Contact! Rotate! Gear Up! Records Relating to Airports in the National Register of Historic Places

Wright Flyer, Kill Devil Hills, NC
Photograph of the Wright Brothers’ Camp in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina (National Archives Identifier 7580921)

Today’s post is by John LeGloahec, Archivist in the Electronic Records Division at the National Archives in College Park, MD.

On December 17, 1903, on the dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, two bicycle makers from Ohio made history when they became the first individuals to fly in a “flying machine.”  There are approximately 64 properties in the National Register records concerning the Wright Brothers (Orville and Wilbur – the bicycle makers from Ohio), including the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills (National Archives Identifier 47719917) where “Orville and Wilbur Wright changed the technical complexion of the 20th Century. As Orville Wright said, his 12 second, 120 foot flight was the first in which “a machine carrying a man had raised itself by its own power in to the air in full flight and sailed forward without reduction of speed, and finally landed at a point as high as that from which it started.”

The Wright brothers needed a place with fairly constant winds in which to carry on their experiments. According to weather bureau records, Kitty Hawk provided their needed winds. The Wrights made more than a thousand glider flights from Kill Devil Hill in 1900, 1901, and 1902, improving each model until they were ready to try powered heavier-than-air flight in 1903. The Wright Memorial Shaft on Kill Devil Hill commemorates the flight, and markers nearby indicate the take-off and landing spots. Two wooden structures nearby are reconstructions of the Wrights’ 1903 camp based on research and photographs. The Hangar Building and the Quarters Building are significant for they replicate the 1903 buildings where the Wrights worked and lived while conducting their “first flight” experiments at Kitty Hawk. The buildings were dedicated in 1953 on the 50th anniversary of the “first flight”.”

Wright Flyer, Fort Myer, VA
The Wright Brothers Flyer arrives at Fort Myer, Virginia (VA) aboard a wagon, attracting the attention of children and adults (National Archives Identifier 6641475)

Replicas of the “Wright Flyer” exist around the country, including the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC and in Ohio, where the Wrights continued to reside after their success in North Carolina.  In the DC area, the Wright Brothers had an impact on the world’s oldest continuously operated airport, Maryland SP College Park Airport (National Archives Identifier 106777940).  “A quotation from the leasing agreement, dated August 25, 1909, between Major M. Gray Zalinski, Quartermaster, United States Army, and Edward A. Newman, realtor, provides an insight into the early physical appearance of the property, which is described as: “a tract of land embracing one hundred sixty (160) acres more or less situated between College Park and Lakeland, Prince George’s County, Maryland, said tract of land being bounded on the west by the Washington Branch of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, on the north and east by the Paint Branch and the Eastern Branch of the Potomac River, and on the south by the property of the Romona Land Company and the National Vaccine Company, exclusive of the two buildings erected thereon.

As the result of the efforts of Brig. Gen. James Allen, Chief Signal Officer, U.S. Army, in March 1911 Congress approved a $125,000 appropriation for purchasing aeronautical equipment. Soon after the appropriation, requests were authorized and approved for the necessary construction of hangars and the purchase of aircraft to be used at College Park. As a result of a new lease agreement on February 27, 19li, the tract of land was larger than that of the 1909 agreement, with some 260 acres extending north along the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad property to a series of goldfish ponds and east to the “Paint Branch’ of the Anacostia River, with a maximum cleared runway of 2,376 feet in an east and west direction. Four temporary wooden hangars 45 feet with 11 feet in the clear, built according to plans furnished by the Wright ‘ Company, were erected along the railroad track. One of the hangars was used to quarter a detachment of enlisted men; a tent served as an emergency hospital. The Quartermaster Department also assumed responsibility for the improvement and maintenance of the flying field; for this purpose they made available a mowing machine, a plow, scraper and roller, and two old reliable Army mules.

The Rexford Smith hangar was moved over to the line of the Signal Corps hangars. To satisfy the need for drinking water for the airfield personnel, Capt. Chandler requested that a well” feet in diameter, lined with dry brick covered with 2-inch planking, and provided with a substantial pump” be installed. Approval was granted on May 23, 1911.”

“Man’s first flight in a motor-driven, heavier-than-air machine on the sand dunes at Kill Devil Hills, Kitty Hawk, North Carolina . . . was the beginning of a great adventure. However, many chapters in that adventure, including countless record-breaking flights and important developments in aerial technology, were to be written at College Park, Maryland . . . A memo from the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, dated August 1, 1907, established an aeronautical division in the United States Army. However, there was to be little in the way of aeronautical Equipment other than manned balloons – until Brig. Gen. James Allen, Chief Signal Officer, solicited sealed proposals on behalf of the Board of Ordinance and Fortifications for furnishing the signal Corps with a heavier-than-air, motorized flying machine. As a result of these bid proposals, the Board of Ordinance and Fortifications selected and entered into an agreement with Wilbur and Orville Wright of Dayton, Ohio, on February 10, 1908 . . . The work of teaching the Signal Corps officers of the Army began on the grounds of College Park on October 6, 1909. The instructor was Wilbur Wright . . . On the next day Wilbur Wright set an unofficial world speed record over a 500-meter course, an awesome 46 miles per hour! The College Park Airport was but two days old, yet it already had earned for itself a page in aviation history.”

Airport Hanger
Airport Hangar (National Archives Identifier 281039)

In addition to the many Wright Brothers-related properties in the NRHP records, there are nearly 4000 properties with “airport” as a search term in the NRHP records, such as the College Park Airport, discussed above and the Illinois SP Ford Airport Hanger (National Archives Identifier 28892290), located in Lansing, Illinois, was “designed by Albert Kahn, built by Henry and Edsel Ford, the 1926 airport hangar at Lansing, Illinois possesses considerable architectural and historical significance. Architecturally, Kahn demonstrated both ingenuity and innovation in his hangar design. At a time when airplanes were generally housed in dark, barn-like, wooden structures and other apparently temporary buildings, Kahn’s substantial hangar helped establish a specialized building-type which accommodated the practical requirements of airplane storage and maintenance. Kahn’s fresh engineering and aesthetic response to modern design problems, evidenced particularly in his famous factory designs for Ford and other manufacturers, also characterized his Ford hangar design. Henry and Edsel Ford’s association with the Lansing airport hangar enhances the historical significance of the structure. The airport and hangar provide tangible evidence of Ford’s important efforts to promote American aviation. During the 1920s Ford not only manufactured airplanes, he established an airline which was intended to demonstrate the possibilities of commercial aviation. The Lansing airport and hangar were an integral part of the Ford system. In 1927 reviewing the development of airports in Chicago the journal Aviation pointed to Ford Airport and declared, “In its large expanse, modern hangar, and complete equipment, it exemplifies the Ford method of doing things by doing them thoroughly.””

US Route 1 - Newark Airport
Dual-Dual Section of U.S. Route 1 Near Newark Airport, New Jersey (National Archives Identifier 234109805)

In New Jersey, one of the New York metropolitan area’s three major airport’s is New Jersey SP Newark Metropolitan Airport Buildings (National Archives Identifier 135814492), one of the “first great commercial airport in operation in the United States. Development began in 1928. During the early years of the airport’s existence, one-third of the world’s air traffic passed down its runways. The trio of Art Deco style structures which includes the ADMINISTRATION BUILDING, BREWSTER HANGAR, and the MEDICAL BUILDING, is the last remaining testament to the early days of the airport’s development . . . In 1907, the New Jersey Legislature enacted a law which enabled the City of Newark to purchase swampy lowlands east of the city for the dual purpose of reclamation and development. Lindbergh’s dramatic solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean, from New York to Paris, in May 1927 fastened public attention upon the practical future of aviation. On July 11, 1927, Mayor Thomas L. Raymond of Newark gave his support to the construction of a municipal airport. City Engineer James W. Costello was asked to prepare plans for a $6,000,000 project. The idea was endorsed by the U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Aeronautics, William P. MacCracken. Several months later a special commission appointed by then Secretary of Commerce Herbert C. Hoover announced that the proposed site of Newark Airport, adjacent to Newark Bay and U.S. Route 1, provided an excellent location in the metropolitan area for a central air terminal since many railway connections were available and weather conditions were considered favorable. In February 1928, construction of an aviation field of 420 acres of meadowland was begun.”

Portland International Airport
AT PORTLAND INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT (National Archives Identifier 548166)

In Washington DC, buildings on the campus of National Airport (National Archives Identifier  41679616) “although constructed at slightly different times (the Terminal was completed in 1941 and the last hangar to be constructed was completed in 1948), were designed by the same federal agency and served related purposes. These buildings were part of a planned grouping of buildings set in a purposely designed, landscaped setting . . . Washington National Airport is an 850-acre parcel along the Potomac River in Arlington County, Virginia. The airport site is bordered on the west by the George Washington Memorial Parkway, on the south and east by the Potomac River, and on the north by Roaches Run and a waterfowl sanctuary. The airport site was created primarily on filled land: the former Gravelly Point inlet of the Potomac. The site boundaries have remained essentially the same since the airport opened in 1941; the airport has expanded over the years primarily via more facilities, rather than by the purchase or filling in of substantially more land. Today, the Terminal is located on low-lying ground roughly in the center of this site, a position selected for its relative shelter from winds and to provide a clear line of vision to the airfield. The site of the Terminal affords exceptional views from the airside to the skyline of Washington and the expanse of runways. This asset was central to the early twentieth-century notion of the spectator airport and is central to the Terminal’s architectural significance today. The Terminal was also positioned to fit the tight curve of the traffic rotary, which provides a driver’s first impression from the approaching car heading in a counter-clockwise direction around the one-way traffic circle. The airport’s setting is more chaotic today than it was in 1941. It is the centerpiece of a congested metropolitan transportation node containing cars, limousines, buses, taxis, structures for taxis and cars, and Metrorail. Originally, the Terminal was the focal point of an “air park,” a travel/recreation destination landscaped with extensive greenery and trees for both the passenger and the spectator of the 1940s. Upon inspection, one can see important remnants of the original, 1940 site plan, including: the counterclockwise, bilevel road system with a central rotary and original flagpole; the airfield layout with its pattern of intersecting runways; terraced, arc-shaped parking lots, with views to the airfield west of the Terminal; hangars of the South Hangar Line (six out of the seven remain); and, the Terminal itself. All were set comfortably within the broad green parklike expanse of the site. Many additions to the site between the 1940s and present have already been removed to pave the way for new construction. Such structures include a 1941 hangar (Hangar 1) and World War II-era military structures (a terminal and a hangar).”

Isla Grande Puerto Rico
Isla Grande Airport (National Archives Identifier 169140888)

If you are looking for a warm winter vacation spot, you could fly into Isla Grande Airport in Puerto Rico and then visit Old San Juan (National Archives Identifier 131518669), which is “where many of our most relevant historic events took place. It shows the characteristic architecture developed in the Island based on Spanish models but incorporating autochthonous materials, methods, and styles. It was and is the seat of government and where the political direction of the community is evolved. It is the traditionally most important commercial area. It was the see of the first Bishopric, cathedral, and important churches of Puerto Rico. It shows the typical urban planning of Puerto Rican towns. It is a physical manifestation of the way of life created by a Puerto Rican community. Being the seat of civil, military, and religious authorities, as well as the principal urban and commercial center, the most significant historical events in Puerto Rican History occurred here. The first municipal government of the New World outside of Santo Domingo was established here as well as the first military presidio in Spanish America. Other events are the Dutch attack of 1625, Sir Francis Drake’s attack of 1595, George Clifford Earl of Cumberland’s attack of 1597, Sir Ralph Abercromby’s attack of 1797, Admiral Sampson’s attack of 1898. Alonso Manso, first Bishop to come to America, established his bishopric in San Juan. The first newspaper La Gaceta was printed in San Juan in 1807. The first university level educational institution was established by the Dominican Order in the 16th Century. The Ateneo Puertorriquena was founded in 1876. The military defensive system was started in 1533 with the building of La Fortaleza, oldest Government House still in use in the New World. The first provincial parliament Diputacion Provincial was established in 1813. The Colegio de Abogados-Bar Association was founded in 1840.”

George W. Bush
President George Bush at events marking the centennial of the first powered flight, Wright Brothers National Memorial, Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina (National Archives Identifier 5618956)

Get out there are feel the wind in your hair and spin the propellers and enjoy the magic of flight!

This post is part of an ongoing series featuring records from the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) and National Historic Landmarks Program Records, 2013 – 2017 (National Archives ID 20812721), a series within Record Group 79: Records of the National Park Service.

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