There are only a few historic fire notification pillars left in Berlin. I would have walked right by one today, except it is red. Red like those British phone boxes. Iconic red. Danger red. Take-a-picture-with-me red.
There are 20 000 phone boxes left in the UK and only 11 of these fire alarms remaining in Berlin. The pillar is diminutive like my grandmother at 1 metre 50, explaining why I almost missed her, hiding behind a billboard at the edge of the sidewalk fronting the department store, KaDeWe. Few people think of this pillar anymore––squat and aged––with its now nugatory inscriptions: ‘Fire Notifier. Misuse punishable’ and ‘Only those who can specify the location of the fire may use this device’. Only on close inspection do I see she is corroding in places––because red does a good job of hiding rust.
One hundred fifty years ago, Berliners knew what she was for. If KaDeWe caught on fire, she’d be your first visit. At the time, she was an extraordinary piece of gadgetry. At first glance, she looks all metal. But inside, the electromagnetic device can send a unique Morse code specifying her location, through underground telegraphic cables, to the fire department. Instead of watching from their towers, like medieval sentries, the officers could lounge, play cards, and drink coffee, waiting for her to give them a call.
Germany was a leader in 19th-century fire safety technology, and the first fire notification pillar was installed in Berlin in 1867. It was the time of the Hobrecht Plan of urban renewal. A booming and densely populated metropolis required fire safety! Even the plan’s iconic Berlin Mietskaserne, or housing tenement, specified courtyards regulated in size so a fire truck could turn around.
The red pillars themselves are statuesque. Decorative motifs suggest precisely what they were meant to prevent: flames. Iron-clad and looking like precocious fire hydrants, the notifiers don’t appear temporary. One suspects their creators couldn’t imagine one day their technology would be surpassed.
Nowadays, who needs them? If we see smoke pouring out of KaDeWe’s food hall, a mobile phone is how you call the fire department. Who would run down the street in search of a squat obelisk, to break a piece of glass and pull a lever? Even those British phone boxes have been done in by the cell phone, their insides full of trash, and nobody caring to feed them a 10 p coin. If they weren’t design icons, they would be red and unloved.
However, this is not why a retired house painter from the Berlin neighbourhood of Schoeneberg decided, about a decade ago, to save Berlin’s Feuermelder. The eleven remaining pillars were in various states of deterioration around the city, in front of Bellevue Palace or in Mexikoplatz.
The pensioner had always wanted to be a fireman but failed the practical exam for the simple reason he wore glasses. With a wire brush and rust-proof paint, he went to work, revisiting his childhood dream. The Berlin fire department rewarded him at the age of seventy with a firefighter’s helmet with his name emblazoned on it.
Sometimes, what looks old isn’t so useless after all.