The building known today as the Villa Gontard, which houses the General Directorate of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, was constructed in 1907/08 for Leopold Friedmann, a Jewish banker given the honorary title by the German Emperor of a 'councillor of commerce'. It was designed by the architectural practice of Cremer & Wolffenstein. Both partners were official architects to the Prussian court and were among the most famous architects in Wilhelmine-era Berlin. Besides building private mansions, department stores, and office buildings, they also designed numerous synagogues.
Cremer & Wolffenstein designed a town mansion in the neo-Baroque style which fitted seamlessly into the existing block of buildings opposite the Tiergarten. However, just two years after completion, the banker sold the property to Baron Paul von Gontard. The baron, whose family estate was situated in the Altmark (between Hamburg and Magdeburg), was married to the daughter of the owner of the Anheuser-Busch brewery in St. Louis, Missouri, USA. Gontard worked as the managing director of DWM, a German munitions manufacturer, and was a member of various corporate supervisory boards, including that of Daimler.
The villa’s ground floor originally housed rooms used by service staff, such as the kitchen and the head housekeeper’s quarters. The baron’s family and their guests reached the reception rooms on the first floor via a marble-clad staircase. Branching off the spacious hallway were the salon, the gentlemen’s smoking room and ladies’ sitting room, the dining room overlooking the garden with terrace, and a breakfast room. The second floor was reserved for the family’s private quarters, while the attic was where the servants slept.
The Gontards lived in their villa up to the late 1930s. In early 1939 they travelled to the United States and, at the outbreak of war, decided to remain there. They were never to return to Germany again. Gontard died in the US in 1941 and the house was transferred, roughly a year later, into the hands of the German Reich through a bogus 'donation agreement'. After the Second World War, Gontard’s villa was officially returned to his widow Clara, following a decision by the local Office of Restitution.
During the aerial bombardment, the buildings around Tiergarten suffered near complete devastation, but the Villa Gontard survived as one of the few houses to remain virtually intact. In the years that followed, the building was put to use as office space for a variety of organizations. In 1963, barely two years after the erection of the Berlin Wall, the West Berlin government purchased the property from the heirs of Gontard’s widow. The Museum of Berlin (then newly founded in the western part of the city) was temporarily housed on the site, as was the Department of the Arts for the borough of Tiergarten.
The entire area stretching from Stauffenbergstrsse to the opposite side of Potsdamer Strasse was demarcated as ground on which to erect the new Kulturforum. The 1960s saw the completion of Scharoun’s Philharmonie and Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie, followed swiftly by the new state library (also designed by Scharoun). The Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz (Prussian Cultural Heritage) envisaged the construction of five museums dedicated to European art, all situated in close proximity to the Villa Gontard. In 1966, the decision was finally taken to present the villa to the Prussian Cultural Heritage so that the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, the largest of its divisions, could use the premises for its general administration. The former villa was renovated as a landmarked building and has served its present purpose since 1970.
Following the overhaul of the Kulturforum’s architectural plans in the 1980s and the eventual completion of the Gemäldegalerie in 1998, the villa was integrated into the modern buildings that flanked it on either side. In the early to mid-1990s, the new modern complex also housed additional administration offices of the Staatliche Museen, which had swollen after the reunification of the collections in the former East and West. Despite being integrated into a wider complex, the villa remains recognizable as a historical, separate building. The General Directorate owes its special charm to the fact that the structure and feel of the original mansion has been retained as much as possible.