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LAistory: Grand Central Air Terminal
LAistory is a series that takes us on a journey to what came before to help us understand where we are today. So far we've been to Val Verde (the "Black Palm Springs"), Thelma Todd's Roadside Cafe, a house in Beverly Hills, Echo Park's Bonnie Brae House, and the long-gone Marineland of the Pacific. Now we're taking to the skies and flying back to the Golden Era of air travel right here in Glendale...
The early days of air travel in Los Angeles have essentially nothing to do with those often dreaded letters L-A-X. In fact, the origins of commercial air travel in America began in Glendale in the early portion of the 20th century in what eventually became Grand Central Air Terminal (GCAT).
The Early Years: 1919-1929
The airfield that grew into Grand Central Air Terminal began more modestly, when local businessman and developer Leslie Coombs Brand started a private airport there in 1919, which was "a highlight of the Los Angeles social calender" (Underwood 7). As air travel and the aviation industry grew in profit and popularity, so did the need for a larger, public, and well-planned airport. This parcel of land in Glendale (located where now stands several industrial businesses between the 134 Freeway, the LA River, the 5 Freeway, Sonora Avenue, and San Fernando Road) proved the ideal spot for such a place. In 1923 it became the Glendale Airport, but expansion was inevitable.
When it came time to pick a place to develop the area's premier airport, many locations were considered:
The favored sites were Dominguez Field, where the first American air meet had been held in 1910; Griffith Park, which had been functioning off and on as an airfield since 1911, most recently as a National Guard airbase; and a tract of farmland in Inglewood called Mines Field. None of them had the advantages offered y Glendale. Mines Field, which would come into its own in the decades ahead as LAX, was considered too remote from the Los Angeles Civic Center (Underwood 37).
In 1928, World War I fighter pilot Captain Charles C. Spicer, "formed a syndicate of venture capitalists [...] to purchase and develop the Glendale Municipal Airport" (City of Glendale). After the land was secured, the airport was developed and expanded to 175 acres; "the main runway, aligned with the prevailing northwest-southwest winds, consisted of 3,800 feet of concrete 100 feet wide" (City of Glendale). The airport received its official name, "Grand Central Air Terminal" as bestowed by Victor Clark, who was a well-known aviation promoter of the time.
Although GCAT was predated by the Griffith Park Aerodrome (1912), and was not the only place to park your airplane in the 20s and 30s, it became the aeronautic hub of the county, and helped establish "Los Angeles as the air capital of the nation" (Cohan). Major players in the field of aviation, like Howard Hughes, Jack Northrop, and world-renowned pilots such as Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart used the airport and its neighboring aircraft manufacturing, repair, and storage facilities. It was also the airstrip from which Douglas "Wrong Way" Corrigan took off for his moniker-earning flight.
GCAT opened on Washington's Birthday, February 22, 1929 with the participation of local officials and dignitaries, as well as many celebrities, and a crowd of hundreds. This was the golden age of flight, and likewise this was the golden age of the beautiful new air terminal. GCAT had all the amenities a traveler or pilot needed, from hangars, repair centers, a garage for storing your car, and a central terminal building that was an architectural marvel as well as a popular hangout. In fact, the on-site restaurant "became the center of night-long parties when the movie stars of the mid-30s gathered to see friends off" before lengthy flights ("Glendale").
Within just months of its opening, the Los Angeles Times touted the city's prominent role in the aviation industry: "There is 50 per cent more aviation activity in Los Angeles county than in any other part of the United States" (Cohan). The control of the airport was largely assumed by Curtiss Airports, Inc., a company who operated several airports all over the country in the early half of the century, but Spicer made it clear in May of 1929 that "previous reports" that he'd "disposed of his interest in the airport [...] were incorrect, in so far as they gave the impression that he had sold out and was no longer connected with the airport" ("Provisions"). In fact, Spicer remained on board as one of the directors, although the airport became a corporation under California law at the time. One of the chief tenants flying in and out of GCAT was Maddux Airlines, who operated airships of many varieties in the area in the 1920s, who soon merged with Transcontinental Air Transport to become TAT-Maddux (City of Glendale). The airline enjoyed an affiliation with celebrity pilots such as Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart.
According to the City of Glendale, "In June of , Curtiss merged with the Wright Company to become the Curtiss-Wright Flying Service. Because of this merger, the Grand Central Air Terminal airport became the property of the newly formed Curtiss-Wright Flying Service. Major Corliss C. Moseley, a World War I fighter pilot and co-founder of Western Air Express (later called Western Airlines), was selected to manage the airport for the Curtiss-Wright Flying Service."
GCAT has a very important role in aviation history, as it was "the first airport to offer air service between southern California and New York" (City of Glendale). Furthermore, on July 28, 1929,"the first regularly scheduled transcontinental flight from Glendale took place" and "the first leg of the 48-hour flight was piloted by Lindbergh and its passengers included Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr." (City of Glendale).
The airport was booming, and it soon "became the primary airport in southern California to provide scheduled commercial service to the public" (City of Glendale).
One of the most prominent features of the airport was its main terminal, located at what is now 1310 Air Way. It is the only building left from the original airport (although some articles list two hangars in use for other purposes), and has been under the ownership of the Walt Disney Company since 1997.
Built in 1928 and designed by Henry L. Gogerty, the two-story, eight-bay wide building combines “Spanish Colonial Revival styling with Zig-zag (Art Deco) Moderne influences” (City of Glendale). It was designed with simplicity in mind, and to echo conventions in transit buildings seen in rail stations of the day. To elaborate (via the City of Glendale's Architectural History of the airport):
The Spanish Colonial Revival tradition is visible in the overall structural massing, red clay (Mission) tile roof treatment, stucco siding, and large archways. Zig-zag, Art Deco features are incorporated into the air traffic control tower at the northwest corner of the building and include verticality, chevron and sunburst detailing on the center panels, and stylized winged angel reliefs on the four upper corners. The building has a structural steel skeleton and masonry infill exterior walls finished with plaster and cast stone. Original interior features still intact and preserved include the elaborately ornamented staircase and railing from the first-floor waiting room to the restaurant; the decorative, stylized plaster ceilings in the first-floor coffee shop and in the second floor restaurant; the wall detailing and plaster castings on the balcony at the north end of the waiting room; and the arched openings and decorative columns of the inner arcade area along the west elevation of the waiting room. The basic floor plan is still intact, however, the large two-story waiting room has been altered by the insertion of partition walls and a temporary second floor mezzanine.
It is no wonder this building was popular and iconic in its day, and largely symbolic of the airport as a whole in its early years.Heydays and War Years: 1930-1953
In the early 1930s, GCAT had another purpose: Aviation Trade School. According to the City of Glendale’s history of the airport, “the Curtiss-Wright Technical Institute was founded in 1931 as an aviation trades school and occupied a corner of the Air Terminal building. It gradually expanded, occupying portions of the aircraft hangars at the airport and various industrial buildings along Air Way. Directed by Major Moseley, the Institute was a school for aircraft technicians, mechanics, and engineers. It did not have a flight-training program. Flight instruction was available from the Curtiss-Wright Flying Service as an adjunct to courses offered by the Institute.” Moseley then leased the airport in 1934 and along with other partners formed Aircraft Industries, Inc. which served as an “authorized service (aircraft repair and engine overhaul), sales and distributor agent for several aircraft manufacturers” (City of Glendale).
In the 1930s, with air travel at the height of glamour, many films used GCAT as a location central to the storylines. According to Wikipedia: "The airport was the setting of several films, including Howard Hughes' Hell's Angels (1930), Shirley Temple's Bright Eyes (1934), Lady Killer (1933) starring James Cagney, Sky Giant (1938) with Joan Fontaine, Hats Off (1936) with John Payne, and the musical Hollywood Hotel (1937) with Dick Powell. The airport was also known for stunt flying, and supplying planes for use in the movie industry by people like Paul Mantz."
Following the Pearl Harbor attacks on December 7, 1941, the airport had a renewed purpose, however, as a strategic wing of military operations. "The airport was effectively camouflaged from enemy attack and from the air it appeared to be a housing tract complete with faux streets" and in 1942 Sonora Avenue was closed to traffic so that the runway could be lengthened which "provided an additional 1,200 feet of runway. Curtiss-Wright Technical Institute, with three flight academies (Ontario, Oxnard, and the Antelope Valley), played a key role in the training of approximately 26,000 World War II combat pilots and 7,500 mechanics" (City of Glendale).
Also in 1941, the airport at Mines Field changed its name to Los Angeles Airport and began to service commercial flights in the area, assuming a great deal of GCAT's former business. (The name became LAX, or Los Angeles International Airport, in 1949).
By the time WWII was drawing to its close, GCAT had evolved beyond usage for travelers. In 1944, GCAT "ceased operating as a commercial airport terminal. [It] was purchased outright by Moseley, and at this time, the title 'Air Terminal' was dropped in favor of the term 'Airport'" (City of Glendale). Three years later, the runway that had been lengthened to aid in the war effort was truncated, thus rendering "the airport a Class II facility, sufficient only for small planes (DC-4s and C-54s) coming in for overhaul and repair" (City of Glendale). The last graduates of the flight school filed out in 1952. With the end of the Korean War in 1953, and little interest in using the airport, GCAT fell into a marked decline.
Decline and Closure: 1953-1959
There was little activity at the airport in the mid- to late- 1950s, although "Major Mosely did some early rocket development and testing amongst the old concrete revetments left over from WW II" (Aviation). At this point "Mosely was being pressured to close Grand Central Airport itself [after the Korean War], and [by the late 1950s] plans were already afoot to convert the property into a large industrial complex, with or without a runway" (Underwood 119).
By 1958 the end of the ride for the airport seemed evident to residents, particularly taxpayers who did not enjoy supporting an obviously failing enterprise. The property was in dire straits; "the runway had not been maintained. the unpaved parallel strip, which was mainly used for training by the Glendale School of Aeronautics, was riddled with ground squirrel burrows. The tower, too, had been abandoned, and the airport was operating as an uncontrolled facility" (Underwood 119).
And so the fate of the Grand Central Air Terminal was sealed. Taxpayers didn’t want to support it, the City didn’t want to assume ownership, and preservationists were fighting a losing battle. “Slowly, over the next few months, tenants and aircraft moved out, and on July 15, 1959, the last aircraft "cleared the runway, completing the exodus" (Underwood 120). (The last plane to land is pictured above at left.)
As business drew to a close on the decrepit airstrip, the Los Angeles Times chronicled the last days and their nostalgic sentiments. A large “X” was swathed across the runway in paint, which served as “Grand Central's way of warning airplanes away from the 2,800-foot-long airstrip,” and the paper notes that the unceremonious closing would be “in sharp contrast to the opening of the field, Feb. 22, 1929, when Gov. C.C. Young officiated at colorful ceremonies that attracted hundreds of spectators" ("Glendale"). Grand Central was on its way to being a thing of the past.
A New Purpose, and What Remains: 1960-Present
The next stage of life for the airport was a focus on industry: "Grand Central Airport, once the aviation showplace of the West, became Grand Central Industrial Center in the 1960s." (Underwood 8). The Center enjoyed tremendous success, and was heralded for its purpose and design; in fact, "the complex, developed by C.C. Moseley, has been called unique and is a model coped by other industrial park developers" (Snyder). A 1973 write-up of the area in the Times rhapsodizes: "Within the confines of Grand Central, generally bordered by San Fernando Road, Sonora Ave.-Golden State Freeway and Los Angeles River-Ventura Freeway, is a world of imagination, human energy, products and moving trucks" (Snyder). At the time, Walt Disney Company was the tenant who held the most interest (10% of the 2 million square feet of space) and "only 13 buildings (all remodeled) from the old airport days still stand in the center" (Snyder). The numbers have changed, with Disney/ABC expanding their properties significantly in the area, and reportedly only 3 remaining original buildings are in use.
And what of the Terminal, which is fenced off (although the exterior is easily accessed)? "The terminal and its environs now belong to the Disney interest, who propose to restore the terminal and tower as they were during the 1930s as a training facility and visitors center" (Underwood 8). Although the Terminal building is listed on the Glendale Register of Historic Resources, many believe it should be brought to the National Registry as soon as possible. However, the building may well sit as-is for several more years: "Per a formal agreement between the City of Glendale and the Disney Company, the Grand Central Terminal is to be restored (interior/exterior) no later than 2015. Because the Disney Company is under no obligation to restore the structure or list it on the National Register any sooner than 2015, the structure's ongoing maintenance, vandalism, and deterioration due to lack of use have been of particular concern." (PreserveLA.com)
A visit to the area that was once the center of aviation in Southern California is easily accomplished--the terminal building, though fenced off and essentially dwarfed by other area buildings, can be viewed from the street (Air Way) and the surrounding parking lot; your drive on Grand Central Avenue is actually a drive on the former main runway. The street is really the only echo of the former airstrip, as author and historian John Underwood explains: "Nothing remains of the old runways, and little remains to stir up memories of the sights and sounds of bygone eras. But the control tower still stands, and in its shadows a spectral presence liners" (8).
It is a haunting sight, indeed, particularly for history, aviation, transportation, or architectural buffs. If you believe in ghosts, you may well sense a few as you surreptitiously park your car in the Disney-owned lot and inch as close as you can to the fence to peek inside the crumbling building.
This short PBS docu tells the story of the airport, and was made before the terminal building was fenced off and sank into disrepair.
"Airport Dedication Set: Grand Central Air Terminal to Open With Ceremonies in Which Glendale Organizations Will Participate. " Los Angeles Times (1886-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif.] 23 Jan. 1929,8-8.
"Airport Garage Planned: Building to be Erected on Ground Central Air Field for Passengers' Cars. " Los Angeles Times (1886-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif.] 10 Mar. 1929,E9
Aviation History of the San Fernando Valley: Grand Central Airport, Glendale, CA. (website)
City of Glendale: History of Grand Central Terminal (website)
Cohan, Charles C. "COUNTY AIR ACTIVITIES SOAR TO NEW HEIGHTS :INDUSTRY'S GROWTH HERE DECLARED PHENOMENAL More Aviation Activity Reported in District Than Any Section of Entire Country. " Los Angeles Times (1886-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif.] 21 Jul 1929,D1
"Glendale Airport Closes This Week :Once-Teeming Field Yields to Time, Industrial Expansion. " Los Angeles Times (1886-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif.] 12 Jul 1959
"Highlights and Sidelights of Aviation's March of Progress Throughout World: GRAND CENTRAL TO MAKE DEBUT Opening of Air Terminal Set For Friday Elaborate Celebration of Event Planned Airport Rated as One of Finest in Country. "Los Angeles Times (1886-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif.] 17 Feb. 1929,G8
"IN THE AIR AT LOCAL AIRPORTS. " Los Angeles Times (1886-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif.] 30 Dec. 1928,F6.
PreserveLA.com: Historic Preservation in Los Angeles: Grand Central Air Terminal. (website)
"PROVISIONS OF AIRPORT DEAL GIVEN: Grand Central Terminal Sale Terms Revealed by C. C. Spicer. " Los Angeles Times (1886-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif.] 22 May 1929,12
Snyder, Don. "Old Airport Lives On as Industrial Complex. " Los Angeles Times (1886-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif.] 11 Feb. 1973,gf1
Underwood, John. Grand Central Air Terminal. Arcadia Publishing, 2006.
Wikipedia: Grand Central Airport (Glendale). (webpage)
"Woman Vexed By Airport. " Los Angeles Times (1886-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif.] 23 May 1929.
Pamphlet/ad for GCAT & Description with map: supplied by Warren Smith, from his friend Herb Torburg at the New England Aviation Museumfrom the 1933-34 Airport Directory and the 1933 National Air Races program (via Aviation History of the San Fernando Valley: Grand Central Airport, Glendale, CA. website)
All contemporary photography of Grand Central Air Terminal today by Lindsay William-Ross/LAist.