BERLIN (Reuters) - Hundreds of people bade farewell on Wednesday to Tempelhof airport, a massive Nazi-built landmark in the heart of the German capital that served as a lifeline for West Berlin during the post-war Soviet blockade.
Dubbed “the mother of all airports” by architect Sir Norman Foster, Tempelhof dominates a huge stretch of land the size of New York’s Central Park just south of the city center.
A functioning airstrip since 1923, its monolithic limestone terminal building was built by forced laborers between 1936 and 1941 on the orders of Hitler’s architect Albert Speer.
The airport became a powerful symbol of the Cold War when Soviet forces prevented supplies from getting into West Berlin in 1948. The West responded by airlifting more than 2 million tons of food and other goods into Tempelhof for nearly a year.
It has continued to operate as a commercial airport, but its fate was sealed in April after a referendum to prevent its closure failed because of low turnout. Even Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke out against shutting it down.
The last planes will fly out of Tempelhof just before midnight on Thursday. It is unclear what will happen to the site, which still stirs strong emotions with many Berliners.
“I am 85 years old, as old as the airport itself. Now that the airport’s time is up, mine may be too,” said Ursula Wellnitz, gazing through the window at the landing strip as she wiped a tear from her cheek.
Wellnitz is one of hundreds of people, who traveled to the airport on Wednesday, to bid it a last farewell.
Some, like 52-year-old Peter Fetsch and his nephew from Baden-Wuerttemberg, traveled hundred of miles to witness the end of the Tempelhof era.
For others, like Sabine Meyer, who met her future husband while waiting to reclaim her luggage at Tempelhof almost 12 years ago, the airport feels like home turf.
“I have campaigned and protested, and nothing worked,” Meyer said. “This airport is where our relationship first started to blossom. Losing it is like losing a piece of our lives.”
Television and radio stations have held competitions to win tickets on the airport’s last flights. Articles with headlines like “Tragic Ending” have peppered city newspapers.
Since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the capital has operated three airports -- Schoenefeld, Tegel and Tempelhof.
Construction has begun on Berlin Brandenburg International (BBI), due to open in 2011 next to Schoenefeld.
“Our future is in BBI,” Berlin’s Mayor Klaus Wowereit said back in April. He hopes the new airport will create 40,000 jobs.
For some the economic benefits of a new airport are no reason to shutter Tempelhof, one of the world’s oldest operating airports and a powerful symbol of German-American friendship.
“I was born in the middle of the 1948 airlift and it breaks my heart to see this place closing down,” said visitor Andreas Schoenefeld. “Although I share my name with Schoenefeld, it will never have a place in my heart like Tempelhof does.”
Reporting by Josie Cox; editing by Noah Barkin