Alfred Messel was the third son of the banker Simon Messel. The family owned a bank which was later managed by Alfred’s brother Ludwig, first in Darmstadt and then, from the end of the 1870s, in Great Britain. In his youth Alfred Messel began a lifelong friendship with Ludwig Hoffmann, who later became a Berlin city planning official. In 1872 Messel graduated from the Ludwig-Georgs-Gymnasium in Darmstadt (with an Abitur), after which he served in the military as a one-year volunteer in the First Grand Ducal Hessian Royal Guard Infantry Regiment.
In 1873 he attended the Kassel art academy together with his friend Ludwig Hoffmann, followed by architectural studies at the Berlin Building Academy under Heinrich Strack and Richard Lucae. As a civil service trainee he then contributed to a new post office administration building on Spandauer Straße in Berlin designed by the architect Carl Schwatlo, before successfully passing his second state examination qualifying him as an assessor. In 1879 Messel became a member of the Berlin Architects Society, and in 1881 he won the prestigious Schinkel Prize for his plans for an exhibition building on the Tempelhofer Feld, a military parade ground in southern Berlin.
Over the next two years he traveled extensively through France, Spain, Italy and Great Britain and was a lecturer at the newly founded Technical University in Berlin-Charlottenburg. In 1886, he took a leave of absence from the civil service to work as a private architect. On 1 February 1893 he married Elsa Altmann and in November of that year their first child, Ena, was born. In February 1894 he was appointed professor at the Berlin School of Fine Arts and in the same year founded an architectural firm together with Martin Altgelt. His first buildings were on the Werderschen Markt in Berlin, and from 1893 he worked with the Wertheim department store dynasty, erecting in 1894 in Berlin’s Oranienstraße the first department store in Germany to follow the French model. In 1896 his son Ludwig Leonhard was born (died during World War I).
In 1899 Messel converted from Judaism to Protestantism. On 17 May that year he received the Order of the Red Eagle, 4th Class, which caused him to quip that from that date he could really feel “fourth class”. Also that year his youngest daughter Irene was born (died 1992 in London). In 1900 he terminated his collaboration with Martin Altgelt. Starting in 1902 he suffered from heart disease, which caused him to spend long periods at a health resort in the following years. He was busy with the second extension of the Wertheim store on Leipziger Platz 1903/06.
In 1906 Messel became a member of the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin and in 1906 was awarded an honorary doctorate (Dr.-Ing.E.h.) from Darmstadt Technical University. In 1907 he was officially appointed architect of the Royal Prussian Museums and worked until his death primarily on plans for a new building to house the German, Pergamon and Near East collections in Berlin.
Messel died on 24 March 1909 and was buried in the Alter St.-Matthäus-Kirchhof in Berlin-Schöneberg. Since he was of Jewish descent, city streets named after him were renamed during the Nazi era.
Messel’s most famous work is the Wertheim Department store on Leipziger Platz, which he executed between 1896 and 1906.
Already during construction the nighttime electric lighting and steel scaffolding caused a sensation, and when the store opened on November 15, 1897 the result was traffic chaos on Leipziger Strasse as well as the beginning of Messel’s rise to become one of the most prominent German architects of his time.
The innovative, vertically structured facade of narrow pillars extending from the ground floor to the roof and interspersed with windows received high praise, not least because it alluded to the building’s function. After passing through a vestibule two-storeys high, one entered a rectangular light well 22 meter high and 450 square meters in size. On the opposite wall an imposing stairway led to the upper sales floors. On the landing was a 6 meter high statue symbolizing “Labor” by Ludwig Manzel, and the wall above was decorated with monumental frescoes showing an ancient harbor by Max Koch and a modern harbor by Fritz Gehrke.
The tremendous impact of the new department store on the general public as well as on architecture experts is documented in numerous newspaper and magazine articles and statements by famous architects and their critics. These included Peter Behrens, Henry van de Velde, August Endell, Bruno Taut, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Hermann Muthesius, Karl Scheffler, Walter Curt Behrendt, Fritz Stahl, Alfred Lichtwark, Wiener, Heinrich Schliepmann and many others.
The store did not survive World War II. In March 1943 it was damaged by three exploding bombs, and its final destruction was caused by a fire started by a phosphorus bomb.(( Edgard Haider: Verlorene Pracht. Geschichten von zerstörten Bauten. Gerstenberg Verlag, Hildesheim, 2006, p. 137.)) The ruins were cleared away in 1955–56 to make way for a border strip demarcating the Russian sector of Berlin.
Messel had long been interesting in the design plan for the Museum Island and since 1907 had been developing plans for the Pergamon Museum. It remains to this day the monumental, austere three-wing neoclassical construction which he conceived but did not live to see realized as he died in 1909. It was constructed with slight modifications between 1910 and 1930 under the supervision of Messel’s close friend, the architect and city planning official Ludwig Hoffmann. The museum was badly damaged in World War II, and starting in 2010 modifications of the building will be undertaken as part of the master plan for Berlin’s Museum Island.
The museum’s external monumentality is in the same spirit as many of the relics on display inside, not least the reconstruction of the imposing western side of the Pergamon Altar itself with its three wings. The changes made by Hoffmann on the building’s exterior had a restraining and moderating effect. The most noticeable were the raising of the eaves, the flattening of the pediment and the addition of a metope and triglyph frieze. Despite such smoothening interventions, the basic rigidity and blockiness which characterized Messel’s last work was retained.1882-1883: Frenkel family grave in the Jewish Cemetery Berlin-Weißensee
1889: boiler house of the former English gas works in Berlin-Schöneberg
1889–1891: building housing a soup kitchen (Volkscafé- und Speisehallen-AG), Neue Schönhauser Str., Berlin
1891-1893: Private residences on Kurfürstendamm (partially surviving)
1891-1892: building of the Volkscafé- und Speisehallen-AG, Chausseestraße, Berlin
1893–1895: social housing estate for the Berliner Spar- und Bauverein eGmbH, Berlin-Moabit, Sickingenstraße 7/8
1895-1897: courtyard of commercial enterprises on Alexandrinenstraße, Berlin-Kreuzberg
1897: Schönrade Castle in Neumark (Tuczno, Poland)
1897–1898: housing estate for the Berliner Spar- und Bauverein eGmbH, Berlin-Friedrichshain, Schreinerstraße 63/64 / Proskauer Straße 15-17 / Bänschstraße 26/28/30 (now modified)
1892–1906: Hesse State Museum in Darmstadt, Zeughausstraße 1
1897-1898: Villa Wilhelm Wertheim, Berlin-Grunewald (together with Martin Altgeld, now modified)
1899-1900: administration building in Staßfurt-Leopoldshall (now the town hall)
1899–1900: housing estate for the Berliner Spar- und Bauverein eGmbH, Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg, Stargarder Straße 3/3a/4/5 / Greifenhagener Straße 56/57 (now modified)
1897–1900: bank building for the Berliner Handelsgesellschaft, Berlin-Mitte, Behrenstraße 32/33 (including extensions up to 1908; see image at right)
1901–1902: building housing the Lette-Verein zur Förderung höherer Bildung und Erwerbstätigkeit des weiblichen Geschlechts, Berlin-Schöneberg, Viktoria- Luise-Platz 6
1901–1902: country house for the publisher Ferdinand Springer, Berlin-Wannsee
1901–1902: residence for Friedrich Back, Darmstadt, Jahnstraße 106 (considerably changed)
1903-1904: tomb of Louis Simon, Jewish Cemetery Schönhauser Allee, surviving in a damaged state
1903–1904: administrative building of the Landesversicherungsanstalt, Berlin, Am Köllnischen Park 2a/3 (restored ca. 1995)
1903–1906: Wertheim department store, Berlin, Rosenthaler Straße 27–31 / Sophienstraße 12–15 (partially surviving)
1904: tomb of the Rathenau family, Berlin-Oberschöneweide, in the Waldfriedhof
1905–1906: town hall, Ballenstedt (Harz)
1906: villa for Wolf Wertheim in Kladow bei Berlin
1907–1909: infant care clinic „Kaiserin-Auguste-Victoria-Haus“, Berlin-Charlottenburg
1907-1908: villa for Franz Oppenheim, Berlin-Wannsee
1908: residence for Paul Ostermann von Roth, Darmstadt, Eugen-Bracht-Weg 6 (later use: Hessen Design e.V.)
1908: residence for Franz Wertheim, Berlin-Grunewald
Maximilian Rapsilber: Alfred Messel. Berlin 1905.
Fritz Stahl: Alfred Messel. Berlin 1911.
Walter Curt Behrendt: Alfred Messel. Berlin 1911. (Reprint 1998)
Robert Habel: Alfred Messels Wertheimbauten in Berlin. Der Beginn der modernen Architektur in Deutschland. Gebrüder Mann Verlag, Berlin 2009, ISBN 978-3-7861-2571-6.
Alfred Messel (1853–1909). Visionär der Großstadt (Eds.: Elke Blauert, Robert Habel und Hans-Dieter Nägelke together with Christiane Schmidt), Berlin 2009 (exhibition catalog of the Kunstbibliothek Staatliche Museen zu Berlin and the Architekturmuseum der Technischen Universität Berlin)