By the time the brass band came out blaring Bella, Ciao, the wooden floor was heaving under the weight of hundreds of revellers. Last Friday night, the rowdiest party in Berlin was at a century-old ballroom in the gentrified Mitte neighbourhood. Unlike at the city’s techno clubs, the guests queuing for Clärchens Ballhaus ran the gamut from grade-schoolers to retirees.
“I’ve been coming here since 1983 and it looked pretty much the same then,” said Matthias Kühne. “There’s always been a mix of young and old, rich and poor on the dancefloor.”
In a city that has undergone seismic cultural shifts in recent decades, Clärchens Ballhaus has remained a rare and anachronistic constant. The Spiegelsaal, its grand mirrored ballroom, survived the Third Reich, the GDR and illegal sword duels. During the second world war, the Nazis closed the Ballhaus, Russian troops used it as a horse stable, and an allied bombing raid obliterated part of the building.
But after all it has endured, this raucous ball will be its last for some time. Last year, the landlord refused to renew the lease – a common tale that has shuttered or put numerous notable Berlin nightlife venues at risk, including the notorious KitKatClub. When news broke of Clärchens’ possible closure, the public outcry was immediate.
“We’re leaving this place at a high-point. The last year has been so crazy – it’s been packed every night,” said Lisa Regehr, a dancer who has run the ballroom along with her husband, David and his business partner Christian Schulz. When the couple arrived in 2004, many of the windows were boarded up and debris littered the floor of the Spiegelsaal. Bringing it back from the brink of dereliction wasn’t easy, but they maintain it was worth it.
“There may be people who are more financially successful than us but we never did this for the money. We’ve always viewed this place as a living work of art,” says David. “Under the GDR, everyone came here because this was one of the only places where you could dance.”
There will be dancing in Clärchens’ future, although no one is sure what that will look like. Last year, Yoram Roth, the Berliner who is the majority shareholder and chairman of the Fotografiska (a centre for contemporary photography), announced he would be stepping in to save it.
Roth says he is committed to preserving the institution’s historic character: “I’m deeply in love with the place. I want the building to look as though no one has touched it. You could restore it so that it looks flawlessly new, which I’d find soulless. To restore it so that it looks untouched will cost a lot more but it’s worth it because that’s what makes this place magical.”
While some worried that the new owner may want to build condominiums on the valuable real estate out front, which currently houses a beer garden, Roth says that is out of the question. “If you put apartments everywhere, by right the owners can demand a certain quietude after 10pm, which runs into conflict with club culture. People come to Berlin to consume culture, whether that’s history, nightclubs or the opera. We have to support and maintain our club culture and Clärchens is part of that.”
A petition attached to an open letter asking Roth to allow the Regehrs to continue overseeing operations has so far gathered 7,049 signatures. However, Roth says that he plans to work with a new, unnamed partner. Although he plans to host events and partially reopen Clärchens for the summer season, there is no fixed date for the venue fully reopening. More than 100 staff members will be let go with no guarantee of return.
While the final festivities were bittersweet, David and Lisa insisted on a party rather than a funeral. As the night wore on, the two could be seen hugging regulars and greeting them by name.
“These last two evenings are a celebration of this time and this place,” Lisa says. “So many guests have taken our hands and said, ‘Thank you so much for all the good times all these years.’”