In a previous blog we discussed San Antonio’s Hangar 9, the lone, extant survivor of Albert Kahn’s template for building designs to outfit the United States Army with temporary air fields in World War I. Now our attention turns to another lone surviving hangar, this one from Edsel and Henry Ford’s effort to popularize commercial air service. It stands on land that was once a Ford airport at the Village of Lansing, Illinois, and enjoys distinction as a scarce, fine example of an interwar building type: the hangar-depot.
Prior to the Great War, the airplane in America was largely considered a thrilling novelty, the vehicle for barnstorming stunt pilots and flying circuses. In the postwar period, some, including pioneers of the automobile industry, began to consider greater business opportunities for aviation. In 1924 Henry Ford and his son, Edsel, began constructing an airport in Dearborn, Michigan, with the intention of providing an incubator for the fledgling industry. To design the airport’s initial structures—an airplane factory and hangar—they naturally turned to Ford Motor Company’s architect since 1909, Albert Kahn.
What began as, in Edsel’s words, “a civic development and as a national patriotic move,” soon developed into a multifaceted commercial venture. 1925 saw the inauguration the Ford Air Transport Service that linked the Ford Dearborn airport to municipally-owned airports near Chicago and Cleveland. The Stout Metal Aircraft Division of the Ford Motor Company produced its celebrated Trimotor airplane and other aircraft for transporting passengers and cargo worldwide.
On February 13, 1926, the company announced it had purchased 1,400 acres of land at Lansing, Illinois, 25 miles southeast of Chicago along the state line with Indiana. Sometimes called the Chicago-Hammond Airport, it was the largest privately-owned airport in the country due to its acreage. Located just six miles from a Ford Motor Company assembly plant, it would become the new Chicago terminal for the all-cargo Ford Air Service, while also serving the general public.
Kahn was commissioned to design the hangar for the new airport, which, according to a 1927 article in the professional journal Aviation, “exemplifies the Ford method of doing things thoroughly.” The architect rose to the challenge of designing a hangar that efficiently fulfills its function, while communicating Ford’s solid commitment to aviation and fostering confidence in air travel. At a time when many hangars resembled barns (or actually were former barns), Kahn responded with a glass, steel, and buff-colored brick structure that became known, not surprisingly, as the “factory-type” hangar, due to its similarity to Kahn’s factory designs. Like his industrial buildings, its interior was bathed in natural light.
Simply put, the purpose of the hanger was to accommodate the ingress, egress, and sheltering of multiple aircraft with wide wingspans. This was largely achieved at Lansing by the design of the very low-pitched gambrel roof and the hangar doors. Two steel, 18.5-foot wide, X-braced masts centered on the floor support the roof that cantilevers out the full 125-foot width and 137-foot length of the hangar, leaving the hangar free of support columns. The walls do not support the structure; they merely keep out the weather and provide security for the contents. The steel slash windows that were a mainstay of Kahn’s factories are employed here as well. They admit a great deal of natural light and permit ventilation through operable sections.
The doors along the north and south sides of the building are quite remarkable. Each door is composed of ten sections rolling side-to-side along four overhead tracks. Two-thirds of these sections are glass set in fire- and rust-resistant copper-alloy steel. While nearly 20 feet high and weighing about a ton each, they roll so easily the doors can be opened nearly the full width of the hangar’s north and south sides by one person. A 1929 article in the journal Air Transportation classified such doors as “round the corner-type,” with the sections stackable where the tracks curve at the building ends. The doors at Lansing are products of the Truscon Steel Company, the building material and engineering firm founded by Kahn’s brother Julius. Brick-sheathed pylons at the four corners of the hangar provide visual mass to the structure while functioning to mask the door sections when opened.
Attached to the west end of the hangar are a boiler room, office and, importantly, a passenger depot. This last feature was considered essential to legitimize aviation in the minds of a public with memories of daredevil spectacles by barnstormers which often ended in fatal accidents. (One quip in the 1920s held that Marie Antoinette marched toward the guillotine with less trepidation than a first-time air passenger walking toward a plane.) The depot allowed passengers to wait in comfort for their flights, watching the safe take-offs and landings of other airplanes while perhaps having reassuring conversations with more experienced fellow travelers. Free-standing passenger depots, or terminals, came into popular use in the United States soon after the Lansing hangar’s construction. (Kahn later designed one for Dearborn, as well as what may have been the first airport hotel: the still-operating Dearborn Inn.)
This historic structure still stands in the northwest corner of the Lansing Municipal Airport. No longer an active hangar, there are hopes for redevelopment as an event venue for the village. Virtually unchanged after nearly a century of commercial use and with a genuine patina of age, it provided a memorable, picturesque backdrop while accommodating its first wedding in October 2022.
As they play host to new memory-making events, the Lansing Ford Hangar and San Antonio’s Hangar 9 also serve as reminders of Kahn’s pioneering role in the architecture of air transportation.
By Chris Meister
The author wishes to thank Lisa DiChiera, Levi Smith, Michael G. Smith, and Lansing Village Mayor Patty Eidam for their assistance in my research for this blog.