I always feel a tiny sense of relief stepping off the U-Bahn in Steglitz after spending a day in the more well-known districts of Berlin. Here the crowds disappear and the noise dies down. The multi-storied apartment buildings become scarcer, giving way to trees and space. You’ll find cobblestone streets, tree-lined boulevards, and entire blocks full of villas. It feels like a different city here, a smaller one.
The Berlin that we know today, the city quilted together into a patchwork of boroughs, localities, and neighborhoods, is young. The most recent city map was drawn just fifteen years ago. But though the municipal borders in the city have changed many times, Berlin’s external borders haven’t. They’ve remained unchanged since the creation of Groß-Berlin in 1920.
It was at this time of outward expansion that the rural municipalities in present-day Steglitz-Zehlendorf were incorporated.
Before the 18th century, although they were located on a major trade route, these municipalities were all small and agrarian. Despite their proximity to Berlin, they existed mostly in isolation from the nearby city. It wasn’t until the Prussian Kingdom paved the road between Berlin and Potsdam that the villages of Steglitz-Zehlendorf grew in importance.
Even with their growing importance, life in the rural area southwest of Berlin changed little until the arrival of industrialization in the mid-1800’s. While new economic growth in cities sent the now emancipated serfs into Berlin for work, the new urban middle-class began moving out. Taking advantage of the vacated land and the new railroad that connected it to Berlin, the wealthy turned the southwest into a popular and exclusive residential destination.
The upper classes moved in and Steglitz-Zehlendorf was decorated in clusters of Villenkolonie, a German concept of settlements full of mansion houses designed in an array of styles. Colors, building materials, styles: the homes seem to have nothing in common except their size and the unusually large yards that surround them. The steep roof of a timber-framed Tudor rises high above its two neighbors, a boxy mock-castle crowned in turrets and crenelations and a curvy, stuccoed Jugendstil villa. This Neo-Renaissance pattern repeats itself through the surrounding blocks: bigger houses, more whimsical designs, leafier gardens.
Their eclectic look, complete with leafy oak trees, wide cobblestone streets and gas lanterns, is what makes these neighborhoods so charming. More than a hundred years later and these 19th-century Villenkolonie – am Fichtenberg in Steglitz, Lichterfelde-West, Dahlem – are still some of the most exclusive and sought after real estate in Berlin. Along with the city’s more affluent residents, Steglitz-Zehlendorf’s villas are also home to many foreign embassies.