Tønder. Fotograf Martin Erik Andersen
Photo: Martin Erik Andersen/VISDA

Tønder doors: woodwork, tradition and tourism

As part of the five-year interdisciplinary scientific research project Spaces of Danish Welfare1,2, I conducted fieldwork in Tønder from 2017 to 2022 to examine how town life is affected when key welfare institutions are moved to bigger towns or cities as a result of external initiatives, such as the Danish municipal reform in 2007.

I come from Tønder myself, and for many years I have observed from the sidelines as the town underwent similar changes to other provincial towns in Denmark. The combination of centralization, municipal reform and the emergence of the ‘H-city’ has caused many logistically peripheral towns to become isolated and lose their welfare institutions.

The Danish towns and cities that are connected by motorways and the main railway lines are known as the ‘H-city’, because this network resembles an ‘H’ on the map of Denmark, extending from Elsinore to Rødby, from Køge to Esbjerg and from Frederikshavn to Padborg3.

In this context, the towns that are not included in the H-city are described as ‘island towns’4, scattered like islands throughout the country. They are often described as peripheral or remote, have cumbersome access to the infrastructural grid and are somewhat detached from the centralized system.

The same trend can be identified on a global scale, as expanding megapolises cast long shadows, and part of the shadowland is transformed from thriving towns and environs into abandoned cities and peripheries, staged tourist landscapes5 or locations for server parks or solar or wind farms supplying urban areas6, 7.

Historically, Tønder’s main recurring challenges were border warfare, fires and flooding. Nevertheless, in its heyday, the town was an important trade hub in a large region. Dating from the 11th century, Tønder has a distinctive character shaped by its age, history and architectural traditions.

One significant feature is the widespread use of ornate baroque woodwork, especially the epitaphs and altarpieces in Kristkirken (Christ Church) and the doors in the old part of town. The intricate wood carvings and their varying uses and perception reflect Tønder’s history, as objects and places speak both of the era when they were created and of subsequent times, with their changing customs.

The Lace Era

During the 17th and 18th centuries, Tønder was the centre of a lucrative lace industry. The wealthy Tønder lace traders built merchant’s houses with ornate entrance portals, doors and oriels and donated epitaphs to the church. The doors are from the baroque and rococo periods, with spiral columns and a wealth of details, while the epitaphs date from the Renaissance, baroque and rococo.

Particularly famous is the bulging, tortuous baroque acanthus style, often featuring paintings of the donor and his family framed by carvings of large, curled acanthus foliage, putti, evangelists and other Christian figures and crowned by an image of the risen Christ. Thus, Danmarks Kirker writes, ‘both the Renaissance and the baroque are well represented by the many epitaphs and commemorative plaques, two of which, along with the altarpiece and the organ, are fine examples of the full-blown baroque acanthus style’ (p. 952)8.

The tall altarpiece from 1695 ‘undoubtedly came from Peter Petersen’s workshop in Tønder’ (p. 953)8, as did the organ, since ‘wood carver Peter Petersen’s large, thistle-like acanthus ornaments from 1701 dominates in the older parts, even in the choir organ’s still-rococo-like forms and ornaments dating from 1701’ (p. 975)8.

Further, ‘The large, laciniate thistle-like acanthus leaves cover every exposed part of the altarpiece; they are found on both sides of the pedestal, on the sides of the pedestal protrusions, they fill the friezes and push out over and in under the frame of the top part; here, by necessity, they are fairly flat, but on the wings and top rail, they bulge out with deep carvings’ (p. 954)8.

Tønder. Døre. Fotograf Martin Erik Andersen
Photo: Martin Erik Andersen/VISDA

Similarly, many of the doors in the old town are virtual cornucopias of wood carvings. One example is ‘the Dike Reeve’s House’ from 1777, which is described in Trap Danmark: ‘The richly ornamented facade is one of the finest examples of late baroque architecture in the country, with both rococo and Louis Seize features9.

Another example is ‘the old pharmacy’ from 1668, featuring ‘lavish sandstone portals with spiral columns, baroque pediments and more’9; it served as an active pharmacy until 1989. The baroque wood carvings resemble the lace that paid for them, with the same affinity for rich detailing, curled forms and ornate patterns. The Esbjerg poet Per Højholt writes in ‘Havet komplet10 that the lace resembles the Tønder pastor Adolf Brorson’s poetry, which thus in turn resembles Tønder’s woodwork.

Fashions change, however, the textile industry embraced new production methods, and in the early 19th century, the lace industry slipped into obsolescence.

The German Era

From 1864 to 1920, Tønder was a German town, and many Prussian institutions were built in the so-called Heimatstil(Homeland Style) promoted by Baupflege Kreis Tondern, as Peter Dragsbo explains in his article ‘En ubekvem kulturarv11.

County hall, courthouse, state-run upper secondary school, agricultural college, post office and other buildings left their imprint on the townscape, but the architects also allowed the local style to influence the new buildings, incorporating the rich, intricate detailing and ornamentation into facades and doors.

Through the contemporary expressions of Jugendstil, neobaroque and neoclassicism, the town was reinterpreted with references to the old woodwork in the new buildings and the construction of new welfare institutions.

Woodwork played a role because many of the motifs were reinterpreted in the new buildings and because beautifully carved and painted doors with imposing portals became a theme.

The modernization of Tønder as a welfare-state town aimed at efficiency, with concrete paving slabs, asphalt and new buildings signalling progress while also reflecting new, contemporary adaptations of traditional materials and architectural styles.

The Welfare Era

After the Second World War, Tønder became known as the ‘institution town12, writes Becker-Christensen in ‘Byen ved Grænsen’. A border town of approximately 8,000 inhabitants, it was to showcase the success of the Danish welfare state through public institutions: college of education, hospital, upper secondary school, courthouse, county gaol, police headquarters, national survey and cadastre, army barracks, post office, public swimming baths and gyms, co-operative slaughterhouse, art museum, historical museum, town hall, railway station, schools, kindergartens, day nurseries, nursing homes, adult and vocational education and so forth13.

Many institutions took over historical buildings, but some were housed in new buildings, which reinterpreted the town’s character. One of these new builds is the town hall from 1981: ‘Despite its scale and concrete construction, the building, designed by architects Halldor Gunnløgsson and Jørn Nielsen, is adapted to the site with low buildings, red bricks and large tile roofs9.

The modernization of Tønder as a welfare-state town aimed at efficiency, with concrete paving slabs, asphalt and new buildings signalling progress while also reflecting new, contemporary adaptations of traditional materials and architectural styles.

The Urban Renewal Era

In recent decades, the relocation of welfare institutions to larger towns and cities has put Tønder in a new situation, and existing buildings have taken on new functions, such as cultural centre, tax authority office, travel agency or alcohol and drug rehabilitation centre. Some institutions were closed down and reopened on a smaller scale, such as the hospital, which is now an outpatient clinic, while others have expanded, such as the upper secondary school, which is now partnered with the upper secondary school in Niebüll, Germany, and yet others stand vacant, such as the former post office14.

As welfare institutions move out, the town needs to reinvent itself, and since the people of Tønder are an enterprising lot, the losses are being met with a range of new initiatives. In 2015, the town hall was expanded, this time with a glass and aluminium building by Sleth Arkitekter. The former station building is being transformed into the head office and meeting place of the Tønder Festival15.

Efforts are underway to change a quiet part of the pedestrian street into a ‘Latin Quarter’16,17, and the city centre was recently improved with activity trails and sign-posted information about the town, a circular fountain and a large round building that is in fact a large hotdog stand on one of the old squares, just as part of the port is being transformed into a tourist attraction.

De gamle døre, epitafierne og de andre gamle elementer i byen kæmper om opmærksomhed med alt det nye.

In some of the old streets, asphalt has been replaced with setts for a proper ‘old town’ look. These neo-old modifications are found in many provincial towns – new but designed to look old18. The intention is to combine the present with the town’s age and history. The former pharmacy, with its imposing door and ornamented facade, is now a gift shop, ‘The Old Pharmacy’, with a branch in Copenhagen.

Thriving commerce energizes a town and is good for tourism. It provides a boost to the pedestrian street, although shop closures generally remain widespread in the area. The town’s old doors, epitaphs and historical elements are vying for attention with all the new features. The historical elements are authentic and original, well-preserved characteristics of the old town of Tønder that provide an excellent setting for Christmas parades, activity trail and various neo-old interventions.

The urban improvement project is part of the ‘Tønder Marsh Initiative’, funded by the A.P. Moller Foundation, Realdania, Nordea-fonden and Tønder Municipality. The initiative involves both climate adaptation and urban renewal in a number of towns in the Tønder Marsh area. The website of Tønder Municipality explains that the purpose of the ‘[i]nitiative is to make it more attractive to visit, work and live in the Tønder Marsh area’19.

Most Tønder residents I have spoken with welcome the urban renewal initiative and tourism – provided the original character is not lost – because they bring new opportunities to Tønder, which, from their perspective, is not an island town but the portal between Denmark and Europe.

In this period of transition, the original elements, doors, epitaphs, homeland style and modern welfare service buildings, are vital to Tønder’s tourism potential.

The ambition of turning Tønder into a tourist destination assigns new functions to the historical buildings and baroque woodwork. In this period of transition, the original elements, such as doors, epitaphs, homeland style and modern welfare service buildings, are vital to Tønder’s tourism potential.

The town’s ornate qualities are highlighted, and Tønder is presented as a destination where urban renewal and neo-old interventions give the old ornate, original, ornamented, hand-carved and scroll-like elements an opportunity to enhance the town’s auratic presence in the competition for attention during the 21st century.


  1. Spaces of Danish Welfare. Royal Danish Academy https://royaldanishacademy.com/spaces-danish-welfare (2019).
  2. Blog for Spaces of Danish Welfare. Royal Danish Academy https://royaldanishacademy.com/blog-spaces-danish-welfare (2019).
  3. Carbone, C. & Pedersen, C. P. HBY. Tidsskriftet Antropologi (2003) doi:10.7146/ta.v0i47.107110.
  4. Raahauge, K. M. Universelt design: Ø-byen Tønder. https://arkitektforeningen.dk/arkitekten/universelt-design-oe-byen-toender/.
  5. Houellebecq, M. Serotonin. (Rosinante, 2019).
  6. Augé, M. Non-places: introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity. (Verso, 2008).
  7. Koolhaas, R. Countryside: a report. (Taschen, 2020).
  8. Danmarks Kirker. Kristkirken. http://danmarkskirker.natmus.dk/soenderjyllands-amt/kristkirken/ (1957).
  9. Dragsbo, P. & Lund, A. Tønders arkitektur. Trap Danmark (2021).
  10. Højholt, P. & Højholt, P. Lynmuseet og andre blindgyder. (Schønberg, 1982).
  11. Dragsbo, P. En ubekvem kulturarv. in Skjulte skatte i grænselandet: Dansk bygningsarv i Slesvig og Holsten (eds. Lægring, K. & Badeloch, V. N.) 14–30 (Bianco Luno, 2010).
  12. Becker-Christensen, H. Byen ved graensen: Tønder 1920-1970. (Inst. for Graenseregionsforskning, 1993).
  13. Raahauge, K. M. Mod Udkanten: Velfærdsrum i Tønder. in Form til Velfærd (eds. Rosenberg Bendsen, J. et al.) 172–189 (Arkitektens Forlag, 2017).
  14. Raahauge, K. M. A Welfare Situation in Tønder. in Architectures of Dismantling and Restructuring. Spaces of Danish Welfare 1970-Present (eds. Raahauge, K. M., Simpson, D., Søberg, M. & Lotz, K.) 218–250 (Lars Müller Publishers GmbH, 2022).
  15. Pedersen, M. V. Tønder Kommune køber Tønder Station. DSB Ejendomme https://dsbejendomme.dk/toender-kommune-koeber-toender-station/ (2022).
  16. Eriksen, A. U., Steenholdt, J. & Christensen, H. Østergade – Tønders nye latinerkvarter. Jyske Vestkysten (2021).
  17. Steenholdt, J. Tønder indre by – mulighedernes land. Jyske Vestkysten (2023).
  18. Raahauge, K. M. Den nygamle by. in Ark+. Arkitektur mellem globalisering og hverdagsliv (eds. Bech-Danielsen, C. & Harlang, C.) 175–189 (Kunstakademiets Arkitektskoles Forlag, 2006).
  19. Tøndermarsk Initiativet. Tønder Kommune https://www.toender.dk/din-kommune/udvikling-og-planer/tondermarsk-initiativet/.


Kirsten Marie Raahauge is an anthropologist, PhD. and professor wsr at the Royal Danish Academy. She heads the Center for Interior Studies (2021-) and was the leader of the research project “Spaces of Danish Welfare” (2017-22), where she contributed to the project “Tønder between Province and Periphery” and co-edited “Architectures of Dismantling and Restructuring: Spaces of Danish Welfare 1970-Present” (eds. K M Raahauge, K Lotz, D Simpson & M Søberg), published by Lars Müller Publishers in 2022. Kirsten Marie Raahauge researches the anthropology of space and works with peripheries, cities, homes, museums, models, landscapes, neighborhoods, and haunted houses.

Theme: Urban Space

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