It was almost a dead heat when Bern voted to kill St Christopher; the majority was only four votes. The year was 1864 and the Swiss capital wanted to modernise its streets, build new tram lines and generally look to the future. But a relic of the past was in the way: the huge Christoffelturm that for centuries had been the monumental western entrance to the city. Its fate was decided in a very Swiss way, with a vote.
The 55-metre high tower was built in the 1340s as part of the city’s outer defences, although by the 1860s the curtain walls had long gone, leaving the tower stranded next to the new train station, and surrounded by busy streets and omnibuses. Since 1498 a vast niche in one wall had housed the 9.7-metre wooden statue of St Christopher, who had over the years come to look more like Goliath.
But the medieval tower was mocked for being a “piece of old furniture” that was in the way of the city’s progress and development. It had to go. The vote came in December 1864 and it was close: the progressive faction won by 415-411.
Only a few months later the Christoffelturm was demolished, disappeared without trace. As for St Christopher, he was chopped up for firewood and distributed to the poor. His head was saved and rests in the Bern History Museum.
All that remained were the foundations of the once mighty tower and a copy of Chris’s head & shoulders. Both can be seen today in the station underpass, directly beneath where they once welcomed travellers into the city.
Did they do the right thing? In some ways, yes: with the tower gone, Bern could plan tram lines and (unknowingly) open up the city for the transport of the future – automobiles. But to lose such an important piece of the city’s heritage now seems like such a shame. Imagine how much more impressive the city would be with such a gateway still intact.
It was an act of cultural vandalism, albeit a democratically decided one, and one that can never be repeated. Bern is now a Unesco heritage site, so almost every building in the city centre is protected. Thanks goodness for that.