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Tempelhof airport

Exploring the inside of a Nazi landmark

At the height of its popularity, Tempelhof Airport was the gateway to Germany serving flights around the world.Located in the heart of Berlin, Tempelhof was designed as Hitler's gateway to the Third Reich. Designed to be impressive and imposing, the structure still stands frozen in time today. The airport was operational up through 2008 when it was shuttered in favor of a newer airfield capable of handling larger aircraft. Built of shell limestone and steel, the airport was never completely finished as construction halted in 1941. Many of the sweeping staircases and less public areas of the building remain as they were left during WWII. 

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The shell limestone exterior of Tempelhof is an imposing sight to see when you first lay eyes on the building. The main terminal forms a giant crescent shape which houses the cantilevered awning for the boarding gates and accompanying hanger space. The whole complex was designed to be viewed from above as a large Nazi eagle with the terminal making up the wingspan. Though the German government has scrubbed most traces of the Nazis from the exterior, giant stone eagles can still be seen clutching where swastikas would've embellished the building. The whole complex takes a long time to walk around, partially because access is restricted by fencing for a refugee camp. The grounds were converted to a park after the airport closed down and were subsequently used to house refugees starting in 2015. You can still walk the runways and view the exterior of the building without taking a guided tour, which I did my first night in Berlin.

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Stepping inside the airport feels like taking a giant leap back in time. The architecture is an interesting combination of Nazi grandeur and 1970's design, having seen little major updates since the last Cold War era overhaul. The old flipboard is still visible in the entranceway and the gate agent's booth still stands in front of every doorway. As you stand there staring down the vast hallways of polished stone you can't help but feel a sense of amazement like you might feel after stepping into Grand Central for the first time. Compare this airport to the bleakness of modern terminals like Newark Liberty Int'l and you can really see how impressive Tempelhof is. The airport existed before TSA operations became what they are today, so few changes had been made to accommodate such security measures before the terminals were shut down. I've personally never flown pre-9/11 but I can imagine what it would've been like: walking into this giant terminal, down the polished stone hallways, and out onto the tarmac to meet my flight. Jet bridges were never installed in Tempelhof, so passengers walked up to board their plane.

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The revolutionary architectural feature of Tempelhof was the giant cantilevered awning that protected passengers from inclement wether when boarding their planes. It was at one time the largest cantilevered span in the world, and the terminal itself was one of the top 10 largest buildings by square foot. The awning eventually became the downfall of the airport as architects never intended to accommodate the long-haul aircraft airlines operate today. These aircraft aren't designed for anything but boarding via jet bridge and are too tall for the awning. Later in its life, Tempelhof mostly accommodated regional flights that utilized smaller aircraft close to the DC-3 planes that used to land here. The hangars, off to the left of the picture above, were operated through WWII for civil aviation purposes and never used for military aircraft construction. Lufthansa operated out of Tempelhof for many years and intended to use the terminal as its headquarters after the war. There are few baggage carousels in the airport, something which I found particularly odd.

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main Hall

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The main hall is by far the most impressive part of the airport. Designed by architects (interestingly not Albert Speer)  to project the might of the Nazi government on all who passed through, the main hall is a sight to be seen. The towering columns and large windows project light across the sparkling floors, and the red painted ceiling contrasts sharply against the stone that coats the walls. When the airport closed, all the airlines that flew from Tempelhof dropped everything and left. The baggage scales and check-in desks are exactly as they were. The only baggage carousel can be seen in the middle of the room. Cubicle type offices were later added to the second floor that rings the hall but weren't part of the original design. A restaurant was also located on the second floor which served travelers but was a later addition. The whole wall where the restaurant sat was designed to flood the space with light but was closed up after the war.

Grand entrances to the left and right were planned but never finished due to lack of resources during WWII. A main entrance, off to the left, was designed to have ceilings of the same height but was closed off after the allies won control of the airport. The Nazi commander of the airfield was instructed by Hitler to blow up the terminal as the Soviets closed in but chose suicide over destroying the landmark. A fire was set in the uncompleted entrance hall but the damage was such that it could be covered up by lowering the ceiling.

The sub-levels of the airport were designed to handle baggage and logistical elements of the airport. These levels were likewise uncompleted but functional enough that they were left as-is after the war. All checked luggage would've been sorted and moved beneath the main hall. During WWII, companies produced aircraft in the terminal with parts manufactured elsewhere in Berlin. Aircraft were assembled in the main hall and flown out to deployment from the airfield. The station is served by two subway stops and at one time had an underground railway which led right to the sub-levels of the airport.

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Before WWII, the new terminal at Tempelhof was mainly focused on military uses. The railway and gantry cranes seen above were used to assemble aircraft throughout the war, not move passenger luggage. The airport played a key role in the Berlin Blockade as allies used the airport to lift in supplies from the West until the blockade finally broke. Bomb shelters were constructed during the war for Berlin's citizens but remain unused today. The art which covered their walls depicts classic German children's tales, designed to give some sense of comfort to the cold and vastly tall space. A memorial to the Berlin air lift has been built on the grounds and some hangars have been used to house refugees. There was at one point a bowling alley for the CIA agents when they operated an office from the terminal building. The ballroom, converted to a basketball court, still exists and was also intended for CIA operatives. Some modern uses for the terminal include space for innovative green technology companies and the agency that runs tours like the one I went on. Standing from the rooftop gives you an amazing but windy view of the city. This trip was my favorite from my week in Berlin and I'd definitely visit agin if given the opportunity.

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