DRESDEN, Germany — On the eve of the 48th anniversary of its destruction, work began Friday to rebuild Dresden's historic Frauenkirche, the 18th-Century Protestant church considered one of the most important examples of Baroque architecture in northern Europe.
The church was destroyed along with the rest of central Dresden on the night of Feb. 13-14, 1945, in the most intense Allied bombing raid of World War II in Europe.
Although most of the rubble was eventually removed and the city center rebuilt during the Communist era, the ruins of the Frauenkirche, along with those of a nearby palace, remained as haunting reminders of the city's suffering.
For the Communists, the blackened rubble was also a useful symbol of American and British brutality presented for years to groups of young East German schoolchildren.
A movement to rebuild the church began shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Organizers of the private Frauenkirche Foundation hope to finance the estimated $100-million cost through worldwide donations.
Removing the rubble will require at least a year, according to city officials, who would like to see the reconstruction completed in time for the city's 800th anniversary celebrations in 2006.
"This is going to be an archeological reconstruction," said Gerd Kuenzal, deputy spokesman for the city government.
"Every stone will be examined, photographed and numbered before it is removed. The material that can still be used will go back."
The Frauenkirche--or Church of Our Lady--was designed by Georg Baehr and completed in 1743.
It is regarded as an architectural masterpiece and was once the most prominent Protestant church in Germany.
Its huge, 312-foot-high dome was the most distinctive feature of the city's landscape for the better part of two centuries.
Accounts of the Dresden bombing raid noted that the church's outer sandstone walls glowed red for two days after the attack before finally collapsing.
In the Communist years, the church ruins became a symbol of pacifism, and opposition peace movements used it as a focal point for candlelight protests.
In a series of interviews, local residents seemed divided about the reconstruction project, with many arguing that the ruins should remain as a warning and a memorial.
But speaking Friday at a formal ceremony handing the ruins over to construction crews, Dresden's mayor, Herbert Wagner, said the decision to rebuild the church would restore what had once been the city's symbol.
"To rebuild this after the horrific destruction of our city embodies our belief in the future and shows that it is possible to heal the wounds and prove that the war can be overcome," he said.