The enormous travertine marble building has a checkered past. On land that was once part of the Rothschild estate, later the site for the Frankfurt psychiatric hospital, the IG Farben company acquired the land and decided to build upon it a huge office complex as their administrative headquarters.
Using a round the clock workforce, in only 24 months, Farben finished their new headquarters building in 1930. The world’s largest chemical company’s headquarters was housed in a massive nine story building with six wings, the largest building in Europe.
It was from this building that Farben became the industrial leader in the manufacturing of dyes, pharmaceuticals, and lubricating oil. And as the Nazis came to power, it was Farben that developed new explosives, synthetic oil and rubber, and pioneered the use methanol as a gasoline substitute. And infamously, it was Farben that developed Zyklon gas, the gas used to kill more than a million people in Nazi death camps.
Farben developed the first true antibiotics, they pioneered the production of aspirin, and at one time led the world in pharmaceutical research. Bayer, a former division of Farben, still makes the low-dose aspirin I take daily, the word aspirin originally being a trade name owned by Farben. And the company shipped tons of the cyanide-based Zyklon B gas pellets to Auschwitz. Without question, the chemical company used hundreds of thousands of inmates of concentration camps as slave laborers and literally purchased human beings to be used as guinea pigs in medical experiments.
During the war, the town of Frankfurt was a frequent target of Allied bombing, suffering devastating raids for years, then was the site for extensive ground combat in March, 1945. To put it mildly, Frankfurt was flattened. The historic medieval center of the town was destroyed, almost every prominent building within the city was severely damaged—except for the IG Farben building, which suffered almost no significant damage.
After the war, the building was seized by the U. S. Army, which used the building as the “European Pentagon”. For years, General Eisenhower had his office in the building, giving rise to a myth that Ike had personally ordered that the building be spared in all bombing raids so that the Allies could use the building in the post war period. While this tale appears in several history books, it is nonsense.
“Smart bombs” didn’t exist in World War II. To hit a single factory building, hundreds of bombs were dropped on multiple raids to insure the target’s destruction. That the Farben building was spared was simply a coincidence, as the 1945 photo at right clearly shows. Note the damage to the nearby buildings in the foreground.
Eisenhower did not order the building to be spared by bombing raids, but recognizing the future utility of the enormous office complex, he did redraw the map of postwar Germany so that the Farben building would be inside the American Zone of occupied Germany, instead of the French Zone.
By the time the U. S. Army arrived, the building had been long abandoned by company officials, many of whom would later be convicted of war crimes at Nuremberg. As one of the few intact buildings, thousands of homeless people were temporarily taking refuge in the massive building.
For fifty years, the building was used the U. S. Army. This was the administrative headquarters for the Marshall Plan, it was the US military headquarters for all of Europe, and of course it was also the European headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency. Finally, in 1995, the building was turned over to the German government, which eventually became the home of the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University, one of the largest universities in Germany.
Throughout all these changes, the building has gone through a confusing series of name changes. Until 1945, it was the IG Farben Building, then it was Headquarters Building, United States Army Europe (USAREUR), before being named the General Creighton W. Abrams Building. Once acquired by the university, the building was renamed the Poelzig-Complex, after the building’s architect. (Though undeniably brilliant, Hans Poelzig had not been one of Hitler’s favorite architects, and had been officially banned from entering the building during the war.)
Within the university, there arose a controversy about the name, as many believed that renaming the building was a hollow attempt to escape the connection the building had with Nazi era. Preferring to confront the dark history, the university has returned to the original name, the IG Farben Bulding.
Though I find the building’s history fascinating, what brought the building to my attention are two unusual features. The first are the fully functional paternoster elevators. If you are not familiar with type of conveyance, a paternoster elevator is a continually moving elevator whose cars have no doors. Similar to a Ferris wheel, the car is attached to a continual belt that carries the car up and over the top, then down and under the bottom before starting its upward journey again. To enter or exit a car, you literally jump on or off a moving car. Sort of a vertical escalator.
Yes, the cars are dangerous, having earned the nickname “Murder Elevators” because of the occasional accident involving slow moving passengers. The only paternoster elevator I have ever seen was at the Shamrock Hotel in Houston. Because of accidents, it was firmly locked up and employees were forbidden to use it. Because it was a real blast to ride, the locks were frequently removed without the management’s knowledge.
As far as I—and OSHA—know, there are no functioning paternoster elevators in the United States. Currently, the elevators are a real hit with university students in the Farben Building and the administration has vowed to keep them functioning. Though dangerous, they are efficient with low maintenance and operating costs. (And as a side benefit, may help weed out the elderly tenured faculty.)
Which brings us to the Am Wasser, a bronze statue of a water nymph by the sculptor Fritz Klimsch. The statue is undeniably beautiful, as indeed are most of the works of Klimsch, who is not as popular today as he should be.
Klimsch was one of the leading artists of Europe before Hitler, but during the war, Klimsch was forced to create busts of Adolf Hitler and other leading Nazi artists. Never a member or supporter of the Nazi Party, Klimsch’s popularity with Hitler and Goebbels led to his expulsion from the academy of arts and his deportation from his home in Austria. It was only shortly before his death in 1960 that Klimsch once again regained the respect of the European art world.
Originally, the bronze statue was placed at the end of an oblong reflecting pool directly in front of the building. Shortly after General Eisenhower took up residence in the building, he was visited by his wife, Mamie. She took one look at the statue and it was rather quickly moved to the Hoechst Chemical Plant. When the university took over the building, the statue was quietly moved back to its original location. Shown below, she is gazing towards the front of the building, ironically now called the Eisenhower Rotunda.