YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Postscript : Church Rebuilding Is Potent Symbol of Eastern Germans' Revival of Hope : Computers and artisans work on baroque Frauenkirche, destroyed by Allies.


DRESDEN, Germany — For nearly half a century, ever since British and American bombers reduced this fairy-tale Saxon capital to a wasteland of rubble and ash, all that remained standing of the great Church of Our Lady were two ruined walls facing each other like a pair of bookends over a heap of broken rock.

All the delicate ceiling paintings, the ornate baroque altar, the three-story organ that Johann Sebastian Bach once played--all of this was lost forever in firestorms that burned for a full week and took an estimated 35,000 lives. Of what little was left of the church structure, the East German government made a striking memorial to the horrors of war and, it should be added, the mercilessness of the West.

Now, however, the East German regime is gone, and eastern Germany is slowly rebuilding, politically, economically and spiritually. And today in Germany the Protestant Frauenkirche, as the Church of Our Lady is known, is being transformed from a somber reminder of humanity's capacity for destruction into a potent symbol of eastern Germany's re-entry into the rest of the world.

Most of the lost splendors of Dresden--a city once so exquisite that it was called "Florence on the Elbe"--will never be recovered. But at least, by the year 2006--if all goes as planned, and the money doesn't run out--the Frauenkirche's 312-foot-tall, lanterned dome will once again dominate this city's riverside skyline.

The restoration of the Frauenkirche is by far the biggest historic preservation project since German unification, combining as it does centuries-old building techniques with computer-age technology.

Plans call for the use of as many of the original stones, timbers and iron braces as possible, and for the rebuilding of some interior furnishings, including the organ.

The reconstruction is expected to take 12 years--just two years less than it took the architect and city planner George Baehr to build the Frauenkirche the first time around, in the 18th Century. At that time, the church could accommodate nearly 4,000. Its acoustics attracted such composers as Richard Wagner and Gustav Mahler to premier their choral and symphonic works inside.

"Baehr worked with the most modern methods of his time, and we're using the most modern methods of ours," Frauenkirche restoration architect Christoph Frenzel said. "The computer is very important. We are rebuilding the Frauenkirche in the computer first."

The earliest months of the project have thus been devoted to solving the three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle of broken stones that have been lying in the heart of Dresden all these years, just across the street from a hideous, Communist-era cement-and-mirror-glass police station.

There were about 60,000 stones and fragments, large and small, and the restoration experts were determined to figure out where each of them had belonged in the original structure.

And to a startling degree, they have been successful.

Most of the original stones are now known to have been either damaged beyond repair or melted down in the 1,000-degree fires that engulfed Dresden in the air raids of February, 1945. But the crews have been able to identify about 9,000 stones in good enough condition to reuse, and to pinpoint exactly where they should be placed when the new church goes up.

"We started by asking ourselves, 'How might the church have collapsed?' " recalled Frenzel, the architect.

As it happens, the Frauenkirche didn't fall at the height of the bombing but two days afterward in a chain reaction that started with the collapse of two of the eight main support pillars. The engineers determined that the church toppled to the south, which meant that the stones on the top of the heap were probably from the north side.

They then laid a rope grid over the rubble heap and began analyzing the wreckage, square by square, stone by stone. They were helped in their work by old blueprints and by a wealth of detailed, close-up photos of the Frauenkirche that were taken in the 1920s, when the church was extensively repaired and restored.

As the work has gone forward, technicians have been registering the physical characteristics of each reusable stone in a computer databank.

New stones will be created at the same sandstone quarries along the Elbe River that Baehr selected for the original stones. To hold down costs, apprentice stonemasons will be making one stone apiece as part of their licensing requirements.

However great the symbolic value of a renewed Frauenkirche, however, a historic preservation on this scale is not cheap.

Original budgets called for the expenditure of about $70 million, but estimates now say the redone Frauenkirche will cost at least $175 million, and the German news magazine Der Spiegel has reported that it may reach more than $300 million.

Los Angeles Times Articles