Mulhouse Old Town may seem to be at odd in Alsace where visitors are used to seeing half-timbered houses in picturesque districts such as in Colmar and Strasbourg. Despite the too many concrete buildings built in the aftermath of World War II, the old town hides several historic monuments. In place of traditional Alsatian half-timbering, Mulhouse reveals houses with painted walls, decorated with frescoes and manors and townhouses made of bricks.
The fortifications of Mulhouse
From the former fortifications that used to surround Mulhouse there remain two towers accounting for the town’s oldest buildings: the Devil’s Tower (Tour du Diable) and the Bollwerk Tower (Tour du Bollwerk).
Built in the 13th century, the Devil’s Tower was used as a prison, in particular for witches.
The Bollwerk Tower, often considered as a symbol of Mulhouse, is a defensive bastion built in the 14th century. Its name means “bastion” and produced the French word “Boulevard” as the ramparts and their moats were dismantled in the 19th century in most French towns to give way to large streets. The Bollwerk Tower was separated from its ramparts in 1840. A fresco depicting a knight on the façade was restored in the 1970s by Bernard Latuner.
The Bollwerk Tower has been listed as an Historic Monument since 1898.
The Saint John Chapel
The 13th century Saint John Chapel remains the only trace of the Knights of Malta commandery. Until the Reformation, the Order was the most important one in Mulhouse in the Middle Ages. When Mulhouse joined France in 1798, the chapel was sold as communal property and subsequently housed a brewery, a smithy and a warehouse.
In 1893, the sanctuary was the first monument in Mulhouse to be listed as an historic monument. Today, it serves as a concert and exhibition hall.
Place de la Réunion
The epicentre of the life of Mulhouse is Place de la Réunion. The square takes its name from the joining of the city with the young French Republic on 15 March 1798. It looks over the pedestrian shopping streets of Rue Mercière, Rue de la Lanterne and Rue Henriette.
Located in its centre, the statue of the Yeoman stands over a fountain.
The square is surrounded by most of Mulhouse’s interesting buildings: the Saint-Etienne Protestant Temple, the former Town-Hall, the Mieg house and the Lys Pharmarcy.
The former Town-Hall
The beautiful Old Town-Hall on Place de la Réunion dates back to 1551. Built by Michel Lynthumer, an architect from Basle, it is a masterpiece of Rhenish Renaissance architecture. Passing through Mulhouse in 1580, French writer Montaigne described the monument as a “magnificent gilded palace”. Its façade was decorated in 1698 by Jean Gabriel in trompe-l’oeil representing allegoric figures symbolizing good government and justice as well as the coat of arms of the Swiss cantons to which Mulhouse was allied.
These coats of arms were removed when Mulhouse joined France in 1798 before being painted back on during the 1988 restoration of the façade.
The Old Town Hall now houses the historical museum of Mulhouse which records the history of the autonomous Republic of Mulhouse prior to 1798.
On the right side of the building hangs a reproduction of the Klapperstein, the “chatterbox stone”.
The Klapperstein is a stone suspended by a chain, representing a man’s head with eyes wide-open and sticking out his tongue. The original 12kg piece of stone is kept in the historic museum inside the building. In the Middle Ages and until 1798, slanderous people were condemned to cross the town on a donkey with the stone hanging from their necks.
The original text written in German on the façade next to the stone says:
I am called the “chatterbox stone”
Well known to bad mouths.
Whoever takes pleasure in squabbling and quarreling
Will carry me across the town
The Saint-Étienne Protestant Temple
This 97 metre high Saint-Étienne Temple sanctuary is the highest Protestant church in France and the second-tallest church in Alsace after the Cathedral of Strasbourg. Replacing a former Romanesque-Gothic church, the current building was erected by architect Jean-Baptiste Schacre between 1859 and 1866.
Its soaring spire was inspired by that of Thann collegiate and recalls more generally the style of Rhenish spires. The bell tower houses a chime cast in 1867 in Zurich, which is the largest chime found in a Protestant Temple in all of France.
From the former church, the current Temple retained the original stalls from 1637 and the 12th century stained-glass windows which are some of the most beautiful in the region.
The Mieg House
Firstly mentioned in 1418, this mansion with its easily recognisable turret was converted into a bourgeois Renaissance house. The largest house on the Place de la Réunion, it was inhabited by Louis Witz who affixed his coat of arms to the façade around 1640. Later, the Miegs, an influential local manufacturing family, lived there from 1679 until 1840 and painted the trompe-l’oeils.
The Lys Pharmacy
This house was first inhabited in 1464. In 1649, after the Thirty Years War, Jean-Henri Engelmann bought it to establish a pharmacy, which still operates today. Notice inside the building, the ceiling is decorated with paintings dating from the 17th century.
The Chains Court
The Chains Court (Cour des Chaînes) is a large house built in the 16th century. Its name comes from the chains that separated the inside courtyard from the street. The building contains a fine spiral staircase in the central turret as well as magnificent painted ceilings created in 1675. It the 18th century, the Cour des Chaînes housed a textile factory.
The new district around Square de la Bourse
In the early 19th century, a new district was built to the south of the town. Serving as an emblem of the industrial boom experienced by Mulhouse at the time, the “Nouveau Quartier” is set around a triangular garden, the Square de la Bourse, which is surrounded by arcaded buildings.
The Europe Tower
The Europe Tower, at 112 metres , is Alsace’s tallest office building. Completed in 1972 by architect François Spoerry, the reinforced-concrete structure takes the form of a triangle representing the three borders: France, Germany and Switzerland.
A revolving restaurant is located at the top of the tower offering panoramic views over the city, the Plain of Alsace, the Vosges, the Black Forest, the Jura, and in fine weather, the Swiss Alps.
Mulhouse Tourist Information Centre: http://www.tourisme-mulhouse.com