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For instance in Aachen, there is a beautiful Rathaus, in Bonn there is a beautiful old Stadthaus. So far as I can tell these things are pretty similar – what is the difference?

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    in Bonn there is a beautiful old Stadthaus – You are either confusing something or have a very peculiar taste of architecture. This is Bonn’s Stadthaus; and this is the old Rathaus.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Nov 13, 2016 at 11:43

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The "Rathaus" is the building where the mayor has his or her office.

The word "Stadthaus" is not exactly defined. Typically it is a building owned by the city where some cultural facilities like public libraries or theatre stages can be found.

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    No. It is from another word "Rat" (written the same way as "Rat" for "advice") which can be a council of persons ("Gemeinderat") or a certain person - typically a politician ("Landrat"). This word is typically used in connection with another word (such as in "Gemeinderat"). The word "Rathaus" reflects the fact that the "Gemeinderat" or "Stadtrat" (the town/city parliament) has their meetings at the mayors office. Commented Nov 13, 2016 at 12:31
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    Some people think it's from raten, meaning it's a house in which subpar politicians venture a guess what to do.
    – Janka
    Commented Nov 13, 2016 at 12:38
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    @MartinRosenau How is the "Rat" another word than "Rat" (advice)? I guess it is the very same word. Which makes sense historically, as the first parliaments "advised" then present rulers.
    – Ingo
    Commented Nov 13, 2016 at 13:15
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    @ingo It's definitely not the same word, as one relates to advice, the other relates to people giving that advice. If you meant the two words have common roots, you're right, though.
    – tofro
    Commented Nov 13, 2016 at 22:42
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    Just to increase the confusion: Rich people also might own two houses. One in the city and the other in the countryside. So therefore they might address the house in the city their "Stadthaus" and the other the "Landhaus",... Commented Nov 14, 2016 at 2:15
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This might also be a regional difference.

As far as I read the word Rathaus meaning house for the "Rat" (city council) stems from the time of town privileges in connection with the Magdeburg rights. You have similar words with the same stem ("rat" or similar) in Polish, Czech, Lithuanian and Russian languages, i.e. countries that were affected by that law.

Stadthaus on the other hand can be just about anything including administrative buildings, city owned places for cultural activities or just a house in the city (as opposed to a country side house). At least in some cases a "Stadthaus" was built in order to give more space to the administration, i.e. as an extension of a perhaps medieval small "Rathaus".

Interestingly in Dutch, Swedish (and perhaps some other Scandinavian languages) you have words like Stadhuis (Dutch/Flemish), Stadshuset (Swedish) which do denote city halls.

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