Amid the sleek new cafes, offbeat shops and modern art galleries of the buzzy Mitte district, one cultural icon looks much the way it did a century ago. Founded in 1913 by Fritz Bühler and his wife Clara, affectionately known as Clärchen, this two-storey ballroom has an air of gracefully faded grandeur.
I’d heard about this peculiar urban timewarp long before I stumbled across it one afternoon while looking for a bite to eat. The attached beer garden, decorated with exposed bulbs and dense greenery, looked so intriguingly out of place that my friends and I stepped in without thinking. After brusque bow-tied waiters served us schnitzels that dwarfed the plates beneath them, we took a peek inside the building’s well-worn facade. There, under the neon lights and silver streamers, a group of maybe 20 people were enthusiastically tangoing away. It felt oddly like trespassing on a high school dance from decades past.
I’ve since been back to Clärchens Ballhaus as a participant rather than a voyeur, doing my best to cha-cha with two left feet. But as much as I love the nostalgic vibe on the ground floor, it is the chandeliered Spiegelsaal (mirror hall) upstairs, all towering ceiling, baroque detailing and huge mirrors, that draws gasps, and crowds. This hallowed hall has witnessed raucous 1920s nightlife, covert sword duels, allied bombing, balls for war widows and, more recently, a dramatic revival, thanks to David Regehr and Christian Schulz, who saved it from dereliction in 2005.
It now holds regular concerts, from Gypsy tunes to classical cello, as well as dances to rival anything held back in its heyday. Chipped paint and cracked mirrors have been deliberately left, but this is a living, breathing hub, not a museum – used equally by quickstepping septuagenarians and Berlin’s trendiest twentysomethings.