21 April 2007

Close to Home

Among the stories I worked on in the past few months are two which I set in areas where I live or used to live: the fictional town of Kirchwalden in CASTLE OF THE WOLF, my May release, is based on a small Black Forest town called Waldkirch, where I spent the happiest five years of my childhood, while the Villa under the Linden Trees in my podcast novella "Betrayal" is modelled after a house near Frankfurt which has fascinated me for many years. I found it very exciting to do research on these two settings and to discover new things about familiar places.

In 1863 Eugen Lucius, Carl Friedrich Wilhelm Meister and Ludwig August Müller founded a chemical factory near the town of Höchst and, thus, not far from Frankfurt on the Main, an important center of trade. The factory became famous for its production of colours, the first of which was the reddish violet fuchsin, and as a result the new factory "Meister, Lucius & Co." became known as the "Red Factory" among the people living in the vicinity. Up to the early 20th century, those colours did not only produce lovely dyes for cloths, but also affected the men who were working in the factory: even after a few days off, the workers would still colour their bed linen, and in winter you could tell from the colour of footsteps in the snow in which department of the factory the man who had walked there worked.

"Meister, Lucius & Co." flourished and soon new products were added and the numbers of workers in creased. This expansion was also due to clever promotion: the director of sales even managed that the French Empress Eugenie visited the opera in Lyons (famous for its silk dyers!) wearing a dress dyed in a splendid Höchster green, which remained just as splendidly green even in gaslight (this used to be a big problem in the 19th century: in gaslight most green dyes looked blue).

As their business grew so did the wealth of the families of the owners. In 1902 Herbert von Meister, one of the sons of Carl Friedrich Wilhelm Meister, bought a small estate on the other side of the river Main, right across from the factory. There he had a small, but lovely villa built for his family, the Villa unter den Linden (or, in English, the Villa under the Linden Trees).

Four years later the family could move into the new house, and the old building were torn down in order to make way for a park, stables and an orangery. Just beyond the entrance gates to the park stands the coachman's house ....


... and a little further down the drive an ice house hides in a small hill:


Not far from the ice house once stood a doll house, probably built for von Meister's daughter Elisabeth. I remember peering through small, dirty windows into this doll house during some sort of communal summer picnic in the park when I was three or four years old. The inside was covered all in cobwebs, but you could still see how beautiful it once must have been.

This image of the dollhouse stayed with me through the years, and when we finally moved back into the area, the old Villa under the Linden Trees seemed to call to me. Herbert von Meister, his wife and his daughter are all long dead now; the doll house is long gone and has been replaced by a wooden play hut, and today the villa houses a centre for the treatment of drug addicts. The once private park and gardens have long been opened to the public, and so I was able to traipse through the old gates, past the coachman's house and down the drive and could imagine ... imagine ... how it splendid the villa must have once been, and I decided to use it as a setting for a story. However, I took some license with its history: in my story it has been built 100 years earlier, and the fabric merchant Heinrich von Meister has married a gypsy girl...

3 comments:

Eliza said...

I really love places and their history, and this is the kind of thing that will pique the interest of readers like me even more.

I'm going to have to keep in mind that bit about green garments in gaslight for my own stories, too.

Thanks for this!

Jen said...

What a lovely history! I especially like the part about the dollhouse. The Villa looks and sounds like it was a lovely placed in its time. I like to learn interesting facts about places I'm familiar with, as well. Some of those facts have been interesting, and I learned about them in Weird NJ Magazine. However, I've quit buying it, after seeing so much of the same old stuff. I bought a few books of local lore and legend several weeks ago, which I plan to do research for my own stories. I'm going to be quite busy after we move (which was supposed to be this weekend, but due to our flooded basement--which still has water trickling in--it's been postponed).

Camilla said...

How gorgeous! I'm obsessed with the Black Forest courtesy of my favorite Victoria Holt and set one of my WIPs in the area.