19th-century shop fittings in Købmagergade


Then & Now, a pop-up exhibition of photographs of the city, was in a shop at Købmagergade that must have been empty for that short period after one tenant moves out and a new tenant takes over.

The building is on the west side of what is one of the two main shopping streets in the centre of the city. Købmagergade runs down from the site of the north gate of the old city at Nørreport and Strøget or The Walking Street - the long pedestrianised street that runs east west from the site of the old east gate to the city at Kongens Nytorv to the site of the west gate near the city hall. The two streets meet at Amager Torv and this shop is just north of that old market place in a long continuous line of historic buildings between Amager Torv and Valkendorfsgade.

My guess would be that 99% of the people walking along the busy street are either looking in at the shop windows or they are hurrying past on their way somewhere but if you look up you can see  from architectural features such as windows or roofs that these buildings appear to date from the late 18th or the 19th century but explore a little and behind are courtyards and light wells and evidence for outbuildings that tell a more interesting story. Shop fronts and the shop interior are invariably the most modern or most recent part and, too often, of dubious design and quality, and the façade above the shop front and the roofs the last major expenditure on the building itself while buildings behind the street range and often the upper rooms of the street range show evidence for a much more complicated history.

history / background

Going into the left-hand shop at number 7 there is evidence for what is a remarkably common story in the city.

You now go into the shop directly off the street and the shop is just a couple of steps up from the pavement but the space is curiously high with an ornate gallery around all four sides supported on narrow columns that is reached by a tight spiral staircase in the back corner.

It is clear that this was a fairly standard Copenhagen town building. It includes, on a single plot, the adjoining shop to the north with a main doorway between the two shops for access to the upper levels of the building. There must have been an earlier house on this plot - as it is right in the centre of the city - but documents show that it was rebuilt in 1729 for Oluf Hegelund and J Pedersen - so immediately after the fire of 1728 * - and the building work was undertaken by the famous architect Philip de Lange with a master brick layer called Simon Sørensen.

Then, in the 1790s, the street range was heightened with a whole extra floor added and with it a new roof.

Through the 18th century the rooms on the main floor would not have been at street level but six or seven steps up with low windows, at pavement level, lighting a lower floor half below ground with steps down from the street. The building next door to the left - number 5 - again has shops on either side of a central doorway but there the left-hand shop has retained these original floor levels.


Købmagergade 5 - the shop to the left is at the original level - up from the pavement by seven or eight steps - with a shop below half above the pavement and half below the ground with seven steps down into the shop from the pavement - the shop to the right has a 'modern' ground-floor level and entrance door directly from the pavement with the inserted floor cutting across the top half of the original basement space

Købmagergade 7 is to the right and the shop that was redesigned by Kaare Klint is next shop but one to the left

When the shop at number 7 was remodelled, presumably in the middle of the 19th century, the floor was dropped down to pavement level but the position of the ceiling - immediately under the floor of the first-floor rooms - was left in place. Presumably the gallery and its storage space compensated in part for the storage space lost in the basement which, after the alterations, must have been half the height.

Why does any of this matter now?

Well it is all evidence of the complicated history of commerce in the city and, with the inevitable demand to strip out any and every space and put in modern lighting and false ceilings and, with the fast turnover of tenants, interesting and, in some buildings, important historic fittings are too easily lost.




I'm  curious … has anyone recorded systematically the names of the owners and tenants of these shops in the centre of the city through the 18th and 19th centuries to show how the commercial area expanded to take over more and more houses?

Copenhagen has a long and successful history for trade with many small and independent businesses and also, of course, before the 20th century, much that was sold in the city would have been made in the city so, as many of these shops have been stripped out to make larger and larger retail units that stretch back into the plot, what has also been lost is the workshops and outbuildings that could have told us so much about the craftsmen and traders of the past.

How many of these buildings were residential and when did they become commercial properties - at least on the street level? How many craftsmen simply traded from a front parlour without shop fittings, as we would recognise them, and do any workshops survive in back courtyards?

shop interior by Kaare Klint for FA Thiele


background / history

Købmagergade is one of the two main shopping streets in Copenhagen and number 3, close to the intersection of those two streets, is a wide building with two separate shops running back into the property and a central doorway for access to the staircase and to the floors above the shops. The building appears to have just escaped the catastrophic fire in the city of 1728 and may date back to the first half of the 17th century - the adjoining building was damaged and had to be rebuilt. Number 3 was rebuilt between 1816 and 1834, when it was owned by a restaurateur - Jean Pierre Casadaban -  and in 1847, an extra floor was added with, presumably, a new roof and at that point the street frontage took on its present appearance.

The shops have very high ceiling heights where, as in so many of the older buildings in the centre of the city, the floors of the main level, originally six or seven steps up from street level were brought down to pavement level, cutting into the space of basement rooms that were originally half below ground and half above ground - a form of plan described as a half basement or semi basement.


In the middle of the last century, the shop in the left or south half of the building at number 3 Købmagergade was occupied by the opticians  F A Thiele. They are now in a shop further north along the same street - but in 1944 they commissioned the architect Kaare Klint to design a new shop font and new interior fittings here.

Work was delayed and did not start until 1951 when Klint was assisted by the young architect Vilhelm Wohlert, who had studied under Klint, and the shop was actually completed in 1956, some two years after Klint died.

It is a complicated space with the front part of the shop just two steps up from the pavement but the space then narrows and towards the back runs through into a back building at a higher level, eight steps up from the floor of the front space, although the ceiling level is constant.

Klint and Wohlert designed a reception and waiting area at the front and, back down the shop, there were 18 tables or desks with chairs, where patients were seen by the opticians, including tables set along a narrow balcony that returned back towards the shop front from the raised area at the back. At the very back there was a small office but with a glazed front wall.

Unlike the present arrangement, the back part of Thiele's had windows looking into a narrow back courtyard so there was natural light.


Distinctive fittings included high and narrow units of small drawers - next to the staircase in the middle of the shop - for storing the glasses but the interior also made striking use of large flush panels veneered in wood and areas of vertical and closely spaced narrow strips of wood that picked up the tight linear pattern of the ceiling, that had narrow strips running front to back, and the bolder lines of the closely-spaced rafters of the underside of the balcony.

The drawer units were along the side wall but also returned across the shop beside the staircase and taken up higher than the floor level of the space beyond and seem to have included a flower planter across the top and formed the barrier or parapet of the upper level.

These steps up to the back had open treads and the handrail had closely-spaced vertical battens so again a strong linear design. Note how the wide handrail curves at the top and bottom to level off to horizontal so it was at the right level for your hand as you approached and as you reached the last of the steps.

The interior is about clean simple lines but the planes of walls and fittings define a clever interrelationship of spaces and volumes marking not just changes in the underlying building - that the architects were given - but define different areas of the shop ... so a progression from pavement through the display space of the shop window to a counter and reception area, a waiting area and pay desk, stations for consultations, storage of stock and an office at the far end, above everything but with its glass wall, a place from which to supervise all. Perhaps one of the most elegant essays in functional architecture in the city.

The front window was again a deceptively simple but again an exceptionally sophisticated design with a wide lintel across the door to divide the very high shop window across the centre. This was deep enough to carry lighting with a series of spot lights over the window displays and narrow opaque panels for the lights over the entrance. The glass on either side was set at the front edge for the areas of window display but the entrance door was set on the back edge of this horizontal feature with narrow windows on each side to form a covered entrance lobby. At the front or outer corners the sheets of glass forming the sides of this lobby are butted up to the large plate-glass windows of the shop front without vertical frames - something we now just take for granted but then, presumably, both novel and daring.

Plain boards below the windows set the height of a solid panel in the bottom of the otherwise glazed door and the windows were large undivided sheets of glass so there is an apparent simplicity to the design but in reality a complicated and clever game with planes and lines and spaces.

The demolition of this interior has to be seen as a major loss.