historic buildings, historic maps, streetscape

every building tells a story

Buildings can give us some of the most substantial evidence from our past … evidence of how our ancestors lived and worked day to day and evidence for major events such as battles or major disasters such as fires that overtook settlements. Historic buildings can also show us how people responded to those disasters.

On a more positive note buildings clearly reflect periods of wealth and success for an individual or for a settlement ... people have always wanted to have more comfortable homes or wanted to have more fashionable homes so looking carefully at the buildings from each period you can begin to see what people then thought was comfortable or fashionable.

Maps, documents and, from our more recent history, photographs can tell us much about buildings that have been lost or altered but actually if you look up and look around there is often important physical evidence surviving that, if you are curious, can tell you much about our history or at the very least suggest that the history of a building and its development is far from straight forward.

This is, in effect, archaeology above ground. In excavations, archaeologists are looking for layers or levels as much as objects so that they can say what had to come first, because it was at the lowest level on natural undisturbed ground, and what has to be secondary. That’s stratigraphy. The same method can be applied to standing buildings … to decide what is primary and what can only be secondary even if the building it was added to has long gone. 

And, having determined the sequence of construction, the next stage is to work out why a range was added or a doorway inserted or a roof rebuilt. If you can then link those changes with specific dates or, better still, with people we know something about, then buildings can give us really vivid and tangible proof about our history.


Battle scars? Or cannon balls used for decoration? As the building dates from 1913 I would suspect it's decoration.

Walking around a building or along a street and looking at what has been added or changed can tell you a lot about what to expect on the inside and putting together outside and inside and plan and potential functions of each part at each stage in the development can tell you a huge amount about about the history and way of life of the people who constructed and used those buildings.

This is actually not as complicated as it sounds because remarkably few buildings are put up for the sake of it. Usually the building has a function and if it was altered or added to then it is usually because the function changed or the way of life of the owner changed. Some buildings were erected or changed on a whim or a foible but even then they can tell us much about the ambitions or wealth and status or eccentricity of the owner. This does not even need any precise knowledge about styles or dates when certain features first appear. It is just logic. There is a sequence and at each stage the building has to actually work. 

So, as a simple example, everyone living in Copenhagen, at every stage in history, had to eat. Did every house and every apartment have a kitchen? Where was the kitchen at each stage and if it was moved then when and why was it moved or changed? Changes to a kitchen can tell us much about the social status of the occupant and can tell us about changes in the types of food that was prepared and eaten. In all the smaller single-room apartments in Copenhagen how and what did people cook? In larger town houses of the wealthy in the city, where were the kitchens, how many servants were there and, in each period, what was eaten and when. It may sound slightly gross but sometimes toilet chutes or cess pits have been excavated so the remains of animal bones, plant seeds, nut shells or sea shells can give a pretty clear idea of the diet at the stage the cess pit was in use. That is not to suggest that our ancestors swallowed their sea shells … simply then, as now, food scraps were cleared from plates and the closet or rubbish pit was as good a place as any for the chicken bones or odd broken knife or broken plate.

   Photograph on the hoardings around engineering work for the extension to the Metro showing finds from Gammel Strand 


Photograph on the hoardings around engineering work for the extension to the Metro showing finds from Gammel Strand 

If you walk along looking only at the pavement or looking at the shop windows you will miss much that is fascinating or intriguing. If you look around and, particularly if you look up, you will bump into more people and will trip over more kerbs but you should, hopefully, see more history and want to find the answers to more questions.


This timber-framed house is on Sværtegade, a narrow cut through between Gammel Mønt and Pilestræde. It's at the east end on the north side.

On the map below, from the middle of the 18th century, the street was then called Reine Gade and this was a single building ... the yellow and the pink buildings were a single property with a small yard behind the west half. The evidence from the gable shown here would suggest that the property was divided into two and the left or west half was heightened with first two extra floors and a new roof with presumably dormer windows. Then the dormers were removed and the front wall raised up and another new roof constructed with a shallow pitch and an additional attic level with a single dormer to the street. Once the building had been divided and because there was no land behind the house apart from a small yard then the only way was up.

The modern map has been included because it shows that Christian IX's Gade was cut through to provide a diagonal route to the corner of the King's Garden top right. Particularly on the left side of Pilestræde but also in the centre of the blocks, gardens and courtyards have been infilled and built over.


Just for comparison this is a timber-framed gable end that has not been altered


A gable end that shows that this building was heightened but in a much simpler way

This is the court building in Bredgade although this is actually the blocked doorway at the centre of the original front to Fredericiagade. The entrance was moved around to the garden side at some stage and the doorway was blocked at the bottom to create a window.

Here physical evidence in the brickwork is pretty obvious but the history of the building is extremely complicated. It was built in the first decade of the 18th century as an opera house but then from 1720 to 1884 it was barracks. After the fire at Christiansborg it was used first by the Rigsdagen, the Danish parliament, and then from 1918 for the Eastern High Court.

Walking along Esplanaden the pale blue house, now a cafe, would seem to have a fairly ordinary frontage even if it is lower than the buildings on each side. Step back, look at the flanking gables, and you can see what a very tight and odd plot the house was built on.

The explanation is that Esplanaden runs across at an angle between the main 18th-century streets of Amaliegade and Bredgade. The triangle was, at one stage a Botanik Garden, but was gradually built over. The view from the air shows just how tightly the courtyards and back wings of the houses are packed into the space. The gap appears to have been a carriageway at one stage but even that was eventually built over. In terms of the history of Copenhagen, is this important? Probably not. Is it interesting? Well it certainly shows that in Copenhagen, particularly on a good street, no space was ever wasted.