The Jewish Museum Frankfurt is housed in the historic building formerly known as Rothschild Palais (No. 15) and the adjacent building (No. 14) on Untermainkai. No. 15 is an outstanding example of the residence of an upper middle class Jewish family in the nineteenth century.
Both houses were built in neo-classical style in 1820/1821 by the municipal architect Johann Friedrich Christian Hess, who trained in Paris. The clarity of his formal syntax, based on the tenets of classical antiquity, underlines the quest for rational and functionally planned architecture, reflecting the spirit of the Enlightenment.
In 1823, privy councillor Simon Moritz von Bethmann, member of a leading Frankfurt family of bankers and councillors, purchased the house at No. 14. No. 15 was built for the banker Joseph Isaak Speyer, who came from a large and respected family that had resided in the Judengasse since the seventeenth century.
In 1846, Baron Mayer Carl von Rothschild purchased the house at No. 15 from banker Speyer's widow. In the course of the following years, he had it altered by Friedrich Rumpf, and extended westwards by five windows. Planned as a representative summer residence with park-like grounds, the addition of a second gable finally gave the building its present appearance.
Moreover, Friedrich Rumpf created a new interior with reception rooms in the historicist style that came to be known as “le goût Rothschild”. The stairway with mirrors and coloured marble incrustations in Renaissance style leads down to the reception rooms, of which three salons have survived in their original form. They are the Louis XIV style wood-panelled smoking salon with fluted columns mirrors and gilded coffering on a blue ground.
The adjacent music salon in Louis XV style is decorated entirely in gold and white, with the arrows from the family coat of arms featuring in the gilded boiseries. The little salon in Louis XVI style has plain, pale green wall panels in the emergent neo classical style of the day, while the ornately gilded stucco ceiling still bears all the hallmarks of rococo.
These three rooms are the only surviving examples in Frankfurt of the lifestyle of the Rothschild family, who consistently used aristocratic forms and cultural traditions to project their image.
During the lifetime of Baron Mayer Carl, part of his legendary collection of gold was presented in these rooms, which were turned into a museum after his death in 1886.
In 1895, the house at No. 15 was earmarked for use as a public library – the Baron Carl von Rothschild'sche öffentliche Bibliothek – founded in 1887 by Mayer Carl's daughter Hannah Louise von Rothschild (1850–92) and designated a foundation in 1893, following her death.
In 1906, Baroness Salomon von Rothschild, Lady Rothschild and Baroness James von Rothschild purchased the house at No. 14 in order to extend the library. In 1928, with the foundation's capital devalued by rampant inflation, the Frankfurt city authorities took over the Rothschild Library and house for use as part of the municipal library.
Following a number of name changes the last reference to the founding family being deleted in 1935 the city eventually merged the Rothschild Library with other Frankfurt libraries in 1945 to form the municipal and university library – Stadt- und Universitätsbibliothek – with its head quarters in the virtually unscathed buildings at 14 and 15 Untermainkai.
It was to be the main building of the municipal and university library throughout the immediate postwar years, until new premises were built in Bockenheim near the university. Later it was used as an annexe of the Historisches Museum. In 1980 the city council voted to establish a Jewish Museum in Frankfurt once again. The two buildings were refurbished (1984–1988) by the architect Ante Josip von Kostelac.
While No. 15 was retained almost intact, including the surviving historical interior decor, No. 14 had to be gutted and given a completely new interior. The entrance to No. 15 was moved from the west side to the street front of No. 14 on Untermainkai. An interesting stylistic solution has been achieved by placing the large model of the Judengasse in the clear space of the two storey foyer.