revival St. Nikolai's
Church ( ) was formerly one of the five Lutheran Hauptkirchen
(main churches) in the city of Hamburg.
is now in ruins, serving as a memorial and an important
architectural landmark. When Hamburgers
"Nikolaikirche", it is generally to this church that is referred,
and not the new Hauptkirche
of St. Nikolai which is
located in the Harvestehude
The church was the tallest building in the world from 1874 to 1876
and is still the second tallest building in Hamburg.
The current condition of the Nikolaikirche is the result of air
raids during World War II
(see Bombing of Hamburg in World
), continuing demolition in 1951 and restoration work in
the 1990s. The Rettet die Nikolaikirche e.V.
Nikolai church) foundation is responsible for the restoration of
the church. The foundation is supported in its work by the city of
Hamburg, the congregation of St. Nikolai's Church and various
corporate sponsors and private contributors. The organization is
charged with maintaining the building's existing structure,
restoration, arranging events and displays in the church, and
operating an informational center housed in the church's
With the founding of the Nikolai settlement and a harbor
on the Alster
12th century, a chapel dedicated to Saint
, patron saint of sailors, was erected. This wood
building was the second church in Hamburg, after the Cathedral of
In 1335, some years before the onslaught of the Black Death
, construction on a new brick
building began. The structure was to be a three-naved hall church
in the typical North German Brick Gothic
style. This building stood until
the middle of the 19th century, undergoing changes, expansions, and
withstanding several partial destructions. The tower, which was
erected in 1517, burned down in 1589. The tower built to replace it
collapsed in 1644. The last tower of the old Nikolai church was
designed by Peter Marquardt
Marquardt tower had a height of 122 meters and with its
characteristic dome was a landmark of the city and jewel of its
As the center of one of the four Hamburg parishes, Nikolai's church
was heavily involved in all the theological debates that were
fought out in the city, especially during the Reformation
. After the minister
Henning Kissenbrügge had resigned in 1524, the residents chose as
minister Johannes Bugenhagen, a profiled Reformer and confidant to
. The conservative city
council was able to prevent his appointment by making Kissenbrügge
stay. However, they could not stop the general wave of elected
Lutheran ministers in Hamburg; in St. Nikolai, Johann Zegenhagen
was appointed after Kissenbrügge's final departure. The Reformation
was completed peacefully, and in 1528 Bugenhagen appeared in
Hamburg and became the preacher at St. Nikolai. He is known for
establishing a church order in Hamburg which regulated finances and
other church affairs such as the school curriculum. This order
continued for 200 years.
The old Nikolaikirche was the first large public building to burn
in the great fire of May 1842. The destruction of the Nikolaikirche
is described by chroniclers as a particularly moving event for the
citizens. It was the first large building to burn, and was an
indication of how catastrophic the fire would become. On 5 May
the noon service held by preacher Wendt, who
stood in for the minister Carl Moenckeberg, had to be cut short and
ended with an intercessory prayer for the saving of the church. One
obviously did not count on the loss of the church as most art
treasures were not saved.
The spire was engulfed by the fire at about four o'clock in the
afternoon. Despite desperate efforts, it was not possible to
contain the fire due to the equipment of the day, which did not
allow water to be carried in sufficient quantity to the heights of
the tower. It finally collapsed, setting the nave
on fire and burning it completely.
Right: The neo-Gothic church.
Left: the spire that survived.
Shortly after the fire, the church was rebuilt again. In 1843, a
Collection was started,
and in 1844 there was an architectural
competition, won by the architect Gottfried Semper
(a native of nearby
) with the draft of a Roman
domed structure. His design,
however, was not realized, as it did not fit into Hamburg’s
townscape and shortly before this time, the construction of the
cathedral in 1842 had led to a Gothic
revival in Germany. Hamburg’s medieval cathedral had been
demolished in 1805.
The English architect George
, who was an expert for the restoration of
medieval churches and an advocate of the gothic architectural
style, was commissioned to devise a new design. He designed an 86
, with a 28 meter-high vault.
The architecture was strongly influenced by French and English
gothic styles, though the pointed spire is typically German. The
amount of sculptures
made from sandstone
in the interior and on the spire was
unusual. The new church was built to the southeast, a short
distance from the old location, where the Neue Burg
Castle) had once stood. The construction started in 1846, and on
27 September 1863
the church was consecrated. The 147.3 meter-high spire was finished
in 1874. At that time, the Nikolaikirche was the
highest building in the world until the completion of the cathedral of Rouen in
Second to the TV tower, the Nikolaiturm is still the
second highest building in Hamburg.
World War II
The clearly visible spire of the Nikolaikirche served as a goal and
orientation marker for the pilots of the Allied Air Forces during
the extensive air raids on Hamburg. On 28
the church was heavily damaged by
aerial bombs. The roof collapsed and the interior of the nave
suffered heavy damage. The walls began to show cracks, yet they as
well as the spire, did not collapse.
New Sankt Nikolai in
After World War II
The basic structure of the gothic church remained intact to a large
extent and reconstruction was a realistic option. Nevertheless, it
was decided to demolish the nave while leaving the spire untouched.
As the vicinity of the church was no longer a residential area, a
new St. Nikolai was built in the district of Harvestehude
. In 1951 the nave was finally
demolished and the rubble was partially used for the reinforcement
of the banks of the river Elbe.
The loss of a valuable gothic revival architectural monument was
regretted by many, but after the war there were other priorities as
far as reconstruction was concerned. Contrary to the
Michaeliskirche the Nikolaikirche was not regarded as one of
Hamburg’s important landmarks.
The spire and some remainders of the wall were preserved as a
memorial against the war, but were not cared for several decades
and they consequently gradually decayed. This changed in 1987, when
the Rettet die Nikolaikirche e.V.
foundation began to
restore the existing fabric of the building and erected a so-called
"place of encounters" (a room for events and exhibitions) in the
crypt. It attempts to salvage the pieces of rubble that were
removed in 1951, and was, for example, able to reclaim some rubble
from the destroyed nave from the river Elbe in November 2000.
reconstruction of the church, as it was done with the Frauenkirche in Dresden, is not
However, a 51-bell carillon was installed in 1993
as a memorial.
1 September 2005, an
elevator has taken visitors to a 75.3 metre-high platform inside
the spire to enjoy history panels and a panoramic view over Hamburg
and in particular the nearby Speicherstadt (lit. city of warehouses).