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Sun Is Setting on a Temple to Aviation

Berlin's Tempelhof Airport, once a grand reflection of Hitler's dreams, is on its way to becoming obsolete.

September 30, 2005|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

BERLIN — Those big planes rattling the sky, dropping candy bars on tiny parachutes to the ground. The boys who saw them knew where to run: that marble-and-stone cathedral to flight, Tempelhof Airport, whose towering facade once epitomized Adolf Hitler's grand and frightening vision for Europe.

The bigger boys usually wrested away the prizes from Klaus Eisermann in those meager times after the Third Reich fell. But the Allies kept coming, piercing the Soviet blockade of Berlin with C-47 Dakotas stuffed with food, cement, medicine, socks, whatever would fit in their cargo bays.

Eisermann, too, kept returning to Tempelhof, where today, keys jangling on his hip, hair bristly and white, he can lead you past burned walls and down hidden corridors.

He's curt when asked the question he's been asked too many times.

"No," says Eisermann, "this airport will never close."

The Berlin Airport Authority wants to shut down Tempelhof in 2006. Tegel International Airport has handled most of the city's commercial traffic for decades, and the planned expansion of Berlin's third airport, at Schoenefeld, would make Tempelhof and its small band of budget carriers obsolete. Lawsuits seeking to stop the expansion have won a reprieve for Tempelhof, but this monument to a bewildering era is running out of time.

One of the largest buildings in the world, Tempelhof lost nearly $20 million last year, serving only 441,580 of the city's 14.8 million airline passengers. Less than 40% of its nearly 300,000 square yards of usable space is rented.

But Tempelhof is grand -- a polished yet fading icon whose tarmac unfurls in the middle of a city that has grown around it. You can reach it by foot or by bike. It is as accessible as it is monstrous, a blueprint from the Third Reich's unrealized architectural dream of recasting Berlin in a fascist motif befitting the capital of a new empire.

"They wanted to symbolize the rising German state," says Eisermann, standing amid the pillars and windows of the airport's 360-foot-long main hall.

His eyes arc toward the ceiling. "Imagine you are in the 1930s," he says. "The idea was to create a temple of aviation in those times, when flying was an adventure. You walked into this imposing building and looked out the enormous windows at the other end and saw the sky and the planes."

Architect Ernst Sagebiel built the airport on former Prussian parade grounds. Hitler's chief architect, Albert Speer, wanted flourishes added that would embody his garish neoclassical designs. But by 1940, World War II had diverted the Reich's intentions, and Tempelhof, expected to serve 8 million passengers a year, was turned into a factory for producing warplanes.

"I stayed in Berlin during the war," Eisermann says. "I lived through air raids and spent a childhood running into basements and listening for planes. The noise suddenly stopped in 1945. There was silence. But in 1948, we heard the sounds of planes again. They weren't bombers, though, they were part of the Berlin airlift by the Allies.... We heard sometimes candy fell from the sky, so we went to Tempelhof to see."

A thin man with sunken eyes and buffed black boots, Eisermann is a raconteur of history in a capital that produced much of it over the last 70 years. During the Berlin airlift from June 1948 until May 1949, he says, Allied planes made nearly 280,000 flights into Tempelhof and two other city airports, delivering more than 2 million tons of food and goods.

He's recited those numbers many times, but still marvels at how the airlift liberated West Berlin and defined Cold War politics. He grabs his keys and walks, stories whirling out of him like ghosts.

Eisermann began as a baggage handler in 1964, shoveling runway snow and breaking ice, working his way up to director of the airport's transportation department. He retired in 2002.

These days, he leads tours through Tempelhof's vast chambers and into its hangars that bend like amphitheaters and face two runways.

The main hall is a gray panorama of cold lines and precise angles. Thirty or so passengers wait to board a flight amid the scent of coffee, the clack of rolling luggage. The gift shop, sitting like a glass box in the center, sells cigarettes and kitsch.

The hall evokes whispers, spies in trench coats, women in high heels hurrying across the tarmac to propeller planes bound for Paris and Brussels. Eisermann slides a key in a door.

He climbs a stairwell, past the unfinished brick and mortar of the 1930s. He opens another door to where Soviet flame-throwers scorched the facade, a bit of history hidden from passengers. He looks out the window. The evening sun, he says, is brilliant when it shines through. "The architect was a genius," he says. "He was modern for his time. You could fit 10,000 Volkswagens on the tarmac, and he wanted tens of thousands of people to stand on the roofs of the hangars to watch air shows."

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