Healing and Entertainment
In 1785, a traveller wrote happily in the Teutsche Merkur about Wilhelmsbad near Hanau: “Anyone who is not comfortable here must be very ill indeed.” There were treatments, comforts, pleasures and then nature, which surpasses everything. It was not a businessman who ensured that the charms of the popular spa were extraordinary, but William IX (1743-1821), hereditary prince and later count of Hanau. He had entered the “wellness business” after mineral springs were discovered in a local quarry. Together with the engineer Franz Ludwig Cancrin, he realised buildings in late Baroque style from 1777 onwards. They were lined up in a long axis along a promenade, in the middle of a landscape park of 37.5 hectares that was being created at the same time.
Wellness for Body and Mind
There, the sovereign invented an early form of holistic recreation. Drinking and bathing cures were intended to banish ailments such as “intestinal worms”, “pallor” and “tumours of the whole body”. Guests could get exercise in the park, which was designed in the English style of gardening, and every walk stimulated sensations. Winding paths in the hilly terrain led to various sceneries, to vantage points and to ornamental buildings: among them a grotto, a hermitage, a swaying “Devil’s Bridge” leading into a dark bosquet, a snail mountain and a pyramid as a funerary monument. Other diversions at the time were a shooting gallery, a hedge theatre or the casino. They have not been preserved, but the Comoedienhaus, which is still in use, and the carousel, which runs on a daily basis, have. It is considered the oldest fixed carousel in the world and is an attraction.
The Prince found in his foundation “my jewel and favourite place”. When he was there, he mingled with the people. People from Hanau and Frankfurt came in droves, as did international visitors, even crowned heads of state. There was a “wonderful mixture of people from the nobility and the bourgeoisie, Christians and Jews, old and young”, advertised the “Briefe eines Schweizers über das Wilhelmsbad bei Hanau” (“Letters of a Swiss about Wilhelmsbad near Hanau”) (1780), written by the Enlightenment philosopher Baron Adolph von Knigge. For William, the most beautiful place was an artificial ruin on an island in the Braubach, where he sought private happiness away from the court. On the outside it feigns decay, on the inside it unfolds splendour. Then as now, visitors marvel at the illusion of the pseudo-medieval residential tower, the first of its kind in Germany.
The decline of the Wilhelmsbad was heralded after its creator, as the new Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel, left the area for the north. Around 1815, the already meagre spring dried up at Wilhelmsbad. Operations came to a standstill and the facility was hardly modernised in the 19th century. This was an advantage: in this way, the early landscape garden and the relics of the spa culture were authentically preserved.