Ulmer Münster: the stairway to heaven
The halfway room was a dark, wood-panelled affair. Breathless from the climb up, I stopped at its walls, lined with photographs of the world’s tallest religious towers in ascending order. Outside, a German visitor emerged from a stairwell and entered the room, smiling broadly. She was presumably on the way back down.
“It’s wonderful, isn’t it?”
I nodded and said yes. Her response was direct, precise, and in a comical way, almost cruel.
“There are still 375 more steps to the top, you’ll have fun!”
Twenty minutes earlier I had joined a small handful of other visitors whose footsteps echoed faintly in the serene interior, where the low autumn sun flooded through the stained glass windows, projecting a kaleidoscope of vivid colours onto the columns and walls. From the narthex I pried open a creaking oak door and began my ascent.
Ulm does not figure on most visitor itineraries through Germany’s southwest, but it probably should: this medium-sized city of 120,000 residents happens to be Einstein’s birthplace, and home to the tallest church steeple in the world. I had known about it ever since my early teens, when I received a tall, elongated book on skyscrapers.
I spotted the spire of the Münster for the first time, reflected in a glass façade, as I walked the main pedestrian street from the train station. Although a vast swath of the medieval town (no less than 81%) was destroyed in World War II, the Gothic Münster remained miraculously intact. Its record-breaking height of 161.5 metres played a role in ensuring the church’s survival – the spire was used as a navigational landmark by Allied bombers.
Ulm’s distinctive tower was the vision of master builder Ulrich Ensingen, who took charge of the project 15 years after the foundation stone was laid in 1377. But Ensingen would not live to see his steeple complete – and neither would many generations after him. Construction came to a standstill in 1543, as funds ran out during a time of political instability and economic stagnation. Throughout the next three centuries the spire stood at a height of 100 metres, unfinished and silent, until 1817 when building work finally resumed. A final 73-year push ended on May 31, 1890, half a millennia after its inception. For the next 11 years Ulmer Münster would hold the title of the world’s tallest habitable building.
Walking the 768 steps to the viewing gallery, it didn’t take long to realise the truth of that claim. But what was also apparent that this was a marvel of engineering: a heavy, hollow spire, supported by a seemingly weightless frame. I wandered through the vertical forest of open stonework and found myself at the final stage – a spiraling staircase contained in an octagonal tower – leading up into the crown. By the end I was exhausted and gasping for air, but the views stretching out in all directions were simply unimaginable. The lady in the halfway room was right.