“Why is there a lighthouse located in the middle of the city? That makes no sense!”
“Did the Rhine river once flow here? Is that why there’s a lighthouse?”
“Is the structure some kind of forgotten remnant of the past?”
“Maybe that’s not a lighthouse, but rather a beacon that lets people know about a fire somewhere in the neighbourhood.”
These are some of the questions and statements posed by Cologne residents when asked if they know anything about the lighthouse in their midst.
Located in the Ehrenfeld1 borough of Cologne is a red brick 44-metre (144-foot) high lighthouse. But why is there a lighthouse at all in the “middle” of Cologne? The Rhine river flows through the city, but the river is hardly visible from the lighthouse at a distance of about 3 kilometres (2 miles). The structure is not an actual operating lighthouse; it’s a symbol of early 20th-century enterprise from what was once one of the most important companies in Europe and marking the location of a big factory that once manufactured electrical equipment including maritime lights.
Founded in 1882, Helios2 established their presence in the town of Ehrenfeld before the latter was incorporated into the greater city of Cologne in 1888. The company once boasted a staff complement of over 2000 people, with products sold in Germany and Europe ranging from electrical generators and transformers, light bulbs, light fixtures in public spaces, and electrical streetcars. Helios also built light towers for the North and Baltic Sea coastlines, including ones at Roter Sand (Weser river estuary), Borkum and Wangerooge (East Frisian Islands), and Sylt. The onsite lighthouse in Ehrenfeld was constructed as a testing facility and never used as a navigational aid or marker. The company overextended its financial reach until Berlin’s AEG3 purchased Helios in 1905. Manufacturing operations in Ehrenfeld ceased in 1930, bringing a final end to Helios’ business presence in Cologne.
The present-day buildings which remain are used as office- and art-space. As historical landmark, the “Helios Leuchtturm” remains as part of the urban heritage in Ehrenfeld and Cologne. If the people in both borough and city have any final say in the matter, the lighthouse will never have to go out.4