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Would You Like A Moat or Maze With Yours?


Want to own a castle, dating back to the Middle Ages, complete with a moat?

Or maybe your tastes are more modest: Would an 18th-century manor house within commuting distance of Berlin do? It needs a little fixing up, but the surrounding countryside is great for hiking or cycling.

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For as little as a single deutsche mark (64 cents), either of these properties could be yours.

In a campaign to restore historic properties neglected during the Communist era, the state of Brandenburg, formerly in East Germany, has issued a catalog of 49 castles, palaces, and other buildings for sale. For those who show a plan to restore these properties - and the means to do so - authorities are willing to entertain offers of a "symbolic" price, as little as a single deutsche mark.

Brandenburg's efforts are part of a larger plan by Central and Eastern Europeans to come to terms with an architectural heritage once despised by their Communist political leaders as relics of class warfare. This process is going on at a time when even some wealthy Western European countries are having to consider what is the right level of public support for the upkeep of all their fancy real estate.

"The important thing above all is that we don't just want to get rid of them," says Thomas Hainz of Brandenburg's cultural affairs ministry. "We want to find new users for these properties...."

Among the properties are a genuine castle, Wiesenburg, first mentioned in historical records in 1161; a palace, in Sommerswalde (1891), built as a miniature version of the Reichstag; a water mill (18th century); and some simple but historically significant half-timbered houses (18th and 19th centuries); as well as a good number of manor houses and villas.

The larger structures are grand enough, but not quite the baroque splendor of Bavaria and Bohemia. Rather, they express the more austere ethos of the Protestant nobility of Prussia.

The catalog, which came out last month, gives a detailed listing of each property with a color photo, along with architectural drawings, historical photos, maps of the surroundings, and contact addresses and telephone numbers. Property after property is listed as "empty," and for many of the structures the "suggested use" is given simply as "open."

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"The Communists had problems with these buildings - for ideological reasons," Mr. Hainz says. "Some of them they simply demolished. Others they turned over 'to the people....' "

Brandenburg is striving for a balance between economic viability with preservation of cultural heritage, within the constraints of historic-preservation standards. This balance is also the goal of the International Fund for European Heritage Conservation. It is run by Christian Dromard, an architectural consultant in Viroflay, France, who has worked for the governments of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, and Hungary on issues of restitution, restoration, and now economic development of castles.

These governments have two motivations in dealing with their castles, Mr. Dromard explains. One is symbolic: "It was important for these countries to show that they had thrown Communism off - the system that had wanted to destroy their cultural heritage." The other was practical: "They understand the tourist development aspect of this."

His fund is trying to interest international development banks in agreeing to a long-term private-investment fund, with government guarantees, that would in effect let individuals invest in the renovation of the most significant castles.

Among castle afficionados, particularly, the ideal is to preserve old properties by putting them to a use as close to the original as possible. All over Europe, the castle adapted to a hotel or conference center is a familiar sight.

Some experts, however, would like to see a little more imagination used in developing new uses - or rediscovering old uses - for the castles. Bruno Sobotka, of the German town of Witten, who stresses the "original use" principle, says, "We should consider the history of buildings more carefully, so that an old theater gets used again as a theater, ... that a manor house gets used as a private residence again."

Not everyone agrees with him, however. Klaus Bscher of Mannheim, director of an organization called European Castle Heritage, which helps castle-owners develop their properties for use as hotels and conference centers, insists that the advantages of having a property occupied always outweigh the disadvantages.

IN Vienna, Johann Georg Graf Herberstein, president of Austria Nostra, a heritage organization, describes the economic pressures noble families in Austria are under nowadays to keep their castles economically viable. "They can't just sit back and watch the spiders spin their webs ... Some sort of commercialization is necessary," he says. Austria Nostra is lobbying for a law that would give owners of historic properties the tax breaks and other benefits that their counterparts in Britain and France get. Currently, he says, protected status for a building is a burden, not a support, for its owner.

Can Austria afford such a program, at a time of general fiscal austerity? "Austria can't afford not to maintain its heritage," Mr. Herberstein insists. Besides, the needed restoration will help create much-needed jobs, he adds.

Italy is another country with a rich heritage of ancient buildings and some modern worries over how to afford to keep them up. The political fragmentation of the 13th and 14th centuries left Italy with a lot of city-state borders to defend, and hence a lot of castles and other fortifications, explains Flavio Conti, an architect in Milan who leads the Istituto Italiano dei Castelli, the Italian castles institute.

In theory, Italian laws governing the tax benefits for historic preservation are like those of Britain and France, he adds. But the government, in its attempts to get finances in shape for entry into the European currency union, has recently taken a "narrower interpretation" of tax breaks for historic preservation.

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