The Tempelhof Eagle – by Jim Kavanaugh
A Letter from the Tempelhof Architect – Professor Ernst Sagebiel,
Translation and Introduction – Jim Kavanagh (67-70/74-78)
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.
the most famous eagle was above the main entrance to the
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
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
(USAFE Representative, Berlin)
United States Air Forces
APO 742 US Forces
Berlin – Tempelhof
Mr. Lionel V. Patenaude
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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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