At the time of its first mention in 1255, St. Jacobi was a small chapel for travelling merchants and particularly for pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela, to the grave of the apostle and martyr Jacobus the elder. The church was outside of the Hamburg city area, until after the city wall fortifications were extended in 1260, and found itself located on the first sealed road, Steinstrasse (Stone Street).
Between 1350 and 1400, the building was replaced by a three nave hall in Gothic style, with a fourth nave added to the south side approximately 100 years later (completed 1508). The vestry extension on the north-east side of the building also dates back to this period (1438). Today, it is Hamburg’s only testament to Gothic secular architecture.
The first spire was not built for the massive untopped tower until the 1580s. A master builder from Groningen based his design on the not uncontroversial “Latin spire” seen in Amsterdam. However, the weight of the tower became a problem over the following centuries, requiring repeated expensive repairs. Building work in 1769 included installing the first lightning rod in Germany. Finally, in 1810, the Latin spire had to be removed, but it was not until 1826/1827 that the required funds could be raised for a new tower, which the people of Hamburg called “the pencil” because of its pointed shape.
Shortly before the end of the World War II, the tower caught fire and crashed into the nave when Hamburg was bombed on 18 June 1944 — St. Jacobi was destroyed down to its foundations. The historic interior decorations and the precious pipes of the Arp Schnitger organ were only saved as they had been previously stored away to keep them safe. By 1963, St Jacobi had been rebuilt true to its medieval predecessor, with a modern spire.
However, structural defects meant that the spire cap had to be renovated again in 2001. The copper roof had begun to leak, and some panels were in danger of coming loose. After the spire and tower shaft were repaired, the structure was covered with new copper panels. In addition, the tower clock and the sphere on the point of the spire were replaced, with the work coming to an end in 2002. The tower now in its full glory stands at 124.5 m tall.