BIA Newsletter – 15 November 2005
Section 1 - The Tempelhof Eagle



The Tempelhof Eagle – by Jim Kavanaugh

A Letter from the Tempelhof Architect – Professor Ernst Sagebiel, Dr.-Engineering, Architect
Translation and Introduction – Jim Kavanagh (67-70/74-78)

The Eagle

There were stories and rumors regarding associations of Tempelhof Airport with the eagle during both of my tours at TCA. It was said that the airport building itself depicts an eagle with outstretched wings grasping a globe in its claws, but the head (partially represented by Berlin Modernization) and globe (Platz der Luftbrücke) elements were never completed.

Eagles adorn the walls of the buildings fronting Platz der Luftbrücke. In 1967 it was still evident that a design element, generally believed to be a swastika, had been razed off below the eagle’s claws.  

Perhaps the most famous eagle was above the main entrance to the airport. Post-war pictures of Tempelhof show a shield bearing US arms below this eagle. This eagle was removed in the early 60’s to make room for a height-finder radar. It was generally maintained that parts of the eagle, supposedly the head and claws, had been sent to West Point while other pieces were given to various persons.

Recently, while sorting through my Tempelhof files, I stumbled across forgotten photos and a letter that I apparently copied during research into Tempelhof History at the TCA Base Information Office in about 1974.

This extremely interesting letter, dated 22 October 1962, was written by Prof. Dr. Ernst Sagebiel. Professor Sagebiel makes reference to questions posed in a letter to him from Captain Lionel V. Patenaude, TCA Information Officer. It addresses the eagle, but also contains a great deal of superb historical information about TCA.

The copies were made back then using a thermo-paper copier and these have started to fade, almost to illegibility. Portions are extremely difficult to read and virtually impossible to scan. The official translation is neither complete, nor does it – in my opinion - adequately convey the true meaning and intent of the original. Therefore, I edited the translation to correct inaccuracies and omissions. The German text is on file in order to do full justice to Prof. Dr. Sagebiel, who in the letter states very clearly that it is in his own interest to prevent erroneous conclusions and to correct those that have been made (“Ich habe aber ein Interesse daran, zu verhindern, daß irrtümliche Annahmen entstehen oder noch fortdauern.”).

The Height Finder

Professor Sagebiel’s Letter

Professor Ernst Sagebiel, Dr.-Engineering, Architect
Munich X, Xstraße X
Telephone XX XX XX

22. October 1962

Information Office
th Support Squadron
(USAFE Representative, Berlin)
United States Air Forces
APO 742 US Forces

Berlin – Tempelhof

Mr. Lionel V. Patenaude
Captain, USAF
Information Officer

Dear Captain,

I have not limited myself to answering just the four questions regarding the eagle on the main building of Tempelhof Airport. This might leave the impression that I enjoy talking about anything to do with the buildings and facilities erected 20 to 25 years ago. Yet, for various reasons, this is not the case. I do, however, have a personal interest in preventing erroneous assumptions, and in ensuring that such are not perpetuated.

As stated in your letter, the term “Hoheitsadler” (see Translator Note 1) and the question “was the eagle unveiled during a special ceremony”, compel me to go far beyond just answering your questions.

Tempelhof Airport was designed to replace the neighboring facility, which was built during the 1920’s and had become too small. Construction started following a planning phase that took place in late 1936 to early 1937.

From the very beginning, the airport was solely intended as a commercial air traffic facility. This objective continued to be pursued in later years. At no time was it intended for military purposes. No flying unit was ever stationed there, even during the war.

The eagle above the main entrance was not thought of as a national emblem in the sense applicable at that time (see Translation Note 1), but instead, served exclusively an architecturally-decorative purpose.

You addressed me as the former “Chief Engineer”. That is not the case, as I was, and I am, an architect. This differentiation in itself is actually unimportant to the information you require. The facilities at Tempelhof were known as the largest interlinked construction project in progress at that time. I was solely responsible for both the planning and the execution of all work. Architectural and engineering aspects of all construction related disciplines were directed by my offices. The new construction was nearly ready for operation in 1941. The relatively unimportant work remaining, could not be completed due to limitations of the last years of the war. Bomb damage was fortunately not very serious, and this could be repaired with the limited means available during the first years following the war.

The eagle at issue, on top of the central segment, was modeled by the sculptor W. Lemke, of Berlin, according to my exact specifications; it was formed in plaster and then cast in iron. As such, it was not “built”. Next it was given an anti-corrosion coating and finally a coat of oil-based paint that simulated a bronze finish. I no longer have documentation regarding exact dimensions. An assumption of 4.50 meters in height and a 4.50 meter wingspan would be reasonably accurate. The weight was only roughly estimated at the time in order to ensure sufficient static stability.

There was no provision for this eagle in my original planning. It was only later, while developing concepts for the area around the airport toward the neighborhood to the northwest, that I came to the conclusion, that the central axis of the plaza and buildings, from the southeast to the northwest, as oriented toward the nearby ground elevation, the so-called Kreuzberg, from the building’s high central tract in which the main entrance is situated, must be more strongly emphasized. At that point in time, the concrete framing of the buildings was complete, and the stone facing was in place. Based on these deliberations, I established the eagle project at the end of 1939. This was done based on the assumption that the axial development, as planned by the city immediately in front of the airport buildings, would have strong visual emphasis in the form of a round plaza with a diameter of 250 meters, but above all, because it was a measure that could be done quickly. As is clearly evident at that location, only three quarters of the uniform architectural encirclement of this plaza exists. Negotiations had been started at that time to purchase the property for the remaining quarter. However, the war did not permit completion of this portion of the overall project. After the war, there was neither the money, nor the interest, for this project.

The intention was, in the view to the northwest, that the Kreuzberg would appear to be integrated into landscaped and terraced grounds as part of the overall scheme.

Perhaps it would also be of interest in this regard, that a water basin was planned for the center of the plaza, with the surface of the water in the basin 1 meter below ground level. There were to be five groups of figures, the five continents, around the architecturally coordinated rim, that were intended to symbolize the inter-relationships of air traffic with the whole world. Prof. Jos. Wackerle, the same sculptor who created the “Neptunesbrunnen” located in the old Botanical Gardens here in Munich, made preliminary designs at my request for the five groups in 1940. However, the course of the war would not permit completion of this portion of the overall planning.

Complete authority was given to me for the overall planning and completion of all details of the construction of all buildings, as well as for support systems necessary for their operation, and for both the plaza and (its) structures. The post-construction addition (of the eagle) was not ordered by any outside agency. As stated above, I wanted nothing more than to achieve a distinct accentuation of the building complex. That building complex being: the round plaza – the outer courtyard – the central structure – the hanger arc.

To repeat it once more, the eagle was nothing more than a decoration, and perhaps it was, right from the beginning, a needless decoration. Just as the eagle was dismantled in the Spring of this year, inconspicuously and without ceremony, so too was it erected on the roof in 1940.

Incidentally, there was only one single celebration in conjunction with the buildings, and that was in 1939 when the framing was completed and the obligatory Topping-Out was celebrated in typical Berliner fashion with “Eisbein” (see Translation Note 2) for the workers (5000 portions, in the Deutschlandhalle).

To my good fortune, and to its own benefit, the new construction in Tempelhof was not at any time a direct concern of the political leadership, much less of the party. Hitler reviewed the preliminary planning drafts on only one occasion. He never personally entered the grounds and buildings of the new airport, even though on innumerable occasions he departed from, or returned to, the old airport that remained in service, as you know, on part of the overall airport property.

During the years from 1937, when we started construction, through to the end of the war, and thus over 9 years, Göring was on the property and/or in the buildings of the new airport only three times. Once for the Topping-Off celebration in 1939, and two other times, when he showed the buildings to foreign dignitaries.

I noted in the preceeding, that Tempelhof was not built for military purposes. Accordingly, there was no participation by any military organization in any form or manner. My activities, meaning my planning and accomplishment, were under direction of the Department of Civil Aviation of the then Reich Air Ministry.

As you can see by my extended remarks, I could not resist the temptation to write a commentary in addition to the information requested regarding the ominous eagle, in order to provide the means for a better understanding of how that bird got on the roof. Let me emphatically assure you that I welcomed the decision this year to remove it, that was apparently made by the Planning Commission of the City of Berlin. This decoration, from the very beginning, was not one of my better ideas as an architect. However, the eagle on his lonely perch above the central building tract became artistically impossible, when it received the company of two radar antennas placed at either end of this building.

One could have presumed with pleasure that this problematic object would have found its resting place in a scrap yard. Yet, as I recently heard in Hamburg, the head was supposedly saved (from scrapping), in that it will live on under museum-like conditions far from its homeland in the famous West Point.

I take the liberty of pleading extenuating circumstances, since you had noted at the end of your letter: “I would be most grateful to you for further data and information concerning the National Eagle”. So would I!

With best regards, I remain

signed (E. Sagebiel)

Translation Note 1: Hoheitsadler can be translated as Sovereign or National Eagle. The eagle as a state emblem possibly dates back to the time of Charles the Great. In 1935, the Weimar Eagle (folded wings with the head turned to the right) was replaced with the emblem of the NSDAP (outstretched wings, head looking to the left, grasping an oak wreath encircling a swastika). In 1950, the newly founded Federal Republic of Germany incorporated the Weimar eagle in its coat of arms, and this then became the Federal Eagle.

Translation Note 2: For those who may not be familiar with it, Eisbein is a traditional Berlin dish. Large ham hocks (about 2 pounds each) are soaked for a long period in salt-brine. These are then taken out, washed, and boiled for 2 to 3 hours in water spiced with juniper berries, peppercorns, onions, and bay leaves (but no salt!), to the point where the meat is very tender. The ham hock is served with boiled potatoes, mashed yellow peas, sauerkraut (note: sauerkraut in Berlin is made without caraway seeds) and mustard.

Tempelhof as part of the “Germania” Architectural Concept for Berlin

© 2005, The Berlin Island Association

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