I knew this was a bit harder, but a good number of readers managed to solve it without too much difficulty (although the average time-to-solution went up significantly).
For me, the key to this was trying to figure out each of the steeples by using Image search. (I just saved each image to my computer, then uploaded them into Google’s Search By Image. Link for a description of how to do Search by Image.)
Of the four steeples, only one worked with Search by Image—that was for steeple #3. From that match, I knew it was St. Michaelis Church in Hamburg, Germany, dating from 1786. But what about the other steeples? I knew nothing about them whatsoever and Image search wasn’t working.
So I tried testing a reasonable assumption about the image collection. While they could be steeples from all over the world, I was hoping that they all might be near each other, maybe even in the same sity. Since they all looked to be Germanic in construction, I tried doing regular Google Image Search with [Hamburg steeple] and started scanning the pictures.
Sure enough, there they all were—slightly different views, different times of day, but all recognizably the same.
Search lesson: When you’re stuck, making a key assumption to reduce the size of the search space is often a good idea. Be careful though—you don’t want to get stuck in the rathole of an assumption you made that isn’t panning out.
Luckily, in this case, it worked out perfectly. I was able to easily match the photos to the images in the search results:
#1 as St. Catherine’s Church, #2 as The Rathaus,
#3 as St. Michaelis, and #4 as St. Nikolai.
And now for the next question—which is the oldest?
While they’re all fairly old, they’ve also all undergone significant reconstruction over the years. So the problem turns into a bit of an “Abraham Lincoln’s Axe” problem. (You know, if you have Lincoln’s axe, then replace the handle, and later replace the head, do you still really have Lincoln’s Axe?)
For churches like this, especially ones in Hamburg (which was largely leveled during Operation Gomorrah), the “date of construction” turns into a question of “when was it started” and “when was it reconstructed” and, just as importantly, “when was the steeple built onto the body of the church?” Sometimes the steeples were added much later.
Doing the obvious searches for each church, you can find the following:
#1: St. Catherine. The church body has parts dating back to 1256, but the steeple seems to date to 1657. The church was restored between 1950 and 1957.
#2: Rathaus. This version of the building was started in 1886 and opened in 1897. It too was destroyed in the air raids and rebuilt afterwards (I assume during the 1950s, but wasn’t able to confirm this date).
#3: St. Michaelis. This is the 4th or 5th church on this site (depending on how you count), but the current architectural version was built in 1786, then rebuilt after a fire in 1906 (be careful with that soldering!), and rebuilt again after the war in 1952.
#4: St. Nikolai. (Or St. Nicholas, in English) Started as a chapel that opened in 1195, that church burned down in the great fire of 1842, then rebuilt in a neo-Gothic style with a steeple that reached 486 feet. Also destroyed in the war by Operation Gomorrah, it was never rebuilt, but left as a semi-ruined hulk as a reminder of the devastation of war.
So.. which steeple is oldest?
If you go by “original building date,” it would have to be St. Nikolai. If you go by “date of last steeple reconstruction,” that would also have to be St. Nikolai, as the steeple was completed in 1874 and then never reconstructed after the war (although structural work has been done to make sure it doesn’t collapse).
The truth of this particular story is that I took these photos while I was in Hamburg late in 2011. I was steeple-hunting (a hobby a bit like train-spotting) when I saw St. Nikolai from about 1 mile away. I couldn’t figure out what it was, and when I finally made it to the site, I was struck by the place—beautiful, horrible, sacred and profaned. It’s a moving testament to peace in a lovely city.