The precipitously leaning tower of the Church of Our Dear Ladies on the Hill in the Thuringian spa town of Bad Frankenhausen has been slated for demolition as soon as December 7th. The owners of the church, the Protestant Church in Central Germany (EKM), made the decision after the state rejected town authorities’ most recent conservation plan citing concerns for its long-term viability.
The church was built in 1382 in the shadow of the Kyfhäuser mountains. Its granite bell tower, topped with a later baroque spire, is 184-feet high and weighs 2,600 tons. Not only was it built on a foundation of porous chalk, the area at the foothills of the mountain range has a deadly combination of vast subterranean salt deposits and lots of springs to leach the salt out. The Bad Frankhausen springs carry an estimated 250 tons of salt every day. That makes for great mineral baths on the one hand, and constant sinkholes and dangerously leaning towers on the other.
Historical sources as early as 1640 report that the tower was leaning, but it wasn’t until a landslide in 1908 that the listing became so dramatic. In between there it has seen some rough handling. The church was looted during the Thirty Years’ War, the Seven Years’ War, burned in 1759, turned into a French prison camp during Napoleon’s invasion of Prussia in 1806, then used a weapons depot during World War II and plundered one more time in 1945 after the collapse of the Nazi regime.
The Our Dear Ladies bell currently leans 15 feet eastwards from the perpendicular and that lean increases two inches each year, that’s a 5 degree lean. For comparison, the Leaning Tower of Pisa used to lean at an angle of 5.5 degrees, but now leans at about 3.99 degrees since it was stabilized. The church itself has not been in regular use since 1962. There’s the occasional Christmas or Easter service still held in the space, where you can look up and see the bell tower looming over you because the roof was removed in 1961 when chunks began to fall on people.
Church authorities have tried to stabilize the structure over the years — most recently in the 1990s, but they haven’t been able to stop the deterioration and don’t want to keep pouring money into an empty, roofless church.
But a glimmer of hope remains for the building, officially known as the Church of Our Dear Ladies on the Hill. Should the town of Bad Frankenhausen manage to come up with funding for the restoration, which the church estimates will cost €1 million ($1.3 million), the EKM will offer the project the money that has been set aside for the demolition. According to Bad Frankenhausen Mayor Matthias Strejc, this would be about €150,000.
The EKM’s offer represents one last chance for Bad Frankenhausen to take on the project itself. On Monday, 21 representatives must decide whether they will purchase the 730-year-old building for a single euro from the EKM, thus acquiring full responsibility for its future. “The vote could be difficult,” Strejc told news agency DPA. “But I hope for an easy majority for the acquisition.”
Bad Frankhausen authorities have worked tirelessly to save their leaning tower. Even before the the one euro sale deal was put on the table, Mayor Strejc was raising funds from town residents, institutional donors, benefit concerts and other events. Every town employee even worked a day for free to donate their pay to the tower fund. They calculate that they need €800,000 more and the project must be completed by 2014 to ensure the whole thing doesn’t collapse on its own.