Rebuilding the sparkling soul of old Berlin

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The rubble-strewn no-man's land is fast filling up with shimmering office blocks. Along the strip of death which used to dissect Berlin, skyscrapers are sprouting; immense structures defying gravity and history alike. Soon there will be no evidence of the recent past here, only mementos of the age of darkness preceding half a century of purgatory. Potsdamer Platz, where the swinging set would party the night away during the Roaring Twenties, is a fading legend, buried ever deeper under its new Manhattanesque reality.

The developers have allowed only one place to be restored to its former splendour. Take a walk down Unter den Linden and turn left at the end, just before you reach the Brandenburg Gate, into memory lane. There stands a building so new that the doorman spends his time brushing plaster off his uniform. Welcome to Hotel Adlon Mark II, replica of the palace of dreams and nightmares which burnt to a cinder 52 years ago. Not for the first time, the weird history of Berlin has come full circle.

The story goes like this: There was once a man named Lorenz Adlon who thought his dull Prussian home town could do with livening up. He went to the Emperor to ask for his help to build a great hotel, fit for the beautiful people of the age. Kaiser Wilhelm II was delighted. "At last, my residence will be in a modern city," he exclaimed.

Adlon spared no expense. He built his hotel with marble of every hue from Italy and mahogany from Cuba: it even had hot running water in each room - a near miracle back in 1907. The Emperor was the first guest, and liked it so much he put up all his visiting friends there: royalty big and small, statesmen, diplomats.

The palace prospered, attracting like a magnet the rich and famous. Berlin, no longer just a station to change trains en route from St Petersburg to Paris, was becoming trendy, and the Adlon the trendiest spot in town. Caruso, Garbo, Chaplin, Mark Twain were regulars; Einstein and Thomas Mann sipped coffee within these hallowed walls.

And it was here that a film director, looking for an actress of "earth- shattering eroticism" for his first talkie, received the advice from Adlon: "Check out the girl in the 'Two Ties' revue." Her name was Marlene Dietrich, the film The Blue Angel.

By this time the Kaiser was gone; the proprietor dispensing tips was Louis Adlon, the son of the founder. The clientele was changing, too, but the band in the resplendent ballroom played on. "You couldn't tell that there was a war on," says Walter Storz, who worked as a receptionist from 1939 to 1945. "While the rest of Germany was on rations, we were swimming in good food and wine."

The rooms vacated by Dietrich and co were captured by generals on home leave. The restaurant became the canteen for the masters of the nearby ministries, Ribbentrop and Admiral Donitz among them. Goebbels kept his two mistresses in adjacent rooms, and the SS and Gestapo top brass liked to stroll across from headquarters for lunch.

The uniformed regulars shared the roof with diplomats and foreign correspondents, or sipped champagne in the Adlon bunker together as the city above took its punish- ment. Paris aside, it was still the most civilised place in the Third Reich.

One man never stayed: Hitler made one visit to the Adlon, to meet a group of industrialists. "It was quite a sensation," says Mr Storz, now aged 75. "He went up to the first floor, and left 10 minutes later. He never came back - the Adlon was not his style."

Miraculously, it survived the war - but only by two days. A group of Russian soldiers held a victory celebration in the Adlon's well-stocked wine cellar, and somebody failed to put out a match. The charred wreckage, now in the border zone where a concrete wall would soon be erected, was eventually blown up by the East Germans in 1957.

Next month, the Adlon will be re-opened, once again by Germany's head of state. The opulent foyer is as it was before, down to the fountain reconstructed from fragments found in the ruins. The luxurious rooms are a harmony of Old World charm and 21st century facilities.

Though it no longer belongs to the Adlons, it bears the illustrious name; it occupies the same site, next to the former/future British embassy. And it has the same mission as the Adlon of 1907: to bring a dash of panache to a city searching for a soul. Potsdamer Platz won't do it, that's for sure.