A fragment of the Berlin Wall in close up

Credit: Will Kirk / Johns Hopkins University

A new home for a piece of history

Tracing the journey of Johns Hopkins' piece of the Berlin Wall from Germany to its new home at the Hopkins Bloomberg Center

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 during a pro-democracy uprising, it signaled the dissolution of East Germany's communist regime, the reunification of Germany, and the end of the decades-old Cold War. In the following years, the remaining pieces of the wall have taken on new meaning; once a formidable symbol of the Iron Curtain, they now are exhibited across the globe as reminders of the power of protest and spirit of democracy.

Today, a fragment of the wall stands at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg Center at 555 Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington, D.C.

The wall fragment first arrived at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington in 1997, when it was installed in the courtyard of SAIS' Nitze Building on Massachusetts Avenue. It was a gift from the Berlin Senate acknowledging the role SAIS and the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies—now the American-German Institute—played in fostering relations between the United States and postwar Germany.

Video credit: Roy Henry/Johns Hopkins University

Standing at an imposing 11 feet, 10 inches tall and weighing nearly 7,000 pounds, the wall fragment had a journey that required years of planning and a German naval ship for transport.

Jack Janes, president emeritus of the American-German Institute, had envisioned something a bit smaller.

"We had a conference room, and I was thinking you'd have a piece installed there that would be 3 or 4 feet tall as a way to memorialize the wall," Janes remembers. "But [a Berlin Senate member] said to me, 'There's one thing, Jack: These things are 3 or 4 meters tall.'"

It was 1994; in the five years after the wall fell, the pieces that could be lifted without heavy machinery had already been claimed. With adjusted expectations, Janes braved the snowy Berlin winter to search the park where the wall's fragments had been dumped. He hoped for something eye-catching—something with color, maybe, or a poignant message scrawled in spray paint. Finally, he found an ideal piece half-submerged beneath the snow and rubble. On it, he could make out letters in graffiti: F-R-E. Surely, Janes assumed, the last letter was I, spelling the German word for "free." He was delighted. It wasn't until the full piece landed in D.C. a few years later that he realized he'd been mistaken.

"The last letter was D," he says with a laugh. "Fred."

A fragment of the Berlin Wall has been installed at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg Center

Image credit: Will Kirk / Johns Hopkins University

Germany's foreign minister and the German ambassador to the United States attended the wall's dedication ceremony. A plaque for the monument was unveiled as a testament to "the success of the German-American partnership and as a reminder that freedom can never be taken for granted."

When Janes heard SAIS was relocating from Massachusetts Avenue to the Hopkins Bloomberg Center, he made sure the wall fragment wouldn't be left behind.

"I called to make sure that it went along when the move was made," he says. "I'm glad it's down there."

Plans were made to house the wall fragment inside the new building at 555 Pennsylvania Ave. But first, someone had to get it there.

June Emily Watkins, senior design and construction project manager, oversaw the monument's relocation. To assist with the project, she assembled a team including Paul Nassetta, assistant director for design and construction; Matt Power, senior project manager for Design and Construction; and Jackie O'Regan, curator of Cultural Properties for the Sheridan Libraries.

Planning and preparation began in June. Movers needed to be hired. The floor at the Hopkins Bloomberg Center needed to be reinforced with steel to support the wall. A crane the size of a small house was needed to hoist the wall and carry it across downtown Washington. The first two tasks were simple enough, relatively speaking, but the latter required shutting down Massachusetts Avenue for several hours on a Saturday. If blocking one of Washington's main thoroughfares wasn't taxing enough, Watkins worried the wall might not make it in one piece.

"The wall presented a couple of concerns," she says. "The biggest for me was a large horizontal crack near the middle of the wall. Due to the nature of using the crane to pick the wall up and the fact that it would have to be turned on its side to enter the space, I was anxious about putting additional strain on that portion of the wall during those two phases of the move."

Thanks to the movers' meticulous work, the wall fragment remained intact, arriving safely at its destination that afternoon.

The final leg of the wall's journey fittingly took place during Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken's Brzezinski lecture the following Wednesday, the inaugural address in the 375-seat theatre at the Hopkins Bloomberg Center. As Blinken gave an impassioned call for American diplomacy in an increasingly authoritarian post-Cold War political landscape, the movers worked quietly to maneuver the wall, still in its crate, to its final location.

The speech ended; as the crowd filtered out, the crew painstakingly removed the wall from its crate. Several hours later, just as evening fell, the installation was complete.