Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Chilehaus II

Chilehaus escaped major destruction during World War II, which is miraculous given how large a structure architect Fritz Hoger had created.

Chilehaus is almost three city blocks long. It is such a massive building that a city street actually passes through the building.

The photograph below is from 1943. It was taken after the mid-summer air raids had destroyed much of Hamburg, causing the city’s population to be evacuated for the final two years of the war.

From the photo, it is clear that buildings surrounding Chilehaus had suffered direct hits from enemy bombs. It is also clear that fires had swept through the neighboring structures.

No enemy bombs struck Chilehaus, and Hamburg fire squadrons were successful in preventing fires from spreading to Chilehaus.

Chilehaus was very lucky.


In the photograph above, it may be seen that Hamburg streets had already been cleared of rubble.

Clearing streets of rubble was always the first order of business, in Hamburg and elsewhere in Germany, after bombing raids.

Streets were cleared immediately in order to allow medical personnel and fire squadrons to travel freely around cities, rushing to districts where their services were most needed.

One of the reasons that a firestorm developed in Hamburg in 1943 was because the Allied bombings had been continuous, and did not allow Hamburg authorities the necessary few hours’ respite to clear Hamburg streets. As the Allied bombings went on and on, without pause, Hamburg streets became more and more filled with rubble, preventing fire squadrons from traveling to scenes of fires. Several of those fires conjoined and created the devastating firestorm.

Hamburg had been bombed, continuously, for 48 hours before the firestorm began. Had Hamburg’s fire squadrons been mobile, no firestorm would have occurred.


Because I had read extensively about the Hamburg firestorm before visiting Hamburg, it was fascinating for me to walk around the city and connect buildings and sites with their roles and fates during the firestorm in particular and during the war in general.

One of the most bizarre stories connected with the 1943 bombing of Hamburg is the fate of Hamburg’s Staatsoper, known as the Stadttheater until 1937.

The area around the Staatsoper had not been hit during the concentrated air raids over Hamburg. As a result, the city of Hamburg decided to use the enormous stage of the Staatsoper as staging ground for its campaign to feed the city (hundreds of thousands of Hamburg citizens had become homeless after the concentrated bombings).

Tens of thousands of loaves of bread had been shipped into the city from surrounding areas, and those loaves of bread were stacked onto the stage of the Staatsoper, ready for distribution to the public.

Just as distribution began, the Staatsoper suffered several direct hits by Allied bombers engaging in a delayed mission over Hamburg.

The auditorium was completely destroyed, but lowering of the iron fire curtain saved the stage and backstage areas of the opera house (and saved the bread as well). The stage and backstage of the Hamburg Staatsoper had been saved by the fire curtain—but otherwise there was nothing but total destruction for blocks and blocks in all directions.

When, after the war, it came time for Hamburg to rebuild its opera house, the new Staatsoper was built on the same location as the old.

However, the new Staatsoper is only partly new, something most persons do not realize.

Only the auditorium and public promenades are new. The portion housing the stage and backstage areas remains in its pre-war form and remains in use today (although the stage machinery has been modernized).

The result: the one-third of the building the public sees is from 1955, but the two-thirds of the building the public seldom sees is from 1827 and 1926 (the original 1827 backstage facilities had been extensively renovated and expanded in 1926).

Most patrons of the opera in Hamburg do not even realize that the Staatsoper’s box office is located in the pre-war portion of the building.

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