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Walt Disney World Architecture in Real Life – Freiburg Kaufhaus

A photo of Das Kaufhaus in the Germany Pavilion at EPCOT showing the architectural details of the structure, especially its ornate windows and statues.

By: Kendall Foreman

As the 14th century inhabitants of the city of Freiburg, Germany slept, merchants guiding carriages filled with goods would arrive at the city gate to stake their position in line. Being closer to the beginning of the queue meant you were first to have your items inspected and duty paid. By the 16th century, trade had become so extensive that the Freiburg Kaufhaus was built. The German word “kaufhaus” literally translates to “department store” in English. Today, the word is used to refer to establishments that are much like department stores here in the United States; however, in the 1500s, “kaufhaus” was used to describe a merchants’ hall where commodities were stored and customs were levied.

The Historisches Kaufhaus, as it is known in German, still stands today, and by appearances, it looks as if it were originally erected for something much more grand than a city’s bureaucratic obligations. The entire building is a rust-red tone that stands out amidst the neutral buildings flanking it. The first floor arcade draws in visitors with its series of vaulted arches. These are eye-catching on their own, but as the viewer’s gaze rises, more impressive architectural features can be found.

The second floor includes a series of curtain arched windows in between which are four statues depicting successive Hapsburg rulers: Maximilian I, Philip I, Charles V, and Ferdinand I. On either end of this upper story, ornate corner oriels can be found with embellishments underneath displaying the imperial double-headed eagle as well as the Hapsburg coats of arms. All of this is topped off with a stepped gable roofline on both ends. The striking structure faces the town square or Münsterplatz and serves to tie the modern city of Freiburg to its centuries old history.

When designing the Germany Pavilion for EPCOT in Walt Disney World, Imagineers hoped to recreate the feeling of the German platz or plaza. As such, the facades of the shops and dining locations surrounding the central fountain depicting St. George and the Dragon, allude to architecture found in Frankfurt and Rothenburg, in addition to the obvious reference to the Freiburg Kaufhaus in the façade on the right side of the pavilion.

A detail photo of the statues on the exterior of Das Kaufhaus in the Germany Pavilion in Disney's EPCOT

In EPCOT, this structure was originally known as the Gild Hall, and it is clear that its design is heavily based on the historic merchant’s hall in Freiburg. While the characteristic red exterior has been traded out for a more muted neutral shade that complements the surrounding buildings, several of the architectural features have been directly translated. The corner oriels can be found on either end as well as the curtain arched windows. Also, both this recreation and the original feature dormers across the roof and the distinctive stepped gables on either end. The second story of the EPCOT version is smaller in size (most-likely due to forced perspective). Because of this, it features one less window and, therefore, one less Hapsburg statue. Maximilian I has been left out in favor of the other three members of the European dynasty.

According to D23, the Gild Hall building was originally home to a shopping location known as Der Bücherwurm, or The Bookworm, which sold art and books about Germany. In 1999, the shop was renamed Das Kaufhaus, and sells varied merchandise depending on the season including soccer-related items, apparel, Christmas ornaments, and more. By renaming the shop Das Kaufhaus, Disney has brought together the modern meaning of the term (“department store”) and merged it with the old world façade that was once the stopping point for all merchants arriving in Freiburg, Germany.

(Photos courtesy of Melanie Whitfield)

Kendall has been a member of the WDW Radio Team since 2013. Today, you can read her work on the WDW Radio Blog or hear her join Lou for a number of WDW Radio podcast episodes. Kendall’s affection for Walt Disney World began with her very first family visit in the 1990s and has continued with each magical vacation since. Follow her on Twitter @kl_foreman.