Thursday, September 1, 2011

The ghost of Hercules

In 1941 millionaire Howard Hughes built a complex for his aircraft company on 380 acres of the Ballona wetlands. Its 9,600 foot runway was the longest private runway in the world.

The wetlands are are low-lying flats between the Ballona Creek channel and the bluffs of Westchester in West Los Angeles. When Hughes built his airport, the surrounding land was still used for farming, though winter rains often flooded the place out. A rare thing in Los Angeles, the place is wide, open, and empty.

The Cafeteria building
During the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, the place was busy, building airplanes and helicopters for the military. Some dozen or more buildings housed not only the manufacturing operation, but also administrative offices, an employee cafeteria, and even a firehouse.

The complex in 1968. Loyola Marymount University is to the right. Photo from Library of Congress.
Today the Hughes Airport campus lies in the lee of the Del Rey bluffs, the flatland yawning west toward the sea, and toward the new residential complex of Playa Vista. Only a handful of the original buildings remain. The broad streets of the campus are empty, save for the occasional security guard's car.

In the central core of the complex, new modern office buildings and parking garages lie empty - victims of too much ambition and the economic downturn.

During World War II, Hughes designed and built several experimental aircraft for the U.S. Government, including one designated the H-4 Hercules. The H-4 was a huge transport plane made, due to war-time restrictions on aluminum, entirely of wood. The press dubbed the giant plane the "Spruce Goose" - a name Hughes detested, since it was really made of birch.
The interior of Building 15 - Library of Congress photo
The H-4 was built in a huge, 315,000 square foot, climate-controlled hangar known as Building 15, and all who worked on it were sworn to secrecy. It flew only once, in 1947, with Howard Hughes at the controls. After that flight, it remained stored in its huge hangar, carefully tended by up to 300 workers, until 1976 when Hughes died.

Hughes at the controls of the "Spruce Goose" in 1947 - Los Angeles Public Library
Upon Hughes' death, the property languished while the complicated estate was settled. The "Spruce Goose" was moved in 1988 to Long Beach, where it was exhibited in a special dome-like hall. Later it was moved to the Evergeen Aviation and Space Museum in Oregon.

The airport property became part of the Playa Vista redevelopment project, which aspired to bring housing, commercial and industrial development, and recreational development to the Ballona wetlands.  In the 1990s, DreamWorks tried to build a studio there, but failed. Even so, the property and the massive buildings were used as film locations, starting with the 1984 Goldie Hawn film "Swing Shift", set in a World War II airplane factory, and continuing today. "Independence Day," "Batman" and "Avatar" were filmed on site.

Although many buildings were demolished, and the runway itself broken up to pave Playa Vista's streets, Building 15 and the remaining Hughes Aircraft buildings are shabby but preserved. In 2010 another development purchased the property with the intent to renovate and attract "creative industry" tenants.

Still, on a sunny Sunday afternoon, there wasn't much going on. Building 15 was in use as a filming location - crew members covered huge flats with white canvas outside the massive doors. In the lot behind Building 17, a heap of demolished cars was tumbled like children's toys. The guard told us they were leftover from filming "Batman."

The Administrative Building, where Hughes had his mahogany-paneled office has courses of windows on either side, the front facing an empty field. Think of how filled with light that place would be!

Building 2, Administration
It's a strange and lonely place. Its heroic past is all but forgotten. Yet at the same time, its show-biz heritage after its demise almost eclipses its aviation history. Once thousands of workers swarmed, planes buzzed, and took off over the ocean. Now high-tech blockbusters are born in secret behind blank doors in a bare and empty field.

Building 15 to the left
But that's L.A. - inventing itself all over again.

The Los Angeles Conservancy conducted a tour of the place last March - I missed it, but two other bloggers went along and posted about it Here and Here. For a history of the place, and some photos from the 1990s, go Here.



Super interesting post. Thanks for sharing.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

They're filming Batman there, too?

But I thought Pittsburgh was being turned into Gotham City!

Aunt Snow said...

It was a past "Batman". They use the big hangars for the effects that get included in the CGI stuff, I think.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

Beautiful post, a wonderful glimpse into the past, and a melancholy reminder of how bad things have gotten economically.

Deborah said...

Thanks for the history lesson, this was so interesting. I'll have to share your post with my brother, he's fascinated with anything related to planes.