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In Goslar in Germany, colourful facades and crooked gables boast a proud legacy

The Old Town of Goslar has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to its 1,500 well-preserved half-timbered houses from different eras dating from the 15th to 19th centuries

Published: May 25, 2024 08:16:18 AM IST
Updated: May 24, 2024 06:28:49 PM IST

In Goslar in Germany, colourful facades and crooked gables boast a proud legacyThe Siemens Family Ancestral Home, a classic half-timbered house built in 1693 is one of the largest and best-preserved mansions in Goslar. Images: Vijaya Pratap
 
Long ago in Regensburg- Germany, I took a trip on the River Danube. As the boat glided past on the serene waters, I saw beautiful houses, like in a fairy tale setting: Known as ‘half-timbered’ houses, their colourful facades and crooked gables coupled with wooden beams, decorated with golden inscriptions and carvings, had a quaint charm with an irresistible appeal to the modern eye. Much fascinated by these unique and pretty structures, I wanted to know more about them. The opportunity came up during my recent visit to the enchanting town of Goslar in Lower Saxony (Germany), where this vernacular construction technique called ‘Half Timbering’ was born.
 

What is half-timbered?

The Collins dictionary defines the term simply as, “Half-timbered is used to describe old buildings that have wooden beams showing in the brick and plaster walls, both on the inside and the outside of the building”.

But it is much more than mere wooden beams, brick and plaster: This window to a medieval lifestyle goes beyond architecture to tell a tale, of its history and construction. The stuccoed exteriors and pastel-coloured facades in dark wooden frames make you fall in love with the beautiful masterwork of those medieval masons.
 
In architecture, half-timbering refers to a structure with a frame of load-bearing timber, creating spaces between the timbers called panels, which are then filled in with some kind of non-structural material known as infill. These spaces are filled with brick or stone to form the walls so that the wood still shows on the surface. The distinctive exposed beams, cut ends, braces and studs, with spaces often filled with plaster or brick give these buildings their instantly recognisable appeal.

In Goslar in Germany, colourful facades and crooked gables boast a proud legacyA plaque on the Siemens House door. Once a year, the entire Siemens family meets in this house and has the traditional pea soup to honour their ancestry and the family’s age-old customs.
 

Goslar—the prettiest half-timbered town

As I came out of the train station and looked around, Goslar took me by surprise. I never expected so much beauty and peace packed into a small town in Lower Saxony. Nestling at the foot of the North Harz Mountains, Goslar is set amidst a splendid natural landscape. Numerous churches, over 1,500 colourful half-timbered houses and cobblestone streets make up the medieval face of the town. Founded in 922, Goslar was one of the most important seats of power in the Holy Roman Empire, owing its wealth due to the nearby mines that yielded metals like silver and copper.
 
In Goslar, I stayed in Zur Borse, a boutique hotel housed in a large, listed half-timbered building from the 16th century. Built in 1573, it is a beautifully restored building with an elegant exterior. Fitted with all modern amenities and just a five-minute walk from the historic market square, this Renaissance-style hotel in Goslar is located amid the thousand-year-old town so I could reach all the important sites within minutes by walk. Staying in the historical town gave me a sense of antiquity and I walked around in the cobbled alleys, admiring the pretty half-timbered houses while listening to the gurgling sound of streams running across.
 
Hailing from Goslar, my guide Thomas took great pride in his hometown’s legacy, the art of half-timbering. Walking through the 500-year-old former residential quarter of Goslar’s miners and the historic town centre, he explained the various aspects, giving examples and showing me the relevant specimens. The unique architecture of the buildings and the care and pride with which the centuries-old structures are preserved are commendable.

In Goslar in Germany, colourful facades and crooked gables boast a proud legacyHotel Zur Borse, a boutique hotel housed in a large, listed half-timbered building from 1573
 
“Wood is the basic material used in the construction of half-timbered buildings. The characteristic features of this wood, the climatic conditions and the carpenters’ skills are crucial to the dimensions and forms of the half-timbered houses. In timber-framed construction in the Middle Ages, for economy, cylindrical logs were cut in half, so one log could be used for two (or more) posts. The shaved side was traditionally on the exterior and everyone knew it to be half the timber. The phrase 'half-timbered' literally refers to the logs being halved, before being constructed in a simple, box-like frame.” By saying this, he solved the mystery behind this unique technique of building.

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Thomas added, “The Old Town of Goslar was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its 1,500 exceptionally well-preserved half-timbered houses from different eras, located in the centre of the Old Town within the earlier town wall. Hard and durable, the solid oak beams are the very reason that many of these buildings are still standing strong today. Through the Renaissance and Gothic periods, the base of these reliable buildings stayed much the same, with fashionable additions of each era making their way into the designs. Depending on the supply of wood in that period, as well as the architectural trends, some of the beams were added for decoration or symbolism, rather than for structural purposes.”
 
On a medieval ground plan, these 1,500 half-timbered buildings dating from the 15th to 19th centuries are preserved on just one square kilometre. In the Market Square, the central fountain is surrounded by imposing buildings such as the ‘Kaiserworth’ (built by the cloth merchants in 1494 and now a hotel and a popular picture spot) and the Town Hall. The former city treasury is a great attraction with its Carillon bells and figures. Four times a day, in the gable of the house, three little doors open up and the wooden figures come alive, to chime and tell the history of mining in Goslar. The historic Town Hall, the churches and the town defences, houses of wealthy individuals and guilds, all feature well-preserved exteriors.  

In Goslar in Germany, colourful facades and crooked gables boast a proud legacyQuedlinburg, a small town in Saxony Anhalt is Germany´s largest half-timbered historical site, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site
 

The Siemens Family’s Ancestral Home ‘Siemenshaus’

In the midst of the historical town and diagonally opposite my hotel stands the ancestral home of the Siemens family, who founded and operate the internationally famous brand Siemens. A classic half-timbered house in Schreiberstrasse, it was built in 1693 and remains one of the largest and best-preserved patrician mansions in Goslar. The family lived in this building and conducted their business from here initially. Although I could admire the architecture of the Siemens House from the outside, I was curious to see the interiors. The caretaker, who lives nearby, was patient enough to show me around and explain the key features of the house and their significance. Only the ground floor is open for viewing. When the sturdy, carved wooden staircase starts to ascend, our tour ends. In the hall, the huge glass windows open to the street. Since it is a corner house, one can see a large part of the happenings on the street. I am sure the housemates had a good pastime watching the world go by! He said that to this day, once a year, the entire Siemens family assembles in Goslar (staying in a hotel), meets in this house, and has the traditional pea soup to honour their ancestry and the family’s age-old customs.
 
In those days, most rich houses were huge and multifunctional to accommodate the large families and the various businesses they conducted. The entry hall is huge to allow a loaded wagon to drive in there and pass into the courtyard beyond. The numerous upper-storey rooms on two wings at the back provided plenty of storage for all their goods, both household and business. There is a beer brewing room, a remnant of Goslar’s commercial history that is well preserved with all the equipment.

Also read: Wooden architecture: An ecological alternative on the rise
 

Next stop: Quedlinburg

This small town in Saxony Anhalt is Germany´s largest half-timbered historical site, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
 
Wandering through its cobbled and picturesque alleys, I discovered eight centuries of half-timbered architecture. The medieval ambience adds to its charm, with over 2,000 well-preserved buildings dating from the 14th to 19th centuries, the highest concentration in Germany. It feels like strolling through a living museum, with houses nestled close together, their cantilevers almost touching, vines entwined on the old walls of small shops and cafés, giving a cosy and homely feeling.

In Goslar in Germany, colourful facades and crooked gables boast a proud legacyKaiserworth’ Hotel built by the cloth merchants in 1494 and now a hotel and a popular picture spot in Goslar's Market Square. (Right) A detail of a half-timbered building in Quedlinburg.
 

Half-timbered Museum  

The Ständer House, built in 1310 and inhabited until 1965, now serves as a museum showcasing the history of half-timbered buildings. It draws numerous tourists due to its uniqueness. Here the history of the half-timbered building between the 14th and 19th centuries is preserved. Visitors can learn all about the half-timbered architecture of this period and the restoration and reconstruction measures for its conservation.
 

On to the ‘Timber Frame Road’

The popularity of this architectural phenomenon resulted in ‘Timber-Frame Road’ in Germany, a 3,000 km route linking medieval towns from Lake Constance in the south to the River Elbe in the north, boasting around 2.5 million well-preserved specimens en route. It is a journey through the idyllic countryside with romantic little towns, each offering glorious manifestations of the time-honoured half-timbering—a journey through one thousand years of its history.  
 
One day, I aspire to travel this route, to admire the pretty houses, the craftsmanship of the builders and the dedication of those preserving it for future generations.