Schloss Radibor

A landscape architect is saving a Baroque mansion in Germany that stands on the foundations of an old water castle.
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Renan and Florian Heilbronner on the rooftop of their Schloss Radibor
I've set down with Florian Heilbronner, the owner of Schloss Radibor in Germany's eastern Upper Lusatia region! Florian, who has an extensive background in landscape architecture bought the castle in 2021 after looking at dozen other manors. He shared with me why he chose a historic property in the eastern part of the country and the benefits of his decision. The Baroque Radibor, built around 1730 on the foundations of an older water castle has already revealed its secrets: the restoration team has found several layers of paint and traces of whimsical ornamentation on the walls. One of the biggest surprises was the discovery of an ancient spiral staircase behind a thick wall. It is believed that the area was once a tower of the castle. A lot of work lies ahead: the plan is to finish the roof and chimneys by the end of 2024. The focus will then shift to the interior and I got a glimpse of what it may look like.


Castles and Palaces (CnP): Tell me a few words about yourself – it is not often that people buy castles to restore!

Florian Heilbronner (FH): My name is Florian, I was born in 1971 in Nuremberg, where my family lives. I studied landscape architecture but now I run an investment company. I'm married to my Brazilian husband Renan, who is an international trader still in his parents off time, and we have two girls. We are a family with cultural interests and we love to do research. During the COVID lockdown, we felt the urge to have a country house with a landscape garden for us and the girls. That's when we caught this dangerous "castle virus". We wanted a project, where the girls could join one day. So, we knew that it would take a little longer, but we needed this kind of experience badly: the journey is the destination.
CnP: In one of your interviews you said that you were looking for a castle in Germany's East. Why East after all?

FH: First of all, if you live in West Berlin, no matter where you go, you end up in East Germany. And we were only looking within a 2-hour drive of where we live, which is East Germany. I've been studying "the East" in terms of landscape, society, and geography since 1992. Back then, "the East" offered a wild form of freedom and opportunity. Even today, it has a landscape-cultural context that "the West" seems to have lost long ago. Driving here is a different experience. Take a local road through the villages and you'll see domestic and wild animals here and there. You won't see them in the west of Germany - strange as it may seem.
FH: Here, too, suburban development is less aggressive. You'll find structures such as detached or single-family homes, ring roads, industrial parks, factories and farms that haven't destroyed Upper Lusatia (Oberlausitz in German) as much as they have in other parts of the country. Less surface sealing that destroyed many villages with huge warehouses. I grew up near Nuremberg and the changes have been drastic. Driving on the autobahn, all you see are huge interchanges with flying steel bridges and industrial business parks all around. The Bavarian way of consuming the landscape in the last 60 years is both shocking and irreversible. Not to mention its impact on climate change. In terms of landscape, Upper Lusatia is still amazing and authentic. Its old landscape and cultural heritage must be preserved.
CnP: How many castles had you checked on before you came across this castle?

FH: We may have checked out about fifteen times. On vacation we spent some nights in castle hotels like the Hotel Gamehl, and as a landscape architect I have seen many. We visited a number of properties for sale and were sometimes shocked by the truly disturbing way in which they had been "renovated". With or without the help and advice of the heritage authorities, the owners somehow managed to turn the buildings into banal structures that would be hard to identify. The buildings were unrecognizable in old photos we saw online. It seemed that more than once the investors damaged the authentic historical structures by turning them into ordinary family houses. Then they lost interest or ran out of money. As a result, these once glorious properties ended up on the market with a price tag of millions of euros. This is how people wanted to get rid of them!
CnP: What is so particular about Schloss Radibor that made you buy it?

FH: This mansion was also threatened by investors who had been eyeing it since the 1970s. But it was the badly damaged roof that scared them off. They never succeeded, or maybe they lost interest in finding a viable financing concept. So at least the abandoned place was almost untouched. And look at the surroundings! Neither cars nor banal modern buildings can be seen in the neighborhood. Basically, what we found was a rotten, but structurally almost intact old baroque ensemble with original stables, former servants' quarters, a former church, and the gatehouse. Inside, there were many historic components and other structures still in place.
FH: The park had many old oaks, lime, beeches, elms, yews trees, as well as exotic trees like the American yellowwood and two twin pavilions. Absolutely perfect! The village has a very interesting and intact social and cultural life due to its strong "Upper Sorbian" identity. The Sorbs, who settled here in the 12th century, are now a minority. Because of this strong sense of community, there is now a remarkable focus on children and youth in Radibor. It seems that the place is not quite as old as other eastern regions. So we heard a certain call, as if we were among the few people who could really take on such a delicate project in terms of passion, sustainability, financing and concept.
CnP: How much did you pay for this dilapidated building - if it is not a secret?

FH: We paid little compared to the upcoming costs, the price was equivalent to a 1.5 bed apartment in Charlottenburg, Berlin.
CnP: Why weren't you scared of the state of the castle at the time of the purchase?

FH: The condition of the mansion did not scare me. We are still focused on the potential and future growth. We knew that a good structural engineer together with a good architect, an architectural historian and a carpenter would be almost all we needed. In addition, we knew that we could apply for various funding programs that were available to help alleviate some of the financial burden. Shockingly, our architect died during construction. To avoid chaos, we had to find a replacement very quickly. In many ways, this was a time of grief and sadness.
CnP: Judging by the way it looks the castle needs attention badly. What is the most pressing issue right now?

FH: In 2021, our structural engineer analyzed huge cracks in the walls and told us that we needed to start the complete overhaul from the roof down. Two years later, after some painful delays, we are finally able to cover the costs of the first phase of construction - installing new roof tiles. This includes other related work such as the extensive reconstruction of the twin chimneys. The roof will be our focus until the fall of 2024.


CnP: How are the local authorities involved in helping you save the castle and the estate?

FH: We have tremendous support from them. Without the local authorities and their cultural and historical architectural input, the project would have been different. They also help financially, but sometimes they are a source of my headache - it's when they start bossing around!
CnP: The present-day baroque Radibor was built in the 18th century on the grounds of an older medieval water castle. Is there anything left of the previous building?

FH: The previous house had stood for 320 years (Renaissance) before the Baroque extension was added, which is 300 years old. So we have (at least) two castles in one: the 620 year old castle is invisible, while the present castle is 300 years old. The records say that it was built between 1709-1719. However, we made a dendrological examination of the roof timber in certain areas and it showed that the timber was actually trees as late as 1726. So we believe that the mansion dates back to 1729. And one more thing - we had a bit of a sensation here when we found a spiral staircase in a very thick wall!
FH: This was the inside of a stone tower that belonged to the previous building on the southwest corner. We also found vaults that did not quite fit into the Baroque window niches, remnants of old door frames, old plaster that bent in the corners. We also discovered painted beams from a Renaissance wooden ceiling when we opened up the floorboards. It looks like the previous owners recycled at least some of the previous building materials. We have our own theory, albeit a rough one, of how the previous building was constructed and how it functioned.
CnP: What are the most striking findings so far?

FH: Look, the building is like a hard drive where it records and stores its own history. Firstly, we found no traces of wooden beams under the foundations, so the castle is not a hundred percent safe as it is sort of "floating" on dry coal-layers. To be honest, it's not a problem unless we put too much weight on them. Secondly, we are almost sure about the extensions of the previous "invisible" castle. We believe that the old castle had no cellar and vaults on the ground floor: that is where the previous castle stood. We are also proud to have identified the original color scheme of the baroque facade and interior walls.
CnP: Tell me more about the wallpapers and the layers of paint you uncovered on the walls!

FH: The most beautiful remnants of the Baroque period are the paintings on the plinths and in the window niches. This is all that remains from that period, except for a few original stucco ceilings and imitation tiles from the extensive renovation of 1854, which were also found under the plaster. On the bases of the window niches we found newspapers with articles from Christmas 1945 with Nazi propaganda. Finally, various scraps of wallpaper from the Wilhelmine and Art Nouveau periods came to light. But these 19th century wallpapers seem to have given us much less information than the paintings on the walls.
CnP: How will the interiors look after the restoration is finished?

FH: Maybe that's the biggest challenge! Structural and fixed elements will be strictly historical - if we have proof. Once we have all the details about the windows or stucco, we will create replicas. The exact restoration concept for each room will depend on the historical information available. Unfortunately, this concept has not yet been drawn up.
FH: If there's no information, we might do a contrast to make it look less boring. It applies to furnishing for example. But we don't want it to look too manneristic. We do not have an interior designer yet. However, some decisions have been made, such as the glass roof of the open courtyard (for our small Brazilian palm garden). We want the interior to be authentic, but at the same time modern and not boring. It shouldn't be artificial, but follow a clever approach.
CnP: You're planning to bring back some 50 historic windows by the end of 2024 – how is it possible? Are you restoring the old ones which survived or are you making them anew but according to the old drawings and technology?

FH: Apart from the pavilions, there are a total of 59 normal window openings and 22 smaller, special windows, such as dormer windows, basement windows or side windows. We have 11 original windows: 2 from 1729 and 9 from 1854, which are being restored. It is 100% funded by the German Foundation for Monument Protection and a very generous donator. One window from 1854 still has the authentic glass in it. We can reuse the windows because we will have new second windows "attachment windows" in front of the old ones. So, the old ones will be protected from sun and rain. A small manufacturer is about to start production of all other windows for us. Since there is no rush yet, the windows will be installed in time.
CnP: How much will the restoration effort cost you – any preliminary calculations?
FH: Indeed, this is our estimate: millions are coming our way. Originally, the calculation was that 1/3 will be funded, 1/3 will be tax refunds and I will pay the remaining 1/3. However, these days I am not so sure anymore that this calculation is realistic.
CnP: A couple of years ago I had an extensive interview with a Russia-based volunteer movement - Ruin Keepers – who preserve old Teutonic heritage (Kirchen and Ordensburgs) in former East Prussia, which is now Russia's westernmost region of Kaliningrad. In many cases, they say churches managed the survive the fierce battles and bombings of WWII but in the end, decades later they degraded due to neglect and the way they were used during the Soviet times – as garages or warehouses. As far as I know, Radibor used to be anything but the castle throughout the last century – it was a kitchen, a boarding school, and even a warehouse. How badly did it affect the building? Actually, why do you think it can be saved?

FH: The post war period started in 1946, when the Sorbian community used the castle as a school for professional training of young (Sorbian) teachers and kindergarten teachers. In the 1950s, some 10-15 boys from a boarding school in the nearby Kleinwelka used the principal floor as a dormitory. In the early 1970s, the school moved out and the only one to stay was a kitchen for worker and farmers of the Agricultural Production Cooperative.
FH: The cook lived alone in the huge building. She was the last person to live here. There's also a rumor that the castle housed a secret Stasi office in the 1980s, after one of Radibor's citizens fled to the West. Officially, the Stasi used the main floor as a warehouse for civilian protection goods. So technically it was not used as a warehouse, but this kingly use of the castle affected the building in a tragic way. The walls supporting the heavy roof were removed on both floors, the wooden floors and ceilings were also removed, and finally the baroque portal, stairs, stoves, wooden doors and furniture were either removed or stolen. In addition, the rooms were divided into sections, and important doors and windows were sealed. In the 1980s, the West German Caritas wanted to buy the castle to turn it into a home for the elderly. I try to imagine what the castle would have looked like today if this plan had been implemented - I am quite sure that no one would have recognized the castle.
CnP: It is said that this castle is a precious monument – what is so precious about it and if so why was it left abandoned for so many years?

FH: The value of the building may come from its innocent and friendly appearance. All the rooms are so bright because the light comes from two or even three sides. This is what makes its design so valuable. The estate had been abandoned for a long time, so the garden became a wild forest that literally reached the castle walls! Just like with Sleeping Beauty, the people who tried to save it were shocked at how beautiful it was. They did not even dare to remove this "veil"! So the previous owner, Mr. Feurer, did a hell of a job during his first two years here. He cleared the garden, made the castle visible again, and replaced all the glass in the windows to make the building more windproof.
CnP: Speaking of the previous owners – what do you know about them, who were they?

FH: We were curious: who were the 35 previous owners? How much time did each of them spend in Radibor? Which owners left their mark on the building and which did not? Who struggled with history, war or political changes? And so on ad infinitum! We've learned about the Minckwitzes, the Plaunitzes and the Haugwitzes - all these local Sorbian feudal families who once owned the small water castle that preceded Radibor. One day we will draw a complete picture of the building's development with all its owners and the changes they made.
FH: When we started counting the owners, we found only twenty-nine, seven more have been identified so far, and who knows how many more we will identify in the future! Perhaps it was the Earl of Einsiedel who had the most significant impact on the castle. He almost completely rebuilt the estate in the 1850s and died in the 1890s at the age of 91. He made the village and the Radibor castle more romantic. However, he also removed some important Baroque structures and divided the rooms in a strange way. In the 1930s, his granddaughter Johanna von Welck removed the two old chimneys and replaced them with really bad ones. I think both his and her motivation was to make the castle habitable all year round and a warmer place to live.
CnP: What's your plan – is your goal to make the castle an exclusive hotel or will you just make it your family residence?

FH: A bit of both: a family residence and an event location with exclusive overnight stays. Our goal is to share the house with our clients, who should feel like they are in a family residence. But the hotel service will not be provided by us, all events will be catered. Services will also have to be organized separately. We cannot offer all this otherwise.
CnP: There's a castle nearby – Schloss Milkel owned by Hermann Fuchs, who spent years to rescue it. Do you keep in touch and how does the man help you with your project?

FH: Yes, we are in contact with Mr. Fuchs and he gave us a very lively three-hour tour through his "Fuchsbau". I was mostly interested to see how it's done under the roof, I mean how the chimney flues were bent at an angle in order to come out of the roof at a defined point. Mr. Fuchs also told me that the window frames should have a seal. He recently got the Saxon Order of Merit for his efforts and we are proud to be part of this dense neighbourhood of castle owners!
CnP: What's your favorite place in the castle and why?

FH: It's the entrance hall because we've reopened the hidden niches and windows that were bricked up in 1854. They will be illuminated with a flow of natural light. In the evening hours, the west wing catches a golden light, it is so magical! To be honest, I want each room to make you feel special and unexpected.
CnP: Anything supernatural happening in the castle? Ghosts maybe?
FH: Unfortunately, I guess all the ghosts have either disappeared, evaporated or have been stolen. When we opened the wall with the hidden spiral staircase we were lucky not to find a dead immured Rapunzel in there!

CnP: Your goal is to finish the roofing by 2024. And I can imagine the scope of the work inside the castle. Don't you regret you've stepped into this difficult path?
FH: After working hard for almost three years, I need to save my energy a little bit now. In May 2023, our beloved architect passed away and it was a devastating blow. You know we need to slow down a bit too. We've been so enthusiastic so far.
CnP: My usual question to all castle owners: lots of people are romanticizing about buying a castle for themselves. Please give a piece of advice which they may find useful!

FH: The path is the aim: It takes some 10 years to rebuild a castle like this. Don't buy and rush. Don't buy and make too many compromises as far as its historic appearance is concerned. Buy it if you are 100% sure that you can handle the costs. If you buy, don't ban the public from entering the garden totally. Make the village involved if you want; hire good specialists such as architectural historians and discuss things with them, don't forget the authorities too.
FH: Make sure that the house does not deteriorate, either willingly or unwillingly. Don't tear off the plaster without examining the old patterns. They are invisible to unprofessional historians. Don't make too many compromises to reduce the total cost. There is always a cheaper way to preserve the old character. A historical site has many layers; ownership is not the most important thing. Be aware that you are just one owner - one of many - of this old and dignified property.
I really hope you enjoyed the story of Florian Heilbronner, who is restoring Schloss Radibor, which is just a 2 hour drive from Berlin! Don't miss new stories by other castle owners!

Photo credits: @Schloss Radibor

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