German traces in Latvia: Paul Max Bertschy – architect and builder of Liepāja

Liepāja would look a lot different today if not for Paul Max Bertschy. In the late 19th century, this German architect substantially changed the city’s features, in which Latvia’s third city takes pride even now.

St. Anne’s Church, the Town Hall, the court building, the city museum, the spa hospital and many other buildings by Paul Max Bertschy (1840-1911) are even now, a hundred years after his death, shaping Liepāja’s features. The look of this port town on the Baltic shore is much indebted to Bertschy, who was born in the small town of Strausberg in the vicinity of Berlin.

As the city architect, Bertschy would design and build a modern Liepāja. He assumed the post of city architect in March 1871, at a time when the town, which belonged to the Russian Empire, was going through a period of change. With the construction of a military and trading port, Liepāja also obtained a railway link. Traders would settle in the city, and craft as well as industrial companies and big banks would follow suit. There was a lot to do there.

New factory buildings, warehouses, as well as public buildings like schools and a courthouse were constructed. A spa hospital was built near the beach. Swimming spots and promenades were designed. Luxurious houses for living and commerce were built after Bertschy’s plans. Many of these utilize red bricks and have a distinct and vivid form.

But Bertschy’s activities weren’t limited to Liepāja. His oeuvre likewise features many manors and churches across Courland and other regions of Latvia. Before taking up work in “the city of wind”, as Liepāja is sometimes called, he spent a couple of years working in Rīga and the Daugavpils’ construction office of the Rīga–Vitebsk railway, where he became the mentor of the renowned architect and art historian Wilhelm Neumann.

There is no precise testimony as to what brought Bertschy, the second child in a carpenter’s family of nine, to the Baltics. It is likely that the great demand for construction specialists impelled Bertschy to leave his native Brandenburg early in his life. He arrived in Rīga in 1860 after attending a Realschule in Berlin.

In addition to his duties as a city architect, Bertschy also undertook private projects. For example, he designed the sepulchres of several illustrious families in Liepāja. Bertschy also set up his private firm, taken over by his son Max after he died. The city is indebted to Max for many buildings in the Art Nouveau style. Two more of Bertschy’s sons took after their father, with Kurt and Gvido Bertschy becoming architects as well.

The center of the Bertschy family life was the “green house” on what’s now Peldu Street. By 1939, when the Bertschy family, like many Baltic Germans, was forced to leave Latvia and moved to Poznan, three generations had grown up under its roof. After Latvia renewed its independence in 1991, the descendants of Paul Max Bertschy resumed contacts with their homeland. His great-granddaughter penned a very well-received book about him.

The Liepāja of today is proud to house Bertschy’s architectural heritage. The houses Bertschy designed have brass plaques with his signature. But like many Latvian towns, Liepāja has been affected by societal aging and emigration. Quite a few of Bertschy’s industrial and public buildings, which were once luxurious and imparted an aura of a metropolis on what’s the summer capital of Latvia, now stand abandoned and empty.

This does not, however, in any way subtract from the work of Bertschy, who rests at the Old Cemetery. “But a few architects in Latvia have been able to put their stamp on an entire city in the way that Bertschy did,” the prominent art historian Imants Lancmanis says. Visitors in Liepāja have the chance to get to know Bertschy’s buildings by going on a planned walk, the route of which can be learned at the local tourism office. His original designs, sketches, as well as business and work books are being stored and regularly exhibited at the Liepāja Museum. 

The German Traces series was first published as part of the Goethe Institut in Rīga project “German Footprints in Latvia” ("Vācu pēdas Latvijā" www.goethe.de/vacu-pedas). The linked mobile application "German Footprints in Latvia" can be downloaded at www.ej.uz/vp-iOS and www.ej.uz/vp-Android.

 

 

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