Facts and figures

With a population of 28,000, Heppenheim is the fourth-largest town in the Bergstrasse district. The 52 square kilometre district was formed following the administrative reforms at the beginning of the 1970s, when the municipalities of Erbach, Hambach, Igelsbach, Kirschhausen, Mittershausen-Scheuerberg, Ober-Laudenbach, Sonderbach and Wald-Erlenbach became districts of Heppenheim. The capital town of Hesse’s southernmost administrative district, which hosted the Hessentag state festival in 2004 and celebrated the 1,250th year of its first mention in 2005, can look back at a long history as an administrative centre.
Archaeological finds document that the Heppenheim area has had human settlements since the Neolithic Age. The first documented reference to the town and its church St. Peter’s dates from the year 755 and has been handed down in the Codex Laureshamensis, or Lorsch Codex. The town and the entire Heppenheim march belonged to the numerous landholdings of Lorsch imperial abbey since 773.
Towering above Heppenheim’s picturesque old town, Starkenburg Castle, built in 1065, was the first and most important castle of Lorsch imperial abbey. In the disputes over a deed of gift of the abbey made by King Heinrich IV to Archbishop Adalbert of Bremen the Abbot of Lorsch, Udalrich, had the fortress built. It withstood the first siege in January 1066. The demise of the imperial abbey came in the 13th Century. After the Archbishop of Mainz had already acquired Starkenburg Castle in 1229, the abbey was conferred on him in 1232, along with all its property, including Heppenheim too.
As the Elector’s administrative seat, the Amtshof (tithe house) was built on the edge of the old town. Like most of the houses in the town, it was destroyed in a fire in 1369 and had been rebuilt by the end of the 14th century. The angel fresco in the Kurfürstensaal (Elector’s State Hall) dates from this period. Today, the hall acts as a festive backdrop to numerous cultural events. The Museum of Local History and Folklore is also located in the Amtshof, whose modernly equipped rooms and atmospheric facades are equally indispensable for the Bergstraesser Weinmarkt wine festival and the Festspiele theatre festival.
From 1461 to 1623, Heppenheim and the entire Starkenburg administrative district came under Palatinate lien administration. During the Thirty Years War, Starkenburg Castle was captured in 1621 by Spanish troops, and nine years later by Swedish forces. Heppenheim’s population, which had been decimated by a plague epidemic in 1635, subsequently had to endure the plundering of the town by French troops in 1645. The Palatinate war of succession also claimed many victims in the Bergstrasse. In 1689, the year in which Heidelberg Castle was destroyed, Heppenheim was once again plundered by French troops, and four years later set on fire when the town was sacked yet again.
When the Electorate of Mainz was abolished by the Principal Decree of the Imperial Deputation, Heppenheim became part of the Landgraviate (from 1806: Grand Duchy) of Hesse-Darmstadt in 1803, whose new southern province was given the name Starkenburg. In 1846, the Age of the Railways began for the district’s capital, which was located at an old and important north-south transport hub. Heppenheim was now a station on the Main-Neckar railway line from Frankfurt to Heidelberg.
In 1847, Heppenheim was the scene of great political activity. On the 10th of October in that year, prominent delegates from five German states met here at the invitation of Aachen-based merchant and politician David Hansemann to discuss concerted action to create a state entity of Germany. The “Heppenheim Conference” became a milestone on the road to the National Assembly in the Paulskirche in Frankfurt in 1848. The events transpired in the “Halber Mond” inn, which still exists today and whose history dates back to the 17th century. Tsarina Catherine II had once been a guest here.
Despite the numerous acts of destruction during the wars of previous centuries and the adaptations to the demands of modern road traffic which is visible in Heppenheim’s townscape too, Heppenheim’s old town with its picturesque half-timbered houses has still remained to a large extent an intact entity and has gained in attractiveness for visitors and residents alike in recent decades through the renovation of numerous buildings.
The view of the Grosser Markt (big market square) is dominated by the town hall, whose stone ground-floor hall dates from 1551. The imposing half-timbered building jutting out above the hall was built after the fire of 1693, to which the town hall had also fallen victim. Diagonally across the square is the Liebig-Apotheke chemist’s shop, an imposing half-timbered building from the early 18th century. In 1818/19, Justus Liebig, who was later to achieve world fame as a chemist, worked as a chemist’s apprentice for several months here.
The lower stories of the north tower of St. Peter’s church still date back to the Romanesque era. They are reminiscent of the previous building of the imposing “Bergstrasse Cathedral”, which was built in Gothic style between 1900 and 1904 using the plans of Mainz Cathedral’s architect Ludwig Becker. The dimensions of this parish church, which is built in Gothic style, also give an indication of the fact that more than 80 percent of Heppenheim’s population was still Roman Catholic at the beginning of the 20th century. The Protestant minority in the town had been given their own church in 1888, when the Heilig-Geist-Kirche was completed. However, they only formed an independent church parish in 1902. The Jewish community, which numbered some 110 members at the time, received a new synagogue on Starkenburgweg, designed by architect Heinrich Metzendorf, by means of a foundation established by the Hirsch brothers, who came from Heppenheim and were living in London, The synagogue was inaugurated in October 1900 (and destroyed in November 1938 by the Nazis).
Close to the old town is the house where Jewish author and religious philosopher Martin Buber lived with his family from 1916 to 1938. It was here that he wrote his major work, “I and Thou”, and it was also here that he began (initially in collaboration with Franz Rosenzweig) his translation of the Hebrew Bible into German in 1925. Today, the Martin-Buber-Haus is the headquarters of the International Council of Christians and Jews, ICCJ, a centre of religious dialogue.
That the Huber family was not the only one to move to Heppenheim in the early decades of the 20th century is evident from the well-kept villas in the districts of Maiberg and centred around the former Kaiserstrasse (now Karl-Marx-Strasse), district, which sprang up in that era. Brothers Heinrich and Georg Metzendorf are particularly noteworthy for putting their stamp on the Bergstrasse Landhausstil country house architecture of that time. Despite the concentration of building that has taken place in the meantime, the districts that developed during the German Empire (1871-1918) are still preferred residential areas today and beckon tourists interested in architecture to take a stroll there.
For a long time, fruit- and wine-growing, tobacco processing and brick manufacturing determined Heppenheim’s economic life. The businesses that gradually developed alongside these latter, for example the textile and the food sectors, had the advantage that they polluted the environment very little with emissions, for the people of the Bergstrasse were very mindful of this long before the term "Umweltvertraeglichkeit" (environmental sustainability) was adopted into German vocabulary.
The composition of the soil was an obstacle to Heppenheim’s expansion to the west for many years. It was not until the 1950s and 1960s that extensive drainage measures enabled wet meadows to be turned into building land. The district’s capital town has held its own staunchly in the increasingly stiff inter-regional competition to attract businesses by constructing attractive residential buildings in the Weststadt western quarter and the industrial estate centred around Tiergartenstrasse. Thus, apart from its function as and administrative centre, which still remains important, the town has also improved its image as a location for business.
Likewise, a well developed municipal infrastructure with schools and sports facilities also contributes to the high quality of life that Heppenheim can offer its residents. The Odenwaldschule, founded in Ober-Hambach by Paul Geheeb in 1910, has a special status among Heppenheim’s schools. From a modest beginning with 14 pupils, it developed into one of Germany’s most prestigious boarding schools. The progressive teaching program implemented there, which is aimed at developing creativity and character formation, may also have been the reason why renowned artists like Thomas Mann, Ernst Barlach, Wolfgang Hildesheimer or Else Lasker-Schüler entrusted their children’s education to the Odenwaldschule. Currently, the Odenwaldschule has some 260 pupils.
When flowering trees diffuse a spring feeling across the Bergstrasse, while winter still prevails in other areas of Germany, Heppenheim shows itself from its best side in resplendent colour. However, Heppenheim dos not have a rich array of cultural events to offer its residents and visitors also in spring alone. Strassenfastnacht (street Mardi Gras) and the Bergstraesser Weinmarkt wine festival, the Kerwe (local dialect for Kirchweih, a festival originally celebrating the inauguration of a church which has over the centuries mutated into a type of a country fair), the Gassensensationen street theatre festival and the Heppenheimer Festspiele (theatre festival) in the Amtshof are notable dates in the town’s calendar of events, which offer the old and familiar alongside the experimental, folklore alongside classical music.
Thus, at the onset of the third millennium A.D., Heppenheim can offer a combination of the traditional and the modern which is as attractive as it is sustainable. The key to success for the further development of the district’s capital town, which is steeped in tradition, lies in the juxtaposition of old and new, which is so characteristic for the Friedrichstrasse/Wilhelmstrasse pedestrian zone too.