February 13, 2016

Photo Essay: LA's First Commercial Airport, Then & Now

[Ed: New photos added 7/12/17 4:49 PM]

Believe it or not, LA's first commercial airport was actually in Glendale.

If you drive along what is now Grand Central Avenue, you'll follow the approximate path of the airport runway for Grand Central Air Terminal, which was graced by Howard Hughes, Charles Lindberg, Amelia Earhart, and other famous and not-so-famous aviators.

The runway is no longer there—having been demolished after the airport closed in 1959—but the terminal itself is still there, and had been standing vacant and gutted from 1990 to 2012, the year I first visited.

I got the chance to return today to see the terminal fully restored and reopened for business, now owned by Disney and used for offices and an event space.

Four years ago, the Spanish Colonial-style building with its terra-cotta tile roof had been white-washed...

...but historical photos and paint samples revealed that the original color scheme was much more earthen—a palette that it's been returned to, both outside and in.

No longer is it fenced-off, overgrown, and boarded up.

Although not a public space anymore...

...and decades since any passengers or pilots walked through these arches...

...the restoration work is a testament to the historical significance of the place, which Disney has fully embraced.

Unfortunately the control tower wasn't fully restored—since that would've made it a five-story project instead of a two-story one—but crews stabilized it and uncovered the original windows—the only originals in the entire building.

The tower isn't up to code, so it's considered "inaccessible"—but only to members of the public who might sue after falling off the ladder to the top.

The red clay floor tiles in the breezeway were able to be kept...

...and some colorful wall tiles bring some of the original grandeur back to the east entryway.

The tiles that were salvaged stood the test of time because the color wasn't painted on top of them...

circa 2017

...but rather pressed into them.

Still, some are faded from sun exposure, and some are not.

But the restoration team didn't want the building to look "new" or "perfect," so they intentionally retained some of the imperfections that could've otherwise been fixed (or replaced with a replica).

The air terminal was utilitarian, but—like many train stations of the time—it was also ornamental.

In fact, air travel was so new back in 1928, there were no norms for terminal architecture...

...—so designers simply followed the established principles of train travel.

Ford Tri-Motor at LGB, 2017

Of course, at the time, planes were small and passengers were few (like the Ford Tri-Motor)...

Ford Tri-Motor at LGB, 2017

...until Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT) managed to get bigger planes (DC-3s) that could carry many passengers all the way across the country in just two days (which was at least two days faster than a cross-country train).

Back then, planes could only fly during daylight, so the transcontinental passengers starting in New York took an overnight train to Columbus, OH, and then got on a plane, switched back and forth between trains and planes over the course of night and day, and finally landed at their destination: Glendale's Grand Central Air Terminal.

circa 2017

It became so popular that other airlines followed suit. TAT merged with Western Air Express, forming what we now know as TWA.

But when Pearl Harbor was bombed and the Second World War hit, the military commandeered GCAT, and camouflaging it to look like a suburban housing development from up above.

Eventually, the war ended, and commercial flights were to start back up again—but their newly arrived neighbors complained about the noise, forcing them to shorten the runway. And then it was too short to accommodate the commercial planes of the time.

GCAT operations never recovered from that, but somehow the building itself survived. Disney not only saved it, but it has embraced the place's aviation history in making the campus their own. Case in point: they added an outdoor pergola for performances—with a canopy that resembles an airplane wing.

Disney even demolished an adjacent building to open up the space surrounding the terminal to give it more of its original feel, since it had become more or less buried inside an industrial park.

Back in 2012, I didn't manage to break my way into GCAT to see the inside—but from what I understand, by that point, there wasn't much to see. But I did make it into the restored interior today. Stay tuned for photos of the Art Deco details and some artifacts that were found during construction.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Inside The Last Remnant of the Glendale Airport
Photo Essay: Transforming the Hughes Campus Into Hercules, Before & After
Photo Essay: Best of Saarinen's TWA Flight Center, JFK

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