Women in the Art Nouveau Sanatorium Dr. Barner 1900-1914

Christina/ August 15, 2023/ The daily grind, Culture

The wet and cold weather this summer drives us indoors. Why not make the best of it? We use the circumstances to expand our regional historical knowledge. As part of the exhibition “Goddesses of Art Nouveau,” the (Monastery) Museum Hinter Aegidien offers a lecture on “Women in the Art Nouveau Sanatorium” Dr. Barner 1900-1914. That sounds interesting. The very next day, we find ourselves at the KufA House, where the Forum for Industrial Culture has a presentation on the program about the “Wilke Works in Transition 1856-1978.” A lecture by Mr. Johannes Barner. Using archival materials and photos, the lecture explores the role of women in the early history of the sanatorium.

When we arrive at the Hinter Aegidien Museum on Tuesday evening, completely unaware, we are very surprised. The planned lecture seems to be attracting a large audience. It’s actually getting more crowded. The provided seats are far from sufficient. An employee has to bring in new chairs repeatedly and search for places to put them. My, oh my, the lecture topic is generating significant interest.

Promptly at 7:00 PM, it begins. After a few introductory words from a museum staff member, Johannes Barner, the great-grandson of the founder of the sanatorium, starts. With the words, “Not much is known. Some is speculation,” Barner picks up the thread.

Friedrich Barner and his wife arrive in Braunlage in 1900. Barner is a country doctor from Hornburg. His wife, named Antoinette Wiegand, is a singer from Braunschweig. Together, they acquire the Sonnenblick House and the Villa am Wald in Goslar, two typical wooden villas in the Harz region. When Barner opens the sanatorium in December 1900, it has 30 rooms. Only the wealthy bourgeoisie can afford to stay at the establishment at that time. They travel by train. There has been a train station in the Harz town since 1899. From there, they are picked up by carriage and taken to the clinic.

At that time, the concept of psychotherapy is entirely new, especially the treatment with hypnosis. It emerged in the 1880s. Mostly women seek treatment at the facility. Johann Barner estimates the ratio of men to women at 1:3. While lounging and bathing took up the daytime, the evening program was quite enjoyable.
Frida von Uslar-Gleichen, one of the well-known patients, documented her experiences in a correspondence with her lover, Ernst Haeckel. Barner reads extensively from these records on this evening. The text not only provides insight into the life of the sanatorium at that time, but it also presents a wonderfully entertaining and lively exchange.

Initially, Uslar-Gleichen complains about having to lie down a lot during the day and being surrounded by common people. Certain foods, such as soup or dark bread, are forbidden to her. In contrast, she consumes cups of sweet cream, plenty of butter, and plum compote. Her stay costs 38 marks per week. Additionally, she laments the low temperatures on site. While it was around 30 degrees in Göttingen, she has to make do with 5-7 degrees in Braunlage.
With time and increased demand, the sanatorium is expanded from 30 to 80 rooms. The architect Albin Müller is tasked with the expansion. The Barner couple works together on the expansion. While Friedrich takes care of the exterior, his wife Antoinette is responsible for the interior design. Interestingly, in this context, I find that this division of labor is not mentioned on the sanatorium’s websites or in the Wikipedia entry.
At the end of his lecture, Barner shows pictures of the different rooms. These include the women’s, music, men’s, and smoking rooms, among others. The dining room, the blue hall in particular, played a significant role. “Shared meals were an important thing,” explains Barner, “for getting to know each other.”
A brief overview is given about the employees. Both in the past and today, these were often women, especially in service roles. The significant difference from that time is that nowadays, women also occupy leadership positions.

The following day already brings another history lesson. This time, it’s about the “Wilke Works in Transition, 1856-1978.” The speaker this time is Horst Splett, a member of the Forum for Industrial Culture. I am repeatedly amazed by the interesting and significant companies that existed in Braunschweig.

This lecture is about nothing less than the history of the master locksmith August Wilke, who opened a small locksmith workshop in Braunschweig in 1856. From a steam boiler and gasometer factory, Wilke developed an internationally successful economic conglomerate over the years, surviving two world wars but eventually going bankrupt in 1978.

The Wilke Works’ portfolio grew with the company’s importance. They offered not only sheet metal work, glass containers, and steam boilers, but also bridge construction. The company’s premises were located on Frankfurter Straße, right where the Hornbach hardware store stands today.
Splett attributes both the rise and success of the Wilke Works to a well-trained workforce, among other factors. The management ensured that the employees remained physically fit, in addition to their craftsmanship skills. Besides offering sports programs, voluntary social benefits were paid, and factory housing was provided. This investment in the employees seems to have paid off.

25 years after its founding, the steam boiler and gasometer factory went public. Since June 14, 1881, it has been a joint-stock company; from July 1936, it operated under the name Wilke-Werke AG. In 1943, the company with 1,760 employees had the highest number of employees in its history. In 1956, the AG celebrated its 100th anniversary. They had also survived the Second World War and were operating internationally again. However, the heyday ended ten years later as the conglomerate began to decline. In 1978, losses depleted all reserves. On December 8 of the same year, the bankruptcy proceedings were initiated, and the last 375 employees were laid off. Unfortunately, Splett cannot provide precise details about the factors that triggered the downfall. Originally, Splett was supposed to be supported by an “insider,” Jürgen Wiener by name, on that day. However, he fell ill at the last moment.

On January 31, 1986, the Wilke Works were delisted from the stock exchange. However, the bankruptcy proceedings were only completed on December 1, 2002. That’s when the final demolition of the factory premises on Frankfurter Straße began. In the meantime, graffiti artists had taken over the buildings. A new shopping center with a hardware store, drugstore, and supermarket was built on the same site.

Addendum: Wikipedia states that international competitive pressure was likely the trigger for the decline. This led to a worse profit situation. Payment difficulties arose in August 1975. In September of the same year, about 500 Wilke Works employees took to the streets to demonstrate for the preservation of the company. However, even a state guarantee provided at short notice couldn’t save them. Once again, the banks were the beneficiaries in the story: The company premises were eventually bought by an investor from Braunschweig and three banks.

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