From the mid 19th to the early 20th century, Germany’s industrial development was most closely associated with the names Alfred Krupp (for Krupp-Werke in Essen), Gottlieb Daimler (for Mercedes-Benz) Wilhelm Siemens (for Siemens AG and Siemens-Halske), August Borsig (for Borsig-Werke), Ferdinand Schichau (for the Schichau shipyards in Elbing and Danzig) and Emil Rathenau (for AEG).
As head of two electrical utility companies – Allgemeinen Elektricitäts-Gesellschaft (AEG) and Berliner Electricitäts-Werke (BEWAG) – Rathenau was instrumental in founding and later positioning AEG as a world market leader in the electricity industry.
This evolution was driven by a series of scientific discoveries that were made during the 1870s and that lent themselves to industrial applications. Rathenau was among the first to recognize the economic potential of some of these discoveries and endeavored to develop them in ways that would promote Germany’s industrial development. These discoveries included the generation of light using electricity, as well as the electrical generator, which made the economically viable generation of relatively strong electrical current possible in the first place.
In 1881 Rathenau acquired the rights to Edison’s patent and in 1883 founded Deutsche Edison Gesellschaft für angewandte Elektricität (“German Edison company for applied electricity”) for the express purpose of commercial exploitation of the Edison patent. In 1887 Rathenau founded Allgemeine Elektricitäts-Gesellschaft (AEG), the successor to Deutsche Edison Gesellschaft für angewandte Elektricität.
In February 1884, the AEG predecessor company concluded a monopoly agreement with the city of Berlin governing mutually beneficial terms and conditions under which the company that later became AEG would electrify the center of Berlin. In May of that same year, the AEG predecessor company was entered in the Commercial Register and in so doing indicated that its equity capital amounted to 3 million deutschmarks.
The new company (AEG) then purchased the property at Markgrafenstraße 44 at Gendarmenmarkt and Mauerstraße 80 in the Friedrichstadt district for the city’s envisaged central power station. Construction of this facility began in May 1884 and was completed in August 1885, an event that was marked by the festive illumination of Berlin’s Royal Theatre on Gendarmenmarkt. Markgrafenstraße 44 is today the site of a Vattenfall Europe office building.
Owing to growing demand for electricity in the area that lay between Leipziger Straße und Potsdamer Platz, the authorization process was realized in late 1884 for a second power plant at Mauerstraße 80. Construction of the facility began in mid 1885 and it went into operation on March 1886. The Mauerstraße power plant supplied Hotel Kaiserhof and provided street lighting for Unter den Linden and Leipziger Straße.
In 1888 the Markgrafenstraße power plant was greatly expanded and a new and considerably larger plant was constructed in 1889 on a newly acquired piece of property on Mauerstraße. Further technological innovations followed. In May 1896, the Mauerstraße plant also began supplying 500 volt direct current for Berlin’s first electrical trolley, which was built jointly by Siemens and Halske. In 1912, a converter was built at the Mauerstraße location to supply Berlin’s suburban train line, the S-Bahn.
This system remained in operation until 1924, and elements of it were still running in 1926. It was then razed – except for the structure that is today ewerk building C – to allow for conversion of the Mauerstraße location into a transformer plant.
Beginning in the early 1920s, technological progress allowed for the transport of higher-voltage current over longer distances, which in turn allowed power plants to be relocated to the outskirts of cities or to coal production facilities, which for Berlin mainly meant the coal mines in the southern part of the city. Toward this end, after being generated, the electricity was stepped up to 30/6 KV so that it could be transformed at the location where it was needed and prepared for distribution. This necessitated construction of centralized transformer facilities in big cities, which in Berlin was realized on a large scale by BEWAG beginning in the 1920s.
This construction work was supervised by BEWAG’s chief architect Hans-Heinrich Müller and his assistants Julius Posner and Egon Eiermann, who realized a total of 40 transformer facilities between 1924 and 1930 at an exceptionally rapid clip, and in so doing met highly demanding functional and non-functional requirements.
The Mauerstraße 80 property was integrated into Berlin’s master plan in 1922. Two years later the former central power station there was shut down, whereupon construction was begun on the Buchhändlerhof transformer facility, which was partially completed in 1926 and fully completed in 1928. The facility got its name – which means “bookseller’s center” – from the fact that Berlin’s central book distribution facility was located nearby. A great deal of construction was realized in this district prior to World War II, and as a result space was at a premium. This in turn meant that the available space had to be used efficiently, which led to realization of several unusual functional features such as placing the main control units outside the buildings themselves, resulting in realization of the familiar honeycomb structure.
When the Buchhändlerhof power plant went into operation in 1928, it was equipped with highly innovative technological solutions for its time that allowed for operation of the plant by only four workers. The facility’s service area included the area around Friedrichstraße, the entire complex of government buildings including the Prussian ministry, the imperial chancery on Wilhelmstraße, and the area around Potsdam and Leipzig squares, where the large department stores were.
Beginning in 1936, Albert Speer and his associates Theo Dierksmeyer, Willi Schelkes, Hans Stephan and Rudolf Wolters began planning a makeover of Berlin. Their plans included expanding the Reich Air Ministry in such a way that it would connect with the Berlin’s Tempelhof airport and the Brandenburg gate. In preparation for execution of this plan, the neighboring southern property on Wilhelmstraße was expropriated and for the most part razed. Hence this area (on which the High Flyer was erected in 2006) was cleared to make way for the realization of the Nazi regime’s prewar construction projects.
It should be noted that expropriation of this area also involved confiscation of a substantial amount of property belonging to Jews, who were relocated to other parts of the city where they were forced to live in squalid conditions. On the ewerk campus in front of the entrance to Mauerstraße 78 there is now a memorial to the Jews who, after being evicted from their homes, were deported. The memorial, which consists of so called “stumbling blocks”, is the work of artist Gunter Demnig and comprises brass plates (referred to as the “stumbling blocks”) on which Demnig hand stamps, ‘Here Lived’ followed by inscriptions of the names of the victims, their birth date, and if known, the date of their death.
Although the transformer facility was severely damaged in late 1944 by Allied bombings, it remained in operation.
In late April and early May of 1945, the facility lay within the final line of defense of the German Wehrmacht and Waffen SS, which were under the command of General Wilhelm Mohnke, who coordinated the final battle with the Red Army 200 meters from the imperial chancery and in the center of Berlin, until Germany surrendered to the Red Army.
During the extensive house to house fighting that characterized this final battle, additional sections of the area were severely damaged, whereupon the transformer facility ceased functioning.
Traces of this battle and the damage it caused can still be seen on the outside of some ewerk buildings, as well as in some parts of ewerk’s event spaces and staircases. Among the structures destroyed during this battle were the entire accumulator structure and the upper levels of the former central power station (today building C) as well as the east and west sections of the transformer facility (today building F).