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EUROPE : Berlin Considers Future of Hitler's Field of Dreams

August 25, 1995|MARY WILLIAMS WALSH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BERLIN — The stone tablet still stands at the entrance to Hitler's Olympic Stadium, bearing the names of U.S. track star Jesse Owens and the other gold medalists from the 1936 games. Seen from a distance, the place still looks much as it does in the old pictures: the long, imposing driveway, the grim colonnades, the spreading parade ground big enough for 250,000 troops to march in formation.

It is only in getting closer that one sees the dilapidation that has befallen Adolf Hitler's field of dreams. Saplings grow out of the top of the clock tower, and stalactites hang from the ceiling joists, where water has seeped through the mortar.

Above the bleachers, workers have had to pry about 100 limestone panels off the facade, for fear they might otherwise loosen during a sporting event and crash down onto spectators' heads. Nets have been strung under the sunroofs to catch any falling debris. Cement-work is propped up with steel I-beams, and the ceiling of the anteroom behind the "marathon gate"--where athletes prepare to make jubilant entrances onto the field--is held up with steel braces.

Berlin still uses this decrepit arena, most recently for a Rolling Stones concert. But officials are letting patrons in with mounting trepidation.

"Maybe it will collapse one day," worries Ulrich Stange, head of aboveground construction for the Berlin government.

An important part of Stange's job these days is to give the stadium a thorough going-over before each event with a draw of more than 50,000. The stadium was built to hold 92,000 for Hitler's propaganda extravaganza, but safety-conscious officials have since reduced capacity to 75,000.

Before the Rolling Stones concert earlier this month, Stange sent technicians to blast the structure with low-frequency vibrations, simulating the effect of fans rocking to the strains of music.

"If the vibrations of the music and the people dancing happened to match the natural frequency of the building, then these plates could fall down," says Stange, pointing at the remaining limestone panels, held onto the facade with rusty steel wires.

Part of the stadium's problems stem from Berlin's damp, chilly winter weather. Rain has seeped into cracks in the cement, freezing and expanding, further cracking the material and allowing even more water to come in.

But also damaging the stadium, say Berlin officials, has been the neglect of the Bonn government, which owned the stadium until 1994, when negotiations began to transfer it to Berlin.

"As the owner, the federal government had the responsibility for maintaining it in a proper way," says Frank Bielka, state secretary for housing and construction in the Berlin government. Bonn "shirked its responsibilities in a criminal manner," he says, adding that bringing the stadium up to modern standards is likely to cost at least $225 million.

In Bonn, Robert Erfen of the Finance Ministry says the federal government did maintain the stadium, to the tune of $30 million in the past 20 years.

Even as arguments fly over who will pay for the repairs, Stange is analyzing the best way to carry them out: whether it would be best to close the stadium during the overhaul, leave it open or just reduce usage.

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In the interest of thoroughness, Stange is also studying the option of tearing Hitler's stadium down and building a new one. He and Bielka both think that this would be the cheapest solution. But the stadium is covered by historic-preservation laws, and cannot be demolished or altered.

It matters not that the stadium is one of those eerie, harshly symmetrical Third Reich buildings that look as fearsome as the ideology they were built to express. "The Eiffel Tower doesn't look very pretty either, but would you tear it down?" asks Bielka. "Both buildings are symbols. You have to keep them because of their historical dimension."

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