You can still see the tall gothic tower of St. Nicholas Church from almost anywhere in Hamburg. But this Gothic Revival church doesn’t mark the skyline of the city like it used to when it was the tallest construction on Earth, from 1874 to 1876. Nowadays, the church is the second-tallest structure in Hamburg and a memorial to everything that happened during the Second World War.
Fotostrasse visited Hamburg in early October 2017 and, even though we had to walk through the city in a lot of rain, our stay in the town was beyond exceptional. One of the highlights was a visit to the St. Nicholas Church where we went straight to the lift in the tall gothic tower just to see Hamburg from the top. From there we could see the entire historic center, and it was indeed breathtaking.
The History of St. Nikolai Kirche in Hamburg
St. Nicholas Church is known in German as St.-Nikolai-Kirche, and it was built on the spot of a former church which had burnt to the ground. This church was first built in wood in the 12th century, and it was the second church in Hamburg, after St. Mary’s Cathedral.
The first brick building was built from 1335 on, and this building stood until the 19th century with all its expansions and partial destruction. The central tower was only erected in 1517; it burned down in 1589 and, the one built to replace it, collapsed in 1644. During the Great Hamburg Fire in May 1842, the old St. Nicholas Church was the first significant building to burn. Its destruction was moving to the citizens of the city because they were surprised by the collapse of the tower.
A couple of years later, an architectural competition was put in place for a new church, and the best design came from Gottfried Semper, but his project was never realized since its Romanesque style didn’t fit well into the Hamburg townscape. With the completion of the Cologne Cathedral in 1842, a Gothic Revival movement started in Germany and Hamburg wanted a church like that.
George Gilbert Scott, an English architect that advocated the gothic architectural style, was commissioned with a new design. He came up with a plan strongly influenced by French and English gothic styles with a pointed spire that was typically German. The construction of the new St. Nicholas Church started in 1846 and, in September 1863, the church was consecrated. The tower was finished in 1874 and, with its 147,3 meters, it was the highest building in the world! This title was lost in 1876 with the completion of the Rouen Cathedral. But, even today, St. Nicholas Church is the second tallest building in Hamburg, only losing to the TV Tower.
Hamburg Cathedral Destroyed in the Second World War
During the Second World War, Germany was heavily bombed by the allied forces. With its significant strategic position, Hamburg was one of the primary targets of the British and United States troops, and this changed the landscape of the city drastically.
During the last week of July in 1943, Hamburg suffered an enormous firestorm by the Royal British Force and the United States Army Forces. This attack killed more than 42,000 civilians and wounded 37,000 people and virtually destroyed most of Hamburg. This strike was called Operation Gomorrah and St. Nicholas Church Tower was used as an orientation marker for the pilots during the extensive air raids. If you are interested in the 1943 Bombings and the consequences of it, there are some books about it at the gift shop at the St. Nikolai Memorial.
Even though the tower was used as a landmark, the church was stricken, the vault collapsed, and the church was entirely gutted by fire. In some areas of the church, bombs went right through the floor and into the cellar which housed a wine shop. Some of these bombs can still be seen there today.
After Operation Gomorrah, the tower remained, but the church was in ruins. In 1951, the nave and choir were demolished, and only a cleanup ruin was left. After a lot of discussions, there was no decision to rebuild the church, and the idea to turn it into a memorial started floating around Hamburg.
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St. Nikolai Memorial Church
In 1977, the St. Nikolai Memorial was inaugurated, and it’s dedicated to the victims of tyranny and war in the years from 1933 to 1945 in Germany. But the tower and the walls were not properly cared for and gradually decayed. In 1987, Friends and Supporters of the St. Nikolai Memorial foundation began to restore and improve the memorial as a way to inform and document what happened in Hamburg during the war.
Inside the exhibition space, located in the church cellar, focus on the Air Raids on Hamburg by the British and US bombers between July 24 and August 3rd, 1943 as well as the experiences of the population of the city. There you will see documents photographs and memories that try to describe how Operation Gomorrah changed Hamburg forever.
In September 2005, a lift was open to the public, and it takes visitors to a platform 75,3 meters high inside the St. Nicholas Church tower. This is the fifties highest tower in the World! From there you can have a fantastic view from Hamburg as you can see in the pictures we have here in this article. If you want to go up there, be aware that it’s windy and you might need to consider taking a jacket with you. It was quite useful for us.
If you want to visit St. Nicholas Church, you just need to follow the map above, and you will be fine. When you get close to the church, you will see some construction work happening but don’t worry about it. The church is still open!
The price of admission is of 5 EUR per adult and 3 EUR for children. The memorial is open from 10:00 to 18:00 from May to September and from 10:00 to 17:00 from October to April. If you need to know more, click here to visit the official St. Nikolai Memorial website.
St. Nicholas Church aka the St.-Nikolai-Kirche in Hamburg
Willy-Brandt Street 60
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