Inside the mother of all airports

Though it's been closed for almost 10 years, Berlin's Tempelhof airport remains a fascinating place. Talk a walk inside the massive, historic and influential terminal building.

Kent German
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You recognize Tempelhof's monumental scope from the moment you arrive. The terminal's massive and austere facade made me think of fascism, bureaucracy and the power of the state all at once. As an individual, you get a sense that you're tiny, insignificant and subject to government control.

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The tour begins in the former General Aviation Terminal. In 2015, British architect Norman Foster called Tempelhof "one of the really great buildings of the modern age." (Reportedly, Foster also called it "the mother of all airports.")

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The cantilevered roof over Tempelhof's apron stretches 1.2 kilometers or three-quarters of a mile without any support at its edge. While almost giving a feeling of flight due to its soaring shape, it covers an enormous space that was mostly empty save for a Douglas DC-4 and a set of mobile boarding stairs. The tower with the ball at the end of the building houses a powerful radar installation that used to peer into airspace in the former Eastern Bloc. 

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The roof was designed to let airplanes park under it, letting passengers walk to the terminal without being exposed to the weather. Even up until Tempelhof's closing, smaller aircraft like the BAe-146 that frequented the airport could fit under it. 

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The glass doors leading out of the terminals served as Tempelhof's gates. Passengers would exit the building on the metal stairs and then walk to the aircraft on the apron. In the days before the Schengen agreement eliminated most intra-European border checks, signs directed arriving passengers to passport control.

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Baggage would be carried into and out of the terminal using the conveyor belt in the foreground. Without jetbridges, passengers would have boarded aircraft using movable stairs like the set on the left.

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The DC-4 was just one of the many aircraft types that shuttled supplies from West Germany into Berlin during the Berlin Airlift, which lasted from June 1948 to September 1949. During that period, more than 2 million tons of food, fuel and supplies were delivered to Berlin, first to circumvent a Soviet blockade of the city and then to build a stockpile after the blockade was lifted in May 1948. Tempelhof was just one of three airports in Berlin that serviced more than 200,000 Airlift flights.

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After 1945, the DC-4 became a successful passenger airliner. Unfortunately, we couldn't go inside, but we were free to walk around and under it.

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The terminal's entrance hall has a patterned marble hall with soft indirect lighting. It's a lovely room, but its ceiling was meant to be much higher. At some point after the war a new ceiling was added, making a new, but unused, space upstairs. 

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The space upstairs is dusty, but grand.

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Hanging at the end of this room was a large aerial photo of the terminal, which was supposedly designed to resemble an eagle in flight. During the war, though, the airport's activity retreated into underground tunnels where forced laborers conscripted from Nazi-occupied countries assembled armaments and Junkers Ju 87 dive bombers.

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The main passenger hall is an impressive space that bears many of the hallmarks of today's airports. Passengers would arrive through the main doors, check in at the desks on the left and access restaurants and shops before their flights. In the era before security screening, passengers could mingle freely in the space, with friends and relatives staying behind. 

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The single baggage claim carousel sits in the middle of the main hall opposite the airline check-in desks. 

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The interior design is clean and minimalist with some vaguely Art Deco touches. Tall windows bathed the main hall in natural light.

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Upstairs was a sit-down restaurant. The flight information boards still hang above the hall.

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The empty restaurant has an attractive sculptured ceiling with recessed lighting.   

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The view outside from restaurant was pretty cool. Imagine this apron buzzing with flights to cities all over Europe. 

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A view toward the center of the park shows the expansive space saved for recreation. The temporary buildings on the far left now house refugees awaiting resettlement in Germany. Before Tempelhof's main terminal was built, though, one of the first Nazi concentration camps for political prisoners occupied a part of the airfield.

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The roof was originally designed to double as a grandstand for 1 million spectators to watch Nazi rallies and Luftwaffe air shows. The airport's tiny control tower is on the far end of the building. The tower on the left used to have a radar dome.

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Hallways, like this one, look as if they go on forever. The guide warned us repeatedly not to stray from the group or we could be trapped behind one of the many locking doors. Even for an aviation geek like me, the thought of being trapped in an empty airport was not appealing. 

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Signs still point to passenger services and ground transportation, including the nearby U-Bahn station.

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A former counter-service restaurant just off the boarding area looks as if it could be put into action with little notice.

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Sorry, there's no one to help you here.

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The US Air Force had a base in a section of the terminal from the end of the war until 1993. Airmen had access to a bowling alley, a bar and a basketball court.

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With the city's high water table (that's why you see large pipes coming out of the ground at construction sites), deep basements are a rarity in Berlin. But Tempelhof is an exception, with a large basement that descends a couple of floors. During the war some basement rooms were used as bomb shelters for residents of surrounding neighborhoods. Wall paintings from popular children's stories were supposed to keep kids calm.

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During the war the Nazis used another basement as a film archive. Much of it was destroyed at the war's end when Soviet troops stormed the building and used hand grenades to blast open the steel doors. Burn marks from the ensuing fire are still visible. 

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