Renaissance of a Ruin

A hidden medieval mill is restored, perhaps too well?

Haymill before renovation | Photo: Christopher Anderson

Haymill after renovation | Photo: Lauren Brassaw

haymill before renovation

Haymill before renovation | Photo: Christopher Anderson

When standing at the corner of Heumühlgasse and Schönbrunnerstraße in Vienna’s 4th district, nothing seems remarkable about the pale, four-floor block of flats before you. Yet, behind this bland structure is a little-known relic from the city’s long past.

The name on the street sign should have been a clue. But how often do names just pass without a thought? Opening the heavy brown door on Heumühlgasse, you catch your first glimpse through the archway. But only when you are fully inside the courtyard does the relic reveal its true identity: an ancient Gothic haymill, Vienna’s oldest secular building.

On a March afternoon while passing through the area, I stopped by to have a closer look at the ruin I had long admired. Ruin, I say, because it was in a derelict state: the chipped plaster on grit-decked walls revealing the underlying brickwork, chipped tiles and missing shingles on its roof, and pane-less windows with sagging, broken frames. But through all the dilapidation, I still enjoyed its Gothic elements: the bold lancet-arch windows with a cluster of trefoil frame, a single ogee-arch window with smashed panes, and mullioned windows peeking out of the tiled rooftop.

The mill’s origins hail back to a time when the Wien Fluss (Vienna River), now buried below today’s Naschmarkt, was a source of water power for the surrounding mill district outside the ramparts. Named “Steinmühle” until the 17th century, it was first mentioned in 1326 as the property of the Heiligengeistspital, the Hospital of the Holy Spirit. After raging fires in 1528 that burned down much of this section of town, it was rebuilt within five years and handed over to Emperor Ferdinand I.

Many historical maps of Vienna recount the story of the mill. On a 1704 depiction of the city, the mill is there: a black rectangle next to an open field on a canalized tributary of the Wien Fluss.  By the 1830s, quite a few houses have surrounded it, but the canal still remains.  In 1856, the mill fell dormant after the canal was filled in for hygienic reasons and the new street became Mühlgasse.

Haymill after renovation

Haymill after renovation | Photo: Lauren Brassaw

On this particularly pleasant day, though, a surprise awaited me: the derelict mill was a ruin no longer. Dumbstruck, I tried to digest what my eyes beheld: smooth cookie-dough walls reinforced with metal braces, fresh windows with delicate chocolate trimming, a carefully laid quilt of taupe tiling. The culinary references are not accidental; even the ogee arch reminded me of a Hershey’s kiss.

As I walked around the rejuvenated mill and surveyed the facade, I tried to figure out if I liked this metamorphosis or not. In addition to the renovation, the courtyard had been carefully landscaped with patches of grass, park benches and paved sidewalks. While before, I had to sneak into the courtyard with a resident to get a glimpse of it, now the whole courtyard had been converted into a Durchgang, with regular public access. In fact, a few folks were already there, loitering on the bench as children gamboled in the grass.

As I stepped back into the archway and glanced once more at the new mill, I found myself mourning the loss of a ruin.

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