Of Casinos, Villas, and Mayors Past and Present
Since Gelnhausen is where Onkel Hayn’s narrative begins, it seemed only fitting that it should also be the first place we visited in our quest to re-trace some of his footsteps. Of course the opportunity to connect with distant relatives and attend a concert in the villa built by Onkel Hayn’s cousin C.H. Schöffer was an added incentive. And so it was that we made our initial acquaintance with Gelnhausen this summer during the annual “Sommersalon”. And I must say our first impression of the town was extremely positive.
The erstwhile “Casino”
We arrived on a blustery July day just past noon, weary from traveling, and having done very little in the way of prior planning. The first surprise was discovering that the hotel reception was closed between 11am and 4pm, the second was realizing that our choice of restaurant was on the street where Onkel Hayn’s aunt Schöffer (his father’s sister) once lived. A short stroll after lunch took us to house 17, still very much as it was (as are many of the buildings in Gelnhausen), except for its freshly painted façade and modern windows. As a comparison, an historical photo of the building from around 1900 when it was named “Hotel König von Preussen”.
The initials of the original owner, Hans Bernhard Schmidt (a Schöffer ancestor), and the date 1746 are visible above the doorway, along with a symbol which identified him as a cooper by trade.
Another interesting tidbit about the house is that in Onkel Hayn’s day one of the upper floors was a kind of private club for town officials and dignitaries (referred to as a “Casino”). The average folk, including Onkel Hayn’s two aunts, often gathered on the ground floor to play cards:
“After dinner the even more spry aunt Eysenbach typically arrived to take her place with her older sister and other partners in crime at the card table. They played the popular game “solo” and at times there were lively discussions, particularly when there was a blunder to be admonished. At ten o’clock “the book of kings” was laid aside; aunt Eysenbach’s manservant had appeared in the entryway right on time in order to escort his ladyship safely home. The huge lantern he had brought was lit, since the street lighting and cobblestones left much to be much desired.”
The “Weisse Villa”
Our next goal was what is now referred to as the Weisse Villa, built in 1865 by Conrad Heinrich Schöffer, son of the above-mentioned aunt. From old photos we had seen, which showed the building surrounded by a vast vineyard, we expected to have to drive to get there. So it was quite surprising and incongruous to find it only five minutes on foot from the center of town. Now integrated into the street system, with no grapevines in sight, the villa is rather out of proportion with its surroundings, but has lost none of its grandeur and elegance.
With a slight feeling of trespassing, we climbed the steps to the house, by-passing the front door and heading for the side of the house with its manicured lawn and fountain. This is where we had arranged to meet my husband’s distant cousin, Dr. Kristina Michaelis, the great-great-great-great-granddaughter of Conrad Heinrich Schöffer, and author of the book “Die Gelnhäuser Grossbürgerfamilie Becker und Schöffer”. She is also the organizer of the summer concert series which takes place each July at the villa. We had been in touch by e-mail, but never met in person, so we were very much looking forward to making her acquaintance. How often do you get the chance to connect with a relative whose common ancestors were born more than 200 years ago?
Not finding Ms. Michaelis on the grounds, we ventured inside, and received our first impression both of the opulence the villa had once enjoyed, and the neglect it had suffered. Sold by the family in the 1920s, it fell into a state of disrepair, and in the 1970s was in danger of being razed (a fate that unfortunately befell the smaller villa built by C.H.’s brother Wilhelm on an adjacent property). Thankfully the current owner is now in the process of restoring the house to its former glory, bit by bit. Hence, the main entrance and staircase have the air of an abandoned haunted house, but as soon as one reaches the upper landing, it becomes immediately apparent what a magnificent home it must have been. Although the rooms are no longer furnished in Victorian style, and one of them has been transformed into a modern kitchen, much of the original architectural detail has been preserved or restored, and the general sense of what it must have been like in the 19th century retained. Being situated on a hill, the second floor has access to the grounds from three sides of the house, with the windows on the south side offering magnificent views across the Kinzig valley toward the Spessart hills. It is truly the perfect setting for concerts and lectures – spacious rooms, polished wooden floors, high ceilings, and the chance to wander outside with drink in hand prior to the concert and at intermission. (For more information about the Sommersalon, including photos of the villa, see their Facebook page). We definitely plan to return again next summer!
Mayors past and present
As it turned out, we didn’t have a chance to chat with Ms. Michaelis until after the concert, when she was able to step out of her organizer role and unwind over a glass of wine. In fact, she was late joining us, so we first had a few glasses with her father Jürgen, who was mayor of Gelnhausen for 30 years. There is certainly no better way to learn about a town than hearing stories from someone like him. I also got a kick out of knowing that I was sitting with a present-day mayor, and a descendant of an 18th century mayor (my husband) – so why didn’t I take a photo????
To be continued…..