If you've ever set foot in the Danube-straddling medieval market town of Ulm in southwest Germany there’s a very gut chance that you’re familiar with its defining architectural landmark. After all, it’s impossible to miss.
With an ornate stone masonry steeple topping out at a dizzying 530 feet, Ulm Minster is the tallest church in the world. In fact, following the uber-imposing Gothic structure’s nearly five-century-long completion in 1890, it reigned as the tallest building of any kind up until 1901 when Philadelphia City Hall claimed the title. The World Heritage Site-listed Cologne Cathedral, arguably much more famous than Ulm Minster, was the previous title-holder.
Maybe it's the church’s formidable height (768 stairs to the top!) or the fact that it survived a series of city-flattening Allied air raids with just a scratch. Maybe it’s a combination of things. Whatever the case, Ulm Minster has long presided over the city with an undeniable invulnerability, unassailability and strength. It is a presence, a beacon, an icon. Nothing can bring it down.
Well, maybe one thing.
And that would be pee.
As recently reported by The Telegraph, this majestic edifice has for far too long served as a magnet for full-bladdered gents responding en masse to nature’s urgent call. Essentially, the exterior sandstone walls are slowly eroding from the bottom up due to their secondary function as an al fresco latrine with the acids and salts in urine eating away at the base of the church. Vomiting has also been a continual issue. (And it's worth noting that Ulm Minster is often mistakenly referred to as a cathedral, even though it is now a Lutheran church and has never been the seat of a bishop.)
The city of Ulm, birthplace of Albert Einstein, and the River Danube as seen from the top of Ulm Minster. On a clear day, the Alps are also visible. (Photo: Chris Price/flickr)
Not only is this wreaking havoc on the structural integrity of Ulm Minster, it's also a hygienic nightmare.
To dissuade passersby from unzipping and taking aim at Ulm Minster, city officials began doling out 50 euro fines to anyone caught urinating or vomiting on the church walls. Earlier this year, the fine was doubled yet the church remains an unlikely hotspot for these activities.
“I've been keeping an eye on it for half a year now and, once again, it's coated with urine and vomit,” Michael Hilbert, head of the local agency tasked with preserving the landmark structure, laments to the German press. “I am not the pee police but this is about preserving law and order.”
On the topic of police, a spokesperson for the city also told German newspaper Suedwest Presse that an additional police presence around the church has had a minimal impact and that “the problem will likely persist as long as there are people.”
It does, however, help to consider which people tend to empty the contents of their bladders directly on the church walls. Most of these folks tend to be intoxicated (obviously) and in desperate need of a public loo. So who are they? And why are there so many of them?
Hilbert notes that the church is directly positioned on a bustling public square, which is the setting for both an annual wine festival (!) as well as a famed winter market. Both of these popular events are apparently lacking in the public restroom department.
One would think that with so many buildings facing the square, the walls of a church dating back to 1377 wouldn’t be the first choice for emergency micturition sessions. After all, peeing on a church, no matter how sloshed one might be, seems like the sort of activity that might get you struck by lighting a couple days later.
Mr. Gargoyle says: No wildpinklers, please. (Photo: Arctic Wolf/flickr)
However, unlike other nearby buildings with available walls, Ulm Minster provides plenty of semi-private alcoves to duck into when there's nowhere else to turn.
The obvious solution, one that Hilbert mentions, is for the organizers of large, booze-heavy events held in the square such as the wine festival to provide more free public toilets to revelers.
Or perhaps the city should treat the church's sandstone walls with the same super-hydrophobic, or water-repellent, coating that’s been applied to habitually peed-upon walls in the party-hearty St. Pauli district of Hamburg to help avert that city's scourge of public urinators, the wildpinklers. I'm thinking that a surprise spray-back should perturb inebriated individuals enough to prevent them from peeing on a house of worship ever again.
If officials do opt to go this route, Ulm Minster wouldn’t just the tallest church on the planet. It would also be the only church in the world that pees back.
Inset Ulm Minster photo: Rob124/flickr