History of the Institute

The Institute can look back to 580 years of its own history. It is among Germany’s biggest municipal archives and the oldest cultural institution in Frankfurt. Known originally as Stadtarchiv (City Archives), it was renamed “Institute for the History of Frankfurt” in 1992, aiming not only to preserve the city’s heritage but also – as an equally important function – to acquire and convey Frankfurt’s history.

Frankfurt’s first archive building was the Frauenrode Tower, built in 1436. However, important city documents had already been archived before that time, starting in 1219, when Frankfurt decided to preserve its first Royal Privilege. The oldest available document is a church document that dates back to 882. The City Council Archives were located in the old City Hall in a place that is now occupied by the Cathedral Tower. The city’s Royal Privileges, which were seen as particularly important, were preserved in the safety of the Leonhardt Tower on the River Main from the late 14th century until 1612. In 1405 Frankfurt purchased two buildings, Zum Römer (The Roman) and Zum Goldenen Schwan (The Golden Swan), which it combined into a new City Hall. In 1436 an archiving facility was erected nearby. Frankfurt’s first full-time archivist – still known as a registrar at the time – was appointed in 1613/14, during the Fettmilch Revolt (1612-1616).

Three vaulted levels were constructed in a fireproof and burglar-proof manner. Moreover, the building was so generously dimensioned that additional premises did not need to be rented until 1761. The archived material survived inclement weather conditions, fires and wars and continued almost completely intact until World War II.
After the end of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806 the new Mayor of Frankfurt, Carl von Dalberg (1806-1813), ordered a reform of the city’s archiving system, following the French model. This reform was to be conducted by two lawyers. If it had been carried out, large parts of the collection would have been destroyed. However, the plans never came to fruition, thanks to Dalberg’s resignation after Napoleon’s defeat in 1813, at the Battle of the Nations near Leipzig.

Gradually, as the study of history developed into a separate academic discipline, Frankfurt’s City Archives increased substantially in significance as one of the oldest and biggest in Germany. They were visited by several eminent historians, e.g. Leopold von Ranke, who spent four weeks there in 1836. Von Ranke was even permitted to borrow 31 volumes of the city’s important Imperial Diet files and take them to Berlin for two years.

In 1863 the City Archives were split into two: historical (pre-1813) and administrative (post-1813). For the first time a historian was appointed to manage the historical archives – Georg Ludwig Kriegk (1863-1875). However, in 1904, several decades after Prussia’s annexation of Frankfurt (1866), both archives were amalgamated again, forming the City Archives. When Hermann Grotefend, well-known for his Lehrbuch der Zeitrechnung (Textbook on Chronology), was appointed city archivist and historian at the end of 1875, he was given an archive building on Weckmarkt where it was still under construction. He supervised the construction work until the premises were ready for use in 1878. The ground floor was occupied by the city’s collections, and the upper floor by the archives. Right from the beginning Grotefend was rather critical of its position in the middle of the city’s historic part where it was exposed to fire hazards.
Yet the City Archives survived World War I unscathed, and in 1936 Frankfurt celebrated their 500th anniversary with a festive act, an exhibition and a commemorative publication. On 15 December 1933 – the year when the Nazi Party took power – Frankfurt set up an Advisory Centre on Genealogy and Proof of Ancestry. This unit, however, did not form part of the Archives, but of the Frankfurt Health Authority. Academic users were now joined by thousands of citizens who were hoping for documentary proof of their status as Aryans – a requirement for a so-called “Aryan certificate”.
During World War II Allied air raids caused substantial losses to archived material, as the evacuation of documents had started too late. About one third of all stocks were destroyed in a heavy daytime raid. Another raid on 12 September 1940 led to the destruction of the entire building and also any stocks that were buried in the rubble. In all, 4.3 miles (7 km) of shelf space was destroyed, while 2.2 miles (3.5 km) survived because the material had been evacuated, salvaged from the rubble or stored in various basements throughout the city.

Surprisingly, the City Archives became operable again soon after the end of hostilities. Its administration was initially accommodated at the former Elsass-Lothringen-Institut (Alsace-Lorraine Institute) in Bockenheimer Landstrasse and, from 1946, at no. 9, Domstrasse. After a long period of provisional premises, the City Archives eventually moved into the offices of the Carmelite Monastery in 1959. After the war most of the archived material was provisionally accommodated in two high-rise bunkers in the districts of Heddernheim and Praunheim. From 1965 they were stored at the Grossmarkthalle (Great Market Hall), and in 1972 they were moved into the new three-storey underground stacks just outside the Monastery.

This was eventually followed by a refocus with a major emphasis on raising public awareness, a goal that was reflected in a new name for the City Archives in 1992: the Institute for the History of Frankfurt.

In 1996 Dr. Evelyn Brockhoff was appointed Deputy Manager of the Institute and eventually Executive Manager in 2004. She sees it as her main function to ensure that the Institute’s stocks and work become known among a wide public. This goal is achieved in a variety of ways, including public lectures, exhibitions and publications. The Institute also began to promote the expansion of the Collections Department, comprising four sections: Topography, Estates, Personal Records and Photography, which then had two further sections added to them: Frankfurt Businesses and Frankfurt Clubs and Societies.

In 1998 the City Council decided to rethink the use of space at the Carmelite Monastery. This led to an expansion of the Institute, so that it now also has the Refectory on the ground floor and the Dormitory on the upper floor, where an exhibition hall and a lecture hall have been added, as well as a new Reading Room. Furthermore, the murals in the Cloister and the Refectory, created by Jörg Ratgeb between 1514 and 1521, are now accessible to a wide public, thanks to guided tours and supplementary material.

As it is in the nature of archives to grow and therefore to need more and more space, the City Council decided in 2004 to meet this challenge for the next 50 years and to add a new storage building in Borsigallee (in the district of Seckbach) with 5, 500 square metres of space. This development was prompted by the need to vacate the storage facilities at Grossmarkthalle after they had been sold to the European Central Bank. When it was shown mathematically that a new building was economically more efficient, the City Council decided to take this option, while also ensuring that it would meet all the relevant preservation requirements and that it was ready for use in the summer of 2006. Between 2006 and 2010 the Carmelite Monastery was extensively renovated, applying state-of-the-art standards. The renovation covered all premises used by staff and visitors as well as the underground stacks of the Archives.
At the moment (2016) the Institute for the History of Frankfurt is spread over two locations – the Carmelite Monastery and Borsigallee – with 15.5 miles (25 km) of archives as well as a large reference library.