The Secret Passages of Tempelhof

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The Secret Passages of Tempelhof

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Of course Will Rogers comes from a different era, and today I’m sure he would modify this as “There are three different kinds of people…” So which one are you? I’ve always been a readin’ kind of learner, but as a seventh child I’ve also done plenty of learnin’ by observing my older siblings get into and out of trouble. Still, I have to admit, I’ve done my share of peeing on electric fences. For me, this usually takes the form of poking my nose into areas I’m not supposed to be. Tempelhof, in the city of Berlin, is one of my electric fences.

Tempelhof airport is an architectural wonder that came out of Nazi Germany and Hitler’s plan to transform Berlin into a utopian metropolis, all centered around the airport. It is a behemoth of a building, circular in design and several stories high. If you ever get the chance to take a tour, do so, there are regular English tours daily.

A Cold War Trip to Berlin

The first time I went to Berlin was in the 1980s, during the cold war. I was  in the Air Force and had to fly in on a C-130 to make repairs on another aircraft. At that time, the USAF was using Tempelhof as its main base in the divided city. That one huge building housed the entire Air Force base: airport operations, maintenance facilities, commissary, a bowling alley, chapel, lodging, school, even a basketball court. Flying in, I was amazed as we flew the approach and the massive sprawling structure came into view.

The cold war rules of the day limited the number of planes we could have on the ground, so our aircraft taxied up to the open bays of Tempelhof and, engines still running, out I jumped, toolbox in hand. I barely had time to take in the immensity of the building’s open face hangar bays before I was beckoned into the neighboring plane. The one I had flown in on was already heading out to the runway by the time I climbed aboard the “broken” plane. I was sure I would be able to make repairs and then spend the night in Tempelhof, how exciting!

Unfortunately, it turns out the malfunction had cleared itself and the crew was in the process of checking things out just as I got there. The engines were already running! I watched Tempelhof recede into the distance as we taxied out and took off right behind the other C-130. All my hopes dashed!

Flash forward to 1990 and Corinne and I are on a road trip to Poland. Berlin is right along the route and since the Air Force still had its base in Tempelhof we had plans to spend the night there. My dream was soon to come true.

Driving up to this limestone and concrete colossus was even more impressive than flying in. Everything just seemed so massive, and our amazement continued even once we got inside and started climbing the grand staircase to the hotel reception. The ceilings were incredibly high but even still, the number of stairs between the floors just didn’t add up. It seemed we were climbing two levels for every one. Once we had settled into the room I was ready to explore. We only had one night here and I wanted to see as much of this mythical building as possible. I took the girls, both small children at the time, and we went out for an adventure. Maybe we would find a forgotten room holding some stolen Nazi treasures.

Exploring the Passages of Tempelhof

It wasn’t hard to find the maintenance access that led to the floor between the floors. There were no signs that said visitors were allowed to proceed down the winding staircase behind the door but there weren’t any that said we couldn’t, so in and down we went. There was a passageway lit only with bare incandescent bulbs spaced every 50 feet down a slowly curving hall that followed the shape of the building. We found empty rooms, dusty furniture like old office desks and filing cabinets, there was even one area that opened up and had cots along the outer walls. We kept walking. The passageway narrowed and the lighting became dimmer and dimmer.

Soon it was nearly dark and I was wondering if I should really be down here with my young daughters. Still we were having the time of our lives, this was real adventure! Up ahead, we were walking into pitch black when suddenly a bright red overhead light came on illuminating a mirror faced door closing off the passageway. There was nothing else there save a big, blocky old style telephone. Just as I was noticing the “Restricted Area” sign under the glass, the door swung open.

The Secret Passages of Tempelhof

A scowling uniformed security policeman emerged holding an M-16. “Can I help you folks?” he asked gruffly.

“Umm, we were just looking for our room,” I stammered lamely in reply.

“You’ll have to come with me,” and he gestured back the way we had come.

One of the girls started to cry.

“Oh, don’t worry yourself little lady,” the guard said bending down with a huge grin. “I’m just going to help you find your way back out. People are always walking around down here. Don’t know why, though, it’s just a bunch of old junk.”

In the end, we had a pleasant enough conversation and he told us a few stories of people getting lost in the lower floors. It seems I’m not the only one who learns by peeing on fences!

Tempelhof as an airport closed in 2008 and for some time the city did nothing with this incredible building. Today, the city uses the area around the old airport as a park and an event location. The mostly unused interior of the building attracts tourists from all over. I highly recommend you do. We return to Berlin often and one of our recent trips we took the tour. Check back on Monday for our article “Chasing the Ghosts of the Past in Tempelhof.”

Pin Tempelhof for later!

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  1. I’ve never heard that saying – how hilarious! And what an adventure you had. I used to think I should have t-shirts made that said “It’s Always an Adventure with the Chapman’s” when my kids were little as we seemed to get ourselves into our fair share of scrapes and adventures.( One included a porcupine) But they’re the best, aren’t they?

  2. Haha, what a cool little adventure that you got to share with your kids. I imagine trying to wander around a place like this nowadays would be much tougher and with a more severe punishment. Glad you were able to realise a dream of yours, certainly sounds like an intriguing place.

  3. I bet you that visitors weren’t allowed in the passages of Tempelhof, Jim. At least here, in the USA, if the area is not properly maintained to avoid any possibility of a lawsuit, no visitors are allowed. However, sometimes is better not to ask for permission because if you do, the answer is NO. You’ve got to visit a very interesting place that very few people know about.

    1. It was a fascinating experience. So much more so after going back and taking the tour in 2014. They really brought us through some interesting areas.

  4. I love that expression! It explains poking your nose into someones else’s business perfectly! These secret passages are intriguing but I don’t think I would be brave enough to meander underground. It seems a little spooky to me! 🙂

  5. What a fascinating place to explore…I wonder how different it is now than if you had been able to explore in 1990 . We are heading to Berlin next year so have added it to my list

  6. I just got back from Berlin, so I read this too late! But not really, because I’ll probably go back again next year. I’m definitely adding Tempelhof to my list of things I want to do next time I’m in Berlin!

  7. Great story! Glad it had a happy ending, especially with the kids along. This summer, I wanted to go down a little path to take a picture of some chickens. My kids insisted that it was trespassing and turned back to the car without me. Good thing because there was an electric fence, and I got zapped… which made me drop my iPhone on the other side of the fence… so I had to zap myself again to get it back. I used the opportunity to tell them, as Ren & Stimpy used to say, “Don’t whizz on the electric fence.”

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