History of Spittelberg
Neubau through the centuries. Out of various Viennese suburbs, or parts of them, grew the district Neubau (7th district) as we know it today. St. Ulrich, Alt-Lerchenfeld, Neubau, Spittelberg, Mariahilf, Laimgrube and Schottenfeld each developed independently from each other and into different directions. Spittelberg especially stood out from the other suburbs due to its elevation. In the 15th Century, cows, sheep and goats populated the hillsides with a view of Vienna. The first significant building was the public hospital "Bürgerspital", which gave the region its name.
Since 1525, the area grew through land trade and purchase, so that fields and meadows and vineyards, and gardens growing saffron and herbs changed hands quickly.
As public property, the "Bürgerspital" had some command over its domain. The canon of Passau, Karl Freiherr von Kirchberg, took over seignory in 1638, and reparcelled the properties South of Neustiftgasse, letting them for a Gulden per year. A first step towards the housing structure still relevant today.
However, the new lordship did not get to enjoy his acquisitions too long. In 1683, the hill was no longer populated by grazing cattle but occupied by Turkish generals besieging the city. The same had happened (with considerably smaller success) back in 1462 through Viktorin, son of the Bohemian king. Later, in 1809, Napoleon camped out on Spittelberg and in the year of the 1848 Revolution Windisch-Graetz claimed the hill in the name of the reactionaries.
But back to the Turks, whose siege left few buildings on Spittelberg undestroyed. A swift reconstruction followed their retreat, the seignory moved back into the "Bürgerspital" and had as many houses built around it as possible. Affordable rents yielded back into an early model of social policy.
By the early 18th Century, the rebuilding process was almost complete. A map from that time basically shows the modern configuration of streets and lanes. Small plots, individual houses accessible through common courtyards, no larger than 50 square metres, hardly any gardens, no canalisation, in close crowded conditions – what we perceive as a romantic and idyllic part of the old city today must have been an unhygienic place to say the least, but a cheap and viable option for many who could not afford expensive housing. If you have nothing, you have nothing to lose. A further step towards the "delights and sensual pleasures" – a way of life that has since become synonymous with Spittelberg – until today.
After 1795 Vienna took over seignory of the hill. About ten years earlier 138 houses with 6000 inhabitants were counted. Most of the houses had two floors, whereas the ground floor held shops or, more frequently, taverns. Most of them also acted as small-scale brothels. The flats usually consisted of room and kitchen, and under the roof there were so-called shed rooms, whose lodgers were predominantly unmarried ladies.
Glorified from a modern point of view, the local population at the time did not lead easy lives. However, the inner strength and vitality which emerges when you hang on to life with all you have must have exerted an irresistible pull at the time. Gentlemen from all layers of society frequented Spittelberg to seek what could not be found elsewhere. They paid for their thrills with money, and sometimes with their health.
Whores, travelling artists, street entertainers, acrobats, writers, journalists... the stuff that legends are made of. Travelling theatre groups set up in the streets next to the brothels, in wooden sheds – as today, the "Theater am Spittelberg" – on open squares or inside taverns; this was made possible through the granting of theatre freedom through Emperor Joseph II in 1776.
Balladeers, harpists and singers played their hearty Spittelberger songs. These, too, can still be enjoyed today at the "Theater am Spittelberg", though in comparatively civilised manner.
A stage for all sorts of goings-on, fascination of the forbidden, a little rebellion, a hint of anarchy – that was alluring, and in that respect not much has changed, in spite of several attempted "cleansing campaigns" ordered by various rulers. Joseph II, for example, thought installing the royal and imperial patent office complete with many honorary officials in Gutenberggasse (as of 1.1.1789) would put an end to the unruly lot. However, the appointed officials revelled in their new, exciting surroundings and even contributed to a period of economic prosperity at Spittelberg. The story goes that one of the girls recognised one of the officials in her street and said, "Servus Schweindi, was machst denn du do?" ("Hi, old rascal, what are you doing here?").
The borders of Spittelberg were generally defined by: Neustiftgasse-Faßziehergasse-Burggasse-Stiftgasse-Siebensterngasse-Breite Gasse-Museumsstraße. In 1861, Spittelberg became part of Vienna’s 7th district, named Neubau. The city approached the hill, the walls were torn down. It was a time of renovation.
Spittelberg gradually lost its reputation in the Biedermeier period, however as the buildings became increasingly run-down during the socio-historical development, it retained the distinctive air of a "red light district" into the 20th Century. The prostitutes from Spittelberg were always denied entry into the society that they served. World War One brought the end of the "red light district".
After World War Two, the houses had deteriorated so far that they were meant to be remodelled into large post-war blocks of flats. Several inhabitants and artists stood up in protest, and a clear-sighted city government decided to purchase most of the houses for renovation instead. Thanks to these efforts, you find exceptionally well restored Biedermeier houses on Spittelberg today. The lovely buildings, the narrow lanes and the crooked squares give Spittelberg its charming village appearance, though – compared with the other Viennese suburbs – that is never what it was. An atmospheric "village" full of stories, which come to find the visitor who knows how to look for them.