All five main churches of Hamburg were damaged or destroyed in World War II. In contrast to the other four, however, Saint-Nikolai-Kirche was never rebuilt—its ruins, instead, serve as a memorial against war, dedicated to “the victims of persecution in The Third Reich”. Only the spire, caked in black soot, and a few walls from the church remain. The church, a stark contrast to the rebuilt city of Hamburg, leaves an unforgettable impression.
With the founding of a settlement and a harbor on The River Alster in the 11th century, a chapel dedicated to Saint Nicholas, patron saint of sailors, was erected. This wooden building was the second church in Hamburg, after The Cathedral Of Hamburg.
In 1335, some years before the onslaught of The Black Death, construction of a new brick building began. The structure was a hall church in the typical North German Brick Gothic style. This building stood until the middle of the 19th century, even though it had been changed and expanded—and had to withstand destruction—several times. The original tower, erected in 1517, burned down in 1589. A new tower built to replace it collapsed in 1644. The last tower of the old Saint-Nikolai-Kirche, from the late 17th Century, was designed by noted architect Peter Marquardt. The Marquardt tower was 122 meters high, with its characteristic dome a landmark of the city and the jewel of its skyline.
The drawing below shows the old Saint-Nikolai-Kirche shortly before the church’s destruction in The Great Fire Of 1842, which destroyed the entire city of Hamburg.
The end of the old Saint Nicholas’s came in May 1842, the first significant victim of The Great Fire Of 1842. The destruction of Saint Nicholas’s is described by chroniclers as an especially haunting event that deeply jarred the citizens of Hamburg and brought before their eyes for the first time the magnitude of the fire disaster. The destruction of the old church, the first large public building to burn in The Great Fire Of 1842, was the first indication of how catastrophic the fire would become.
Shortly after the fire, it was decided to rebuild the church. The English architect George Gilbert Scott, designer of so many buildings we visited in London and an expert in the restoration of medieval churches and an advocate of the Neo-Gothic architectural style, designed an 86-meter-long nave, with a vault 28 meters high. The architecture was strongly influenced by French as well as English Gothic, but the pointed spire was typically German.
Construction started in 1846. In 1863, the new church was consecrated, although the 147-meter spire was completed only in 1874. At that time, Saint-Nikolai-Kirche was the tallest building in the world, a distinction it held only for two years, until the completion of The Cathedral Of Rouen in 1876.
Below is a drawing of the George Gilbert Scott church structure, made shortly after the building was completed.
The photograph below, of the front of Saint-Nikolai-Kirche, is from the 1930’s.
Saint-Nikolai-Kirche suffered heavy damage in World War II. The clearly-visible spire of the church served as a control and aiming point for the pilots of the Allied Air Forces during air raids on Hamburg. On July 28, 1943, the church was heavily damaged by aerial bombs. The roof collapsed and the interior of the nave suffered heavy damage. The walls, however, although damaged, did not collapse. Neither did the spire.
After bombings, the basic structure of the Gothic construction had remained intact to a large extent and the condition of the building as a whole permitted a potential reconstruction to appear realistic. Nevertheless, Hamburg authorities decided to demolish the nave and to leave the spire untouched. As the area surrounding the church was no longer a residential area, a new Saint-Nikolai-Kirche was built in the Hamburg district of Harvestehude. In 1951, the nave was finally demolished and rubble from the church was partially used for reinforcement of The River Elbe embankment.
The loss of a valuable Gothic Revival architectural monument was regretted by many, but after the war Hamburg had other priorities—the city’s entire housing stock had to be replaced. Contrary to the Baroque Saint-Michaelis-Kirche and the German Gothic churches of Saint-Jacobi, Saint-Petri and Saint-Katharinen, the Neo-Gothic Saint-Nikolai-Kirche was not regarded as one of Hamburg’s most important landmarks. The spire and some remainders of the wall were preserved as a memorial against the war, but the remainder of the ruins was allowed to disintegrate.
This situation changed in 1987. The Rettet Die Nikolai-Kirche (“Save The Nikolai Church Foundation”), founded that year, is responsible for the restoration of the ruin. The foundation is supported in its work by The City Of Hamburg, the congregation of Saint-Nikolai-Kirche, and various corporate sponsors and private contributors. The organization takes care of the maintenance of the building fabric, the repair of known damaged sections, and administration of the church’s programs, such as the arrangement of events and displays at the church. Even some rubble from the destroyed nave was reclaimed from the embankment of The River Elbe in 2000.
When Hamburgers mention Saint-Nikolai-Kirche, it is generally this church that is meant, and not the new Hauptkirche of Saint Nicholas, located in the Harvesthude district.
Our visit to Saint-Nikolai-Kirche was an extensive one. We visited the church on a Thursday so that we could hear the 12:00 Noon Thursday Carillon recital.
At 12:30 p.m., we visited the exhibition center, constructed in the church crypt, which recounts a history of the church. The crypt displays remnants of statues salvaged from the post-bombing rubble and various memorabilia about the church’s history, including numerous photographs. The crypt also presents a two-hour film about Hamburg during The Third Reich, in German only, which was riveting. We had never seen much of the historic footage before, and we watched the film in its entirety.
After our visit to the crypt, we took the elevator to the top of the spire. The platform, 75-meters above street level, offers inspiring views of Hamburg.