Can Lunken Last?

Illustration by Owen Davey/Folio Art

John Clubbe, whose Cincinnati Observed: Architecture and History is an underappreciated celebration of our urban assets, calls Lunken Airport an “Art Deco time capsule.” He’s right on the money. The terminal contains a period guardrail along the lobby balcony with embossed rosettes. The waiting room benches, of angled steel and vinyl, appear not to have moved since the building’s dedication in 1938. Two handsome murals by William Harry Gothard, one depicting man oppressed by gravity, the other showing him liberated by the freedom to fly, seldom fail to impress. Almost as compelling are two small, simple metal signs indicating “Planes” on either end of the front-lobby flight store—where nine ticket counters used to be. In their day, they directed passengers to their flights. Seeing them now, in the context of metropolitan airports the world over, is not unlike seeing an “Additional Seating in the Balcony” sign in a vintage movie theater. (Picture the RKO Albee, were it still standing.)

Lunken had come to my attention via a casual conversation with an acquaintance who owns a plane and had made a futile attempt to purchase one of the airport’s three original hangars to house it. He was hopeful that he could negotiate a deal because some years ago the Federal Aviation Administration had extended its flight “safety zone” to encompass the area where hangar No. 3 stands. Since that time, no activity has been permitted in and around the hangar. Both the FAA and the city would like to see it torn down, but neither has the funds to do so. If he could purchase the building, it would help the city save an historically significant edifice. “You know,” he reminded me (not quite accurately), “those three original hangars belonged to American Airlines, which got its start in Cincinnati.”

Actually, I didn’t know. Nor did I instinctively think of “airport hangars” and “historically significant” as a natural coupling. But I was intrigued. Despite the fine architectural details in the terminal, it looks tired. The letter “A” is missing from the “Wilmer Avenue” sign over the entrance. The interior is dim, and the stairways to the second story, where an embryonic aviation museum is taking shape, are dingy. The front windows, which are still hand-cranked, remain open in the summer because air conditioning has never been installed. As you walk in, a thrown-together office intrudes on the already limited lobby space. I called Fred Anderton, the genial airport manager, in hopes of learning whether the deterioration is serious or superficial, and in either case, what are the chances of arresting it?

“I have a desire to preserve history,” Anderton said. At 62, he looks younger than his years, an impression enhanced by the blue jeans and open-necked blue-striped shirt that he wore. “A lot of cities tear down without regard to what they’re losing. I want to preserve this building, but to do so, I have to find new revenue within the budget.” Anderton’s office—lined with bookcases, the walls bearing faded airport photos and long-ago testimonial plaques—appears to be out of the early 1940s. Nothing looks new. “Airports are maintenance intensive,” he continued. “When there’s a flood you need to pump the water. You have to maintain the fields, the runways—those are our priorities. And when we talk about changing anything in the terminal—anything—you have to remember that many people walk in here and appreciate nothing so much as that it feels exactly like it did 60 years ago.”

Sixty years ago, Lunken Airport was hardly new, but the vision of its founders—to be the city’s primary municipal airport—was no longer viable. Developed in the 1920s by Edmund H. Lunken and his son, Eshelby, who jointly recognized the potential of aviation, the airport grew out of a 230-acre gift of land that they signed over to the city. Cincinnati then purchased another 870 acres, and by 1930, due to the size of its concrete runways, Lunken was the largest commercial airport in the United States. Its earliest significant tenant, the Embry-Riddle Company, was both a regular airmail carrier and one of the nation’s first flight schools approved under the Air Commerce Act of 1926. In 1932, following ownership changes, Embry-Riddle moved to St. Louis and was consolidated into two-year-old American Airways, soon to be re-launched as American Airlines. While it is not true, then, that American Airlines “got its start” in Cincinnati, it was a major carrier at Lunken for many years.

Other famous names that made landings at the field in those early years included Charles Lindbergh, who stopped here in August 1927 on a tour of all 48 states. Only three months past his storied trans-Atlantic flight, he generated enough excitement to help the city pass a $500,000 bond issue to expand and upgrade the facility into a genuine municipal airport. Two years later, following the first Women’s Air Derby, doomed aviatrix Amelia Earhart made a cameo appearance. When the “new” Lunken Airport was officially dedicated in 1930, more than 25,000 people attended a three-day celebration, highlighted by stunt flyers, air racers, and aerobatic daredevil Jimmy Doolittle. Handing out the trophies were Howard Hughes, then a 24-year-old aircraft manufacturer, pilot, and movie producer, along with his recent discovery, Jean Harlow.

The excitement—and one surmises, the high hopes—soon yielded to reality. Topographically, Lunken was a loser. Intermittent flooding and blankets of fog, not to mention its hemmed-in location, revealed its inadequacies almost in inverse proportion to the nation’s growing awareness of what modern airports, and larger airplanes, would require. No sooner had construction been completed on the new terminal than the 1937 floodwaters rose almost to the base of the control tower (a tiny brass marker in the brick facade just below the tower commemorates the disaster). For 17 days, flights were canceled. Once recovered, and despite misgivings, the airport expanded—a radio-operated control tower came on stream; both TWA and Delta initiated service—and during World War II it averaged 11,000 operations monthly. But with the war’s end, the federal government refused to put any more money into a facility with so many limitations. Northern Kentucky, which had been developing a military field in Boone County since 1942, stepped into the breach. By 1947, the commercial airlines had moved across the river, and the Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky International Airport was a reality.

Yet the airport at Kellogg and Wilmer—“Sunken Lunken” as it had come to be known—did not go away. Quickly establishing itself as the regional seat of general aviation (a.k.a. business and private air travel), it grew steadily in its new role from the early 1950s to the present. Of particular help was the construction of a new, jet-worthy runway on the north side of the field. To build it, airport authorities had to re-route a bend in the Little Miami River; now it parallels the longest portion of the bike path around the airport.

Currently, Anderton says, there are some 60 terminals housing many, if not all, of the region’s major businesses: Procter & Gamble, Macy’s, Kroger, American Financial, and Cintas among them. More recently, the arrival of Ultimate Air Shuttle, offering efficient service to New York City, Chicago, and Charlotte on weekdays, has re-introduced a modicum of commercial-like operations. Not surprisingly, the first order of business for Anderton, the City of Cincinnati, and the FAA is to sustain Lunken’s reputation as a splendid general aviation facility. The hangars, the control tower (a new one, completed in the early ’60s), the runways, and the infrastructure pertaining to each are what gets attention. Not the terminal. And not the three “historic” hangars.

Michael Moore, director of transportation and engineering for the city, and Anderton’s boss, recognizes the challenges of upkeep on a (still useful) building this old. “The terminal is tired,” he admits. “But like everything, it comes down to where do you put your resources? We are focused on making sure we have a good facility for our tenants. We would like to upgrade some things, and there used to be [federal] enhancement grants for doing that, but no more. Lunken is self-sufficient. Whatever we do to upgrade has to come out of our own capital program, and we saw a lot of that fall off in 2007, 2008, and 2009.”

The airport generates roughly $2.1 million to $2.3 million in revenue annually, primarily from landing fees, hangar rentals, and a percent of fuel sales. Money is also available from a Federal Aviation Trust Fund, but it may only be used for runways and the airfield. “The farther from the runway you go,” Anderton said, “the less the government will fund.” Given all that has the terminal seen any upgrades in recent years? The answer is yes: a new roof about two years ago, and new windows on the east side of the building. The south side of the terminal, which was added after the original construction, was bricked to look more like the original structure. Anderton says he has a “comprehensive plan to restore and improve the building, but there is no deadline associated with it.”

There’s no deadline for the simple reason that no one can be certain when or if money will become available. When the economy tanked, in 2008–09, the number of take-offs and landings at Lunken “went down dramatically,” Anderton says, and they have not recovered. Moreover, technology like tele-conferencing and Skype are replacing the need for the kind of air travel that was the norm in the second half of the 20th century. In terms of the levels of business that the airport can anticipate, he says, “What we’re doing now is what we’ll be doing 20 years from now—if we’re lucky.”

Walking me through the terminal, Anderton said three things are likely to happen in the near future. The parking spaces at the entrance will be removed; they are too close to Wilmer Avenue, and three times a day, he says, he hears the screech of brakes as someone is backing out and someone else has to make a sudden stop. That improvement would have the additional benefit of moving the bike trail away from the terminal’s front door. Right now, bikers and joggers use the terminal as a meeting space, and their wear-and-tear is considerable. Second, Anderton plans to bring in a consultant for a “freshening up” of the popular Sky Galley restaurant. Food service has been an asset of the airport since its earliest days—the original Sky Galley provided some of the nation’s first airplane meals—and Anderton wants to preserve that attraction. Finally, he said, he hopes to introduce central heating and air.

On what he calls his “Christmas wish list,” Anderton would like to re-paint the interior in colors consonant with the 1930s. He wants to get rid of the makeshift office that crowds the downstairs. And assuming air conditioning is installed, he would like to replace the hand-cranked windows that front the facade with a period-looking stained glass mural—“to bring the building up a notch.” (Prediction: Purists—and I count myself among them—won’t like that. It would compromise the integrity of the original design much the way the new “skin” of the Kroger Building downtown destroyed the architect’s original vision.) None of this, however, is scheduled. Nor is the long-delayed demolition of hangar No. 3, which he says is inevitable: “It’s kind of getting to the point that it scares me,” he said. “It’s demolishing itself through lack of maintenance.”

Of the three original hangars, Anderton believes only No. 1, where the American Airlines offices were once housed, has aesthetic value. In bas-reliefs on its three bricked sides are intricate designs of interlocking airplanes—small touches of ornamentation on a mostly utilitarian building, but in their way emblematic of what the original Lunken architecture is all about. It isn’t grand, it isn’t dramatic, but it is a distinctive link to our recently vanished past, and people who care about such things will be endlessly enriched by its survival. Anderton knows this. His “desire to preserve history” signals his intention to do so, one way or another. We should all be cheering for him.

The weekend after I talked with Anderton, I returned to Wilmer Avenue for Lunken Airport Days, an annual celebration, in September, of all things aerial. Among many attractions were displays of model aircraft in the terminal, World War II airplanes from the Tri-State Warbird Museum in Clermont County, private jets available for viewing, helicopter rides, and a presentation of the colors at noon. Hundreds of people, many with children in strollers, swarmed through the terminal and out onto the tarmac.  All aviation buffs to some degree, they were eating the free hot dogs supplied by Kroger and a plutocratic few, I gathered, were considering the $450 price tag for a 30-minute ride in a vintage B-17. So how did they feel about the airport?

“It’s awesome,” Cheryl Popp told me. A well-known figure in Lunken circles, Popp is the chairperson of Lunken Airport Days and the executive director of Honor Flight Tri-State, which carries military veterans gratis to see the war memorials in Washington, D.C. Reflecting on the scene around her, she noted: “The terminal could use some upgrading. The ambience that it could have is just not there. But…this is a wonderful regional airport, and in Airport Days, it shows itself to its best advantage. It welcomes the public. It demonstrates to them that airports need not be intimidating, and that this one is essential for moving business executives around the country efficiently. In doing that, it makes available all kinds of jobs that the kids visiting us can get a look at.”

So, no, in the big picture, a refurbished terminal is not the most important thing Fred Anderton has on his plate. His priorities are in order. But give him a few extra dollars, and the results could be stunning. It could give Lunken Airport Days new meaning for us all.

Originally published in the December 2014 issue

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