Getting to know a historic town
Hirschenplatz – Niederdorfstrasse – Stüssihofstatt – Münstergasse (as far as the confectionery Schober) – Napfgasse – Spiegelgasse – Neumarkt – Hirschengraben/ Seilergraben – Künstlergasse – Universität – Federal Institute of Technology – Sempersteig – Predigerplatz – Spitalgasse – Hirschenplatz
Hirschenplatz, the starting point for the first tour, was built in the 1870s, as part of the redevelopment of the Prediger district. The Hirschenplatz and the adjoining Spitalgasse are typical creations of a period during which Zurich underwent profound changes. Even though the square with its new thoroughfare leading to the Prediger church is not an especially impressive example of town planning, it does show the generous attitude of the city authorities of the day and thus indicates the spirit prevailing in Zurich as the 19th century came to a close. The declared aim was to create a spacious square in the narrow, sometimes oppressive confines of the Niederdorf (the Lower Old Town) and to launch a new building development between Hirschenplatz and Zähringerplatz. Until this time, the medieval layout of the neighbourhood had remained unchanged and the Niederdorfstrasse, over its whole length, was as narrow as it is on either side of the Hotel Adler to this day.
The Prediger district
The Spitalgasse originally constituted the main access to the Prediger district. The name Spitalgasse (hospital lane) is a reminder of the district’s once central function. After the dissolution of the Prediger monastery during the Reformation, the district developed into Zurich’s hospital quarter. Various main and auxiliary hospital buildings were situated between Central, a busy junction, and the Prediger church. There were also extensive gardens and graveyards, which served both the church and the hospital.
The history of hospitals in Zurich reveals medical and hygienic conditions that are now difficult to accept. A singe illustration must here suffice. In 1800, the physically and mentally ill still shared the same wards within the walls of the old monastery. It was not until the 19th century that enlightened medical and social thinking brought about change and led in 1842 to the opening of a new hospital, situated on the grounds of today’s University Hospital on Rämistrasse. The old Spitalgasse also originally led to the so called “Mushafen,“ a small place where the poor and the sick of the town were provided with free meals.
Of the Prediger monastery itself, only the parish church and the impressive, High Gothic choir remain. The monastery, which had later served as a hospital, fell victim to a fire in 1887. Since 1917, the Zentralbibliothek, Zurich’s main public library, has stood in its place. The tall and elegant Neo Gothic tower of the Prediger church, designed by the architect Gustav Gull (1858–1942), was built between 1898 and 1900.
The Stüssihofstatt is situated at the intersection of the Niederdorfstrasse and Marktgasse. At the same place, the Rindermarkt joins an important ancient traffic artery, linking the Niederdorf (the Lower Old Town) with the Oberdorf (the Upper Old Town). The name “Stüssihofstatt“ dates back to 1496. The square, arranged in terraces and surrounded by old houses of some character, is quite impressive. The extensive reconstruction of some of the houses does not detract from the overall effect the square creates. A case in point is the “Haus zum Königsstuhl,“ seat of the tailors’ guild, which underwent reconstruction in 1938. All that remains of the original building is the attractive bay window.
It is the Stüssi fountain in particular that gives the square its special character. Admittedly, Zurich’s Old Town has numerous beautiful fountains. But in contrast to Berne, Switzerland’s capital, the local population of Zurich is not as aware of the many fountains in their town, nor do visitors always notice them, perhaps because they are distributed over a rather large area. Built in 1574 during the Renaissance, an era when art was much appreciated, the Stüssi fountain constitutes a particularly beautiful example among Zurich’s many fountains. It dominates the irregularly shaped Stüssihofstatt, which slopes down towards the river Limmat. The basin of the fountain was renovated in 1767. In 1919, the fountain’s figure, like most of the others in the Old Town, was replaced with a replica.
The forceful fountain figure represents Rudolf Stüssi, who held the office of mayor of Zurich for many years. In 1433, he attended the coronation of Emperor Sigismund in Rome and was knighted on the same occasion. In order to increase Zurich’s power, Rudolf Stüssi tried to secure the heritage of the last Count of Toggenburg for the town of Zurich. However, after the Count’s death, a bitter dispute erupted with Schwyz, out of which arose the “Alte Zürichkrieg“ (the Old Zurich War), which lasted from 1436 to 1450. Mayor Stüssi formed a fateful alliance with Austria. In the battle of St. Jakob on the river Sihl, he courageously confronted the advancing Swiss Confederates and paid for his daring with his own life. The citizens of Zurich posthumously honoured the memory of this brave but ultimately luckless politician. Apart from the fountain figure, two inscriptions remain as reminders of Rudolf Stüssi. One can be found at the house of the tailors’ guild, also known as “Königstuhl,“ at Stüssihofstatt no. 3, and the other at the beautifully restored house at Stüssihofstatt no. 4.
From the Münstergasse, the Napfplatz can be reached via two narrow streets, the Napfgasse and the Spiegelgasse. The harmonious Napfplatz square is dominated by a number of important architectural monuments. The prominent "Brunnenturm“ (Obere Zäune no. 26) and the “Haus zum blauen Himmel“ (Napfgasse no. 8), where the museum of tin figures can be found, are both situated to the east of the square. To the west stands the “Haus zum Waldris“ (Spiegelgasse no. 11), where, in 1775, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) called on Johann Caspar Lavater (see page 39).
Originally, the Napf fountain was situated in front of the “Brunnenturm.“ It dated from the year 1576 and was decorated with the statue of a warrior in full armour, carrying a shield with Zurich’s coat of arms. In 1876, the fountain was moved to its present location. At the same time, the basin was replaced with a new marble one. The present stone pillar and fountain figure date from 1911 and are creations of the sculptor Arnold Hünerwadel (1877–1945). The female figure standing on the high pillar is a representation of Spring. In 1937, this sandstone figure required renovation, having been badly attacked by the elements. During the renovation process, the pseudo classical female figure was adapted to suit the fashions of the 1930s. What had been a woman of fuller figure became a sylphlike figure in a short shirtdress. The original’s long hair, hidden under a headscarf, was also replaced by a shorthair style.
First mentioned in documents dating from 1145, the Neumarkt is considered one of the Old Town’s most picturesque streets. During the Middle Ages, the Neumarkt served as a cattle market. Until 1827, the Neumarkt was reached via the “Kronentor“, a gate situated on the Seilergraben. The excellent condition of the buildings lining the Neumarkt and their relevance to architectural and artistic history contribute considerably to the diverse character of Zurich’s historic centre. The square-like open space in front of the restaurant “Kantorei“, the seat of Zurich’s “Singstudenten“ (the student choral society), constitutes a focal point on the Neumarkt and also marks the boundary between the Neumarkt and the Rindermarkt.
Directly behind the “Kantorei“ with its Neoclassical facade stands the prominent Grimmenturm (Spiegelgasse no. 29). During renovations in the 19th century, the upper part of the Grimmenturm’s roof and the small bell tower were removed. About 100 years later, in 1964, an organisation for the preservation of historic monuments rebuilt the upper part of the roof and the small tower in order to correct these ill considered modifications, which had considerably altered the look of the Old Town. The name of the Early Gothic residential tower comes from Johannes Bilgeri, who was called the “Grimme“ (the furious). According to sources, Bilgeri bequeathed in 1350 the residential tower as well as the adjoining “Haus zum langen Keller“ (Rindermarkt no. 26) to the needy of the Prediger hospital and to the Beguine Sisterhood. An impressive series of Early Gothic paintings dating from around 1300, which, in the past, used to be shown in the “Haus zum langen Keller“, can now be admired in the Swiss National Museum. These valuable paintings depict, among other things, the German king of the time and his Electors as well as interesting scenes from the life of knights.
The “Haus zum Rech“ at Neumarkt no. 4 merits attention since it is of special historical interest. It is the former residence of the influential Röist family, of which several members acted as mayors of Zurich.
The house is open to the general public and even its inner courtyard is well worth a visit. The contemporary appearance of the house is the result of the several enlargements and alterations that have taken place over more than a thousand years.
As a consequence of these changes, the house clearly shows the influence of different time periods and thus illustrates history in a very graphic way. The surviving paintings on the facade, for example, testify to the fashion of the 16th century. The decorative work also conveys the manner of artistic expression of Zurich’s prosperous families. The ceiling of the stairwell shows paintings dating back to the 17th century. Similar paintings, of every conceivable colour composition, can be found in other rooms of the house and give an impression of housing tradition at that time. The richly decorated railings and banisters, dating back to the 18th century, testimony to the former craft of blacksmiths.
The “Haus zum Rech“ also displays the changes in attitude of the inhabitants of Zurich towards their historic monuments. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was decided that the property, as well as many other houses in the Old Town, should be torn down to make room for a new traffic artery linking Central, Zähringerplatz and Heimplatz. Although the project was fortunately rejected, the demolition of the “Haus zum Rech“ was to go ahead because of its poor structural state. In the 1960s however, the need to find a suitable place for the town archives and the archives of architectural history led to the rescue of the building and to its meticulous restoration.
On the ground floor of the “Haus zum Rech,“ a historical model of Zurich shows the town as it appeared around the year 1800. A look at the medieval town wall with its towers and the surrounding Baroque entrenchments becomes a nostalgic journey into Zurich’s past. On the first floor, there is a unique collection of views of Zurich. Already in 1877, the town council had realized that structural changes to the town had to be recorded so that the development of Zurich could be retraced by future generations. In the “Haus zum Rech,“ visitors can usually find answers to any questions regarding the city of Zurich. The town archives contain not only the protocols and files of the city administration, but also many valuable archives from individuals and private organisations such as the documents of the “Aktientheater,“ the precursor of today’s opera house, opened in 1834. There is also a reference library covering all aspects of Zurich’s cultural life. Unknown to most people is the unique collection of newspaper cuttings, which is updated daily with articles on people, companies, streets, buildings and all other important subjects regarding the everyday life of Zurich.
The University district
Approaching the University district, the visitor has the opportunity to look at the house on Neumarkt no. 27, where the Zurich author Gottfried Keller (1819–1890) was born. This idyllic residence, set back some distance from the road, bears the colourful name “zum goldenen Winkel“ (at the golden corner). However, the author in fact spent most of his youth in the “Haus zur Sichel,“ situated at Rindermarkt no. 9. A commemorative plaque at Kirchgasse no. 33 is a reminder that Gottfried Keller held the office of secretary for the Canton of Zurich for 15 years.
Zurich cannot be considered an “old university town,“ despite the fact that the town’s scholarly traditions date back to the Middle Ages when theology, above all other subjects, was studied at the “Carolinum,“ the Grossmünster’s educational institution. The interest in education arising in the 1830s led to cantonal legislation regulating education from the elementary to the university level in an innovative and thorough manner. The University, founded in 1833, was first housed in the “Hinteramt“ situated on Fröschengraben, but this later fell victim to the construction of the Bahnhofstrasse.
As from 1864, the University was situated in the so-called “Universitätsflügel“ (university wing) of the Federal Institute of Technology (ETH). The ETH, designed by Gottfried Semper (1803–1879), was opened in 1855. The German theologian David Friedrich Strauss (1808–1874) made the following political comment about the location of the ETH: “Although I am a convinced monarchist, I have to admit that only a republic could think to build a palace for higher education in such a special location. If Switzerland was a monarchy, the place would rather be used for a prince’s palace or military barracks.“
The fact that the University and more especially the Federal Institute of Technology rapidly gained such an excellent reputation in Europe and beyond was mainly due to the large number of political refugees from Germany. Expelled from their homeland, many professors found both a place of work and an eager student audience in the democratic Swiss Republic and most particularly in Zurich.
The University’s history has been shaped by a constant lack of space. The present-day University building, situated next to the Federal Institute of Technology, was only inaugurated in 1914. According to an inscription, this massive building project was only made possible “through the will of the people.“ The architect of the University, which like the Federal Institute of Technology stands high above the town on land that once formed part of the fortifications, was Karl Moser (1860–1936). Moser also designed the central edifice of the “Kunsthaus“ (Museum of Art), which opened in 1910 and is located on Heimplatz.