March 21, 2011

Photo Essay: Hughes Aircraft Company Campus

As much as I try to leave behind the Type A personality characteristics that once made me fit in with other East Coasters, as much as I try to assimilate into a more relaxed California lifestyle, I constantly feel anything but laid back when it comes to one thing: missing out.

So when I hear of a tour of a place with restricted access, not usually open to the public, it doesn't really matter what the place is. I must go.

So most of my urban exploration has actually been sanctioned rather than surreptitious, save for excursions out to California City and Salton Sea. And I've gotten to see plenty without breaking and entering.

This weekend, I joined a rain-or-shine tour of the Hughes Aircraft Company campus in Playa Vista, near Culver City where Howard Hughes both built airplanes and made movies in the 1930s. I went despite the torrential downpour, both because I'd managed to nab a $25 ticket to the sold out tour, but also because I couldn't not go.

Eleven of the original 15 buildings are still there, despite the new Playa Vista-related developments that surround it (including some 2009 structures on the campus, built to be complementary to the original structures' international style architecture). The original airstrip that ran parallel with Jefferson Boulevard - first grassy, then paved - has been demolished, but there are plenty of other interesting things to see, mostly abandoned and neglected, slated for a facelift in a hopefully good case for adaptive reuse.

Building #15, the main building complex / cargo hangar erected to house the construction of the H-4 "Hercules" plane, the all-wood "Spruce Goose" (actually it was made of birch) whose only flight didn't go high enough or far enough to warrant a return to the skies. This is only one of two bays - there currently is a super-secret movie using the other bay as a soundstage.

original interior of the H-4 "Hercules" plane

Building #3, the five-sided wood structure that was used to mock up the H-4's nose cone and systems. It now stands abandoned, with a leaky roof.

old signs in Building 3

Outside Building 3

Between Buildings 2 (left) and 1 (right)

Building 1 (ground floor), Administration Building. All of the downstairs offices were demolished by a prior developer who never ended up using the space. Now the new developer plans to build offices for creative workspaces. You can still trace the lines of phantom tile flooring...

Upstairs of Building 1, "Mahogany Row." It is believed that this was Mr. Hughes' office. Red X's mark where his desk might have been.

Upstairs in Mahogany Row

Upstairs in Mahogany Row

Upstairs in Mahogany Row

Upstairs in Mahogany Row

This map was found in one of the demolished walls and was rescued, though it had already fallen victim to some wear and tear and graffiti.

The red lines trace flight patterns, but it is unknown whose or for what...

Downstairs Administration Building front entrance / reception desk. All visitors would have entered here. The black lines on the wood paneling are remnants of the glue used to affix darker wood paneling which was added in later decades.

Outside Administration Building front entrance. The cantilever awning once displayed the letters H U G H E S

Building 10, Cafeteria

Building 10 interior, the old kitchen

The Hughes Campus - soon to be called the Hercules Campus, after the infamous H-4 - went through many stages of its own adaptive reuse, transforming some of its buildings into medical facilities, and developing as an emerging avionics (aviation electronics) powerhouse. Aircraft was still being built there as late as the mid-1980s, but the production shifted from wartime airplanes and cargo planes to helicopters. Because of the large empty spaces, many television and film production companies have set up shop in the buildings on the Hughes Campus over recent decades, though now their presence will become more formalized as the Hercules Campus becomes a dedicated facility for creative spaces.

Many thanks to the Los Angeles Conservancy for the opportunity to take a simultaneous peek into the past and the future. Now I really want to fly another plane.

Related post:
Here It Comes Again (Floyd Bennett Field, NYC)
Photo Essay: Taking Flight

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  1. the flight patterns on that map might have been early Pan Am flight paths... note the heavy emphasis on South America.

  2. Thanks for this. We had tickets, but chickened out because of the rain. I'm glad to see the tour went on without us, though I wish it could have been rescheduled.

  3. Man, I have been obsesed with this place ever since I found it a couple years ago. I tried my hardest to get a ticket for the tour, but missed out. I continue to go there on a regular basis on my bike

  4. Thanks for the tour! I worked there from 1974 to 1980. It was a very busy place back then. Your description brought back a flood of memories. It was a unique workplace that had so much history. I worked with people that had been there from the start.

  5. The wind turbine shots are amazing. Overall, it would have been great to see a plane in the hangar for a picture.

  6. is there anyway to get access to the property this year? My dad worked for Hughes for 35 years and it would mean the world to see it.


  7. I haven't heard of any tours this year. The one I did was hosted by the Los Angeles Conservancy so you should sign up for their email list and/or follow on Facebook/Twitter and consider joining as a member. If I hear of another tour of the campus I will post it on the Avoiding Regret Facebook page as I believe it's an extremely rare opportunity. The site is active as a movie set so usually access is quite limited.

  8. I checked with LA Conservancy and they suggested getting in touch with the owners of the property (and the resulting new developments) who might be able to arrange a visit :

  9. In the picture with the office, there is a picture pinned to the wall. Has anyone any informations, what snd who is on that picture? I was there a few months ago, but the picture was nit there. Thans, Matthias

  10. I worked for over 36 years for what was Hughes (HAC) and subsequently one of the parted elements thereof .... Breaks my heart that Hughes succumbed to political pressures that brought about a change in IRS regs and the forced divestiture by the Medical Foundation ... What a shame .... There was no company, there is no company nor will there ever be a company comparable to Hughes and dedicated to excellence to the extant HAC was ...and it was strictly because it was run by engineers rather than clueless bean counters suffering from the Harvard MBA syndrome.

    1. How very true!!!! My dad, wife and myself worked mom was an intern there as well!

  11. I have a card catalog from the Hughes Aircraft office for sale. It's missing some drawers but has a steel label that reads Hughes Aircraft. I am located in L.A. I am not a store and dont usually sell things. But perhaps there is interest in this circle of people?

  12. I worked at Hughes from 1974-1976. I remember the time he came driving into the parking lot with Tina Louise, and all the guys went running out to meet her. I didn't have any interest at the time. I was a snotty little 20 year old and he had a reputation of being a "weirdo" by that time. How many, many times I now regret not going out to at see see the hub bub. What a wonderful opportunity it was to have worked for such a great company - I regret too I didn't realize that at the time. -Alyce