Katie Fyfe | The Journal Gazette
Hangar No. 2 at Smith Field is the site of the proposed Airport National Airmail Museum.
Sunday, December 05, 2021 1:00 am
Airmail museum’s hopes revived
Campaign starts to rehab Smith Field hangar
ROSA SALTER RODRIGUEZ | The Journal Gazette
At the southeast corner of Fort Wayne’s Smith Field stands a yellow glazed-brick building with an arched roof – at the same location it’s been for 90-some years.
When Hangar No. 2 was dedicated in 1930, Indiana had only six municipal airports. Pioneer aviator Charles Lindbergh had completed his triumphant trans-Atlantic flight only three years earlier.
It was a heady time in early aviation, and Fort Wayne officials wanted the city to be part of it.
They allocated $55,000 for the hangar – Smith Field’s second – building it to be fireproof and big enough to handle any American-made aircraft of its day.
Though virtually empty or used for storage in more recent years, the building now is the focus of a group that would like to preserve the history of one of Smith Field’s early functions by turning the building into the National Airmail Museum.
The interactive exhibit space would allow visitors to trace the route of airmail service using Smith Field and learn about the early history of flight.
Bob Wearley, a group board member, said plans for the museum were announced several years ago. The project has been grounded for some time, he said, because of the COVID-19 pandemic’s economic uncertainty.
But now museum supporters are restarting a campaign to raise the $2 million they say is needed for the project to fly.
The group also has started to determinedwhat work specifically needs to be done to the hangar, which – along with Smith Field as a whole – has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 2003.
Last month, Paul Hayden, director of the northern office of Indiana Landmarks, toured the site at the board’s invitation.
He said the structure seemed sound and fits criteria to qualify for Indiana Landmarks’ advice on funding sources and technical issues, Wearley said.
“He was impressed. He said there was a lot to do, but he thought it was really nice,” Wearley said.
In a recent interview with The Journal Gazette, Hayden said the building “is a very interesting historic building” and somewhat rare.
It has a lot of architectural integrity, a key characteristic arguing for preservation, he said.
“It’s very unaltered from the time it was constructed,” Hayden said, adding that the walls of large casement windows, the arched roof trusses and the brickwork are notable details.
“All of that reads early airport hangar. It tells its story just by looking at it,” he added.
Hayden said he is still learning about the project. Indiana Landmarks does not own and is not a partner in the project, he said.
However, Hayden said he told the group about facade grants that might be available from the Indiana Department of Historic Preservation and Archaeology.
ARCH, Fort Wayne’s nonprofit historic architecture preservation group, supports the idea of preserving the structure but is not directly involved, said Connie Haas Zuber, executive director.
But, she added, “We are always interested in projects finding new uses for historic structures.”
Those advocating for the museum said plans for the site include interactive, hands-on experiences as well as a sizable dose of storytelling.
Among the ideas: dividing the hangar’s large, open space into several specialty areas, as outlined in the group’s fundraising brochure.
Virtual-reality simulations of early pilot adventures and a theater showing movies about early aircraft and their pilots would be joined by an exhibit visualizing the physics and mechanics of flight.
Planners envision a walk-through “time tunnel” that outlines airmail and local and national aviation history. And visitors would try to conquer “The Drone Zone,” an obstacle course that teaches flight principles and highlights the hangar’s use as the manufacturing site for assault drones during World War II.
The museum also proposes to feature a full-size vintage aircraft with uniformed docents telling stories from a pilot’s perspective, the brochure says.
Wearley said the group doesn’t want the museum to be a place “to look at dusty old aircraft.” Instead, he sees the project as an entertaining and educational draw for Fort Wayne residents and visitors to a site already congressionally designated as the National Airmail Museum.
Among the group’s long-term goals is attracting “tens of thousands of visitors per year to the Fort Wayne area from nearby Indiana communities and neighboring states.”
Wearley said future visitors will find something unique.
A national postal museum exists, he said. “But there is not an aviation museum in the country that tells the story of early aviation and what people had to do to develop aviation to what it is today.”
“We know its a long-term goal and a big goal,” Wearley said. “But we think it’s a story that deserves to be told.”
• For more information about the proposed National Airmail Museum at Smith Field in Fort Wayne, or to donate, go to www.nationalairmailmuseum.org