Lighting up Berlin

After surving World War II and a number of raves, a former electrical plant in Berlin has been turned into offices.

The link between Thomas Edison, the inventor of the light bulb, and Pramerica Real Estate Investors is not an obvious one. But after a recent property deal in Berlin, the two are inextricably linked.

What is today the ewerk building complex in the historic district of Friedrichstadt began life in 1881, when a German named Emil Rathenau acquired the rights to Edison’s patent. After signing a deal to become the sole electricity supplier to the city of Berlin, Rathenau’s company, AEG, bought a series of properties in the Friedrichstadt neighborhood in order to build a central power station.

A commercial power plant was built in 1885 and was celebrated with the festive lighting of Berlin’s Royal Theatre. Due to growing demand, AEG won approval to build a second power station at Mauerstraße 80, which went into operation in 1886.

Years later, when these facilities proved inadequate, a replacement power station was built on the same site in 1926. During the last days of World War II in Europe, the ewerk lay within the final defense of the German Wehrmacht and Waffen SS. Many of the buildings were nearly flattened in the intense fighting, but the power station kept on working.

However, it never returned to its former output once the city fell under Soviet control. It stopped supplying power in 1973, though its electricity was put to use powering one of Berlin’s subway lines. After the nearby Berlin Wall was torn down, plans were devised for the rejuvenation of the area where the ewerk is located. Fairly advanced plans ended with the demise of the East German authority, but this proved to be just a hiccup in the zone’s renaissance.

In 1987, the electricity plant was granted landmark status and became a hub for artists and fashion shoots. In the 80s and 90s the ewerk also figured as a base for a privatization agency and as a repository for old street lights.

It began an altogether different life, however, when a new dance craze swept Europe: In the mid-1990s, the ewerk became Berlin’s hottest techno dance club and music venue. When the last of the whistle-blowing ravers left the building in 1997, various attempts were made to bring the property back to life.

Gradually, it built up a reputation as an edgy place to stage one-off events such as an energy forum, until Berlin high-tech company SPM showed interest in using the property as its headquarters. After extensive refurbishment, SPM’s parent company SAP moved into the 157,000 square foot space in 2005. The property that once powered Berlin now houses office space, as well as a few apartments. In proof that private equity real estate investors will leave no historic stone unturned, the ewerk has recently been acquired by Pramerica Real Estate Investors on behalf of its pan-European open-end commingled fund.

The property investment firm is understandably pleased to have invested in the historic site. “This transaction has given our clients access to one of Berlin’s most famous buildings,” Georg von Hammerstein, director of acquisition with Pramerica, said in a statement. “The terrific location in the heart of Berlin, as well as the long-term leasing contracts, also provides our clients with the potential to participate in the growth and resurgence of Berlin’s real estate market.”