Dresden’s Crowning Glory

Sixty years after it was reduced to rubble by Allied bombing, the reconstructed Baroque Frauenkirche once again dominates the historic city’s skyline

The Frauenkirche of Dresden at Neumarkt in 2009
The Frauenkirche of Dresden at Neumarkt in 2009 Wikimedia Commons

For centuries, the German city of Dresden was one of Europe's architectural and artistic gems—its "Florence on the Elbe." The Frauenkirche, or Church of Our Lady, a masterpiece of Protestant Baroque design built in the early 18th-century, became the city's most notable landmark. Its distinctive bell-shaped sandstone dome soared 220 feet with no internal supports—an architectural and engineering marvel that has been compared to Michelangelo's Basilica of St. Peter in Rome. But over two days in 1945, American and British bombers wiped out the Frauenkirche and most of Dresden in an unprecedented firestorm. Now, six decades later, the landmark is back in all its glory.

During the five years following Hitler's invasion of Poland, Dresden was mostly spared the bombing that ravaged much of Europe. But on February 13, 1945, nearly 800 British aircraft dropped more than 2,600 tons of bombs on the city. Some 300 American Flying Fortress bombers followed the next morning. Thirteen square miles of the city's historic center were destroyed, and at least 25,000 people were killed. Temperatures reached 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, and pilots could see the burning city from 100 miles away. The Frauenkirche's dome withstood the explosions. But the firestorm's heat warped the sandstone walls and pillars. On February 15, a day and a half after the bombing began, the building collapsed. Only the northwest staircase and the choir section remained standing.

Many questioned the decision to target Dresden, a city of more than 600,000 civilians. "The Russians were approaching the Oder, the Americans were on the Rhine," says Dresdener Ewald Kay, a retired engineer who now leads tours of the church. "The war was almost decided." American writer Kurt Vonnegut, a POW in Dresden during the bombing, used the event as the centerpiece of his 1969 antiwar novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. After peace returned in the summer of 1945, the East German government left the church’s rubble untouched as a reminder of the ravages of war. Since the early 1980s, thousands have gathered annually to light candles amid the stones on the anniversary of the destruction. In recent years, German and British scholars have used newly opened East German archives to paint a more complicated picture of the bombings. Dresden was a fervently loyal Nazi stronghold, a key railroad center and a wartime production hub that imported Jewish and other slave laborers from all over Europe and sent many on to death camps. "Dresden was not an innocent city," says historian Frederick Taylor, author of Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945. "Sadly, it was an extremely beautiful one. But large-scale war leaves very little room for morality and romance."

In February 1990, just a few months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a handful of hopeful Dresdeners kicked off a campaign to raise funds for the restoration of the cathedral with an open letter to the queen of England and the president of the United States. The idea was controversial both for its daunting expense and the ruins' strong symbolism. "People were used to the atmosphere of broken stones and candles," says Frauenkirche administrator Jost Hasselhorn. "There were voices inside and outside the church saying the ruins should remain as a memorial. Nobody could imagine that a reconstructed church would have the same power." Yet the ambitious project captured the public's imagination, both in Germany and abroad. Organizers eventually raised more than $100 million of the $160 million total cost from private donors in 26 countries.

Reconstruction began in 1993 with a painstaking archaeological excavation of the rubble. Thousands of stones were photographed, cataloged and sorted. Whenever possible, the original stones were reused. "Just like a watchmaker knows where each part goes, the stonemasons knew where everything belonged," says guide Ewald Kay. The project took 12 years to complete (only 5 years less than it took to build the original church in the early 1700s) and drew on the expertise of everyone from masons and carpenters to a local painter who carefully re-created the church's ceiling frescoes.

Miraculously, excavators discovered the 1738 altar mostly intact, and the cross that once sat atop the dome was pulled—crushed and twisted, but still recognizable—from beneath tons of rock. Today it stands in the church's nave, and a replacement, donated by British citizens, rises from the dome. Consecrated on October 30, 2005, the Frauenkirche saw 250,000 visitors in the first month and a half it was open.

For tourists accustomed to dark, imposing European cathedrals, the church is especially light and bright; restorers used photographs and paintings to replicate architect George Bähr's white, gold and green color scheme. Built by the city's Protestant citizens, the Frauenkirche was an egalitarian answer to traditional Catholic cathedrals, with the pulpit placed in the center of a round, open room in full view of the congregation. The Baroque altar sculptures and ceiling frescoes glint with gold leaf. Clear glass windows flood the interior with sunlight from almost every direction. The church’s long tradition of musical performance—in 1736, Johann Sebastian Bach performed on its organ—has also been revived. Every day at noon, a free organ recital fills the sanctuary with music; evening concerts usually sell out well in advance, packing audiences into the cathedral's four stories of wooden balconies.

In the end, 8,425 original stones were incorporated into the rebuilt church, close to half the total needed for the reconstruction. Weathered nearly black by decades of exposure, they pepper the golden sandstone exterior. To some, they represent the city’s scars. "From a theological point of view, the wounds the soul has can be healed," Hasselhorn says. "It's possible to close the city's wounds too. Eventually the stones will all be the same color. Year by year, the wounds can heal."

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