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The Great Hangar Scandal

Keeping with the theme of the last two blog entries, we now turn to the Great Hangar Scandal of 1929. In December 1928, the Detroit city council instructed the city’s commissioner of public works to hire architect Albert Kahn to design for Detroit City Airport “the largest hangar in the country.”

The “Detroit Free Press” front page from January 17, 1929 announcing that the mayor and city council had agreed to a costly $2.5 million hangar, a price $1.5 million more than the originally stipulated price of $1 million.

Kahn was a reasonable choice to do the work as he had built more hangars than anyone else in the country, including more than $100 million worth of aviation buildings for the federal government. Kahn quoted a cost of $1 million for the new hangar and promised it would would be completed by April 1 the following year, in time to host the All American Aircraft Show.

The “Detroit Free Press” front page from February 6, 1929. The article suggested that city council members would receive a bribe if the excessively expensive hangar were to be built.

One month later, on January 17, Mayor John C. Lodge ordered a halt to work on the hangar, the construction of which had already begun. The following day a front page article in the Detroit Free Press reported that two days after the city council had voted to hire Kahn, they reversed their decision and instead hired architect Louis Kamper.

The reason for council’s change was never revealed. Kahn stated that his proposal was rejected by the council “at the recommendation of the city engineer,” Perry Fellows. Councilman Phillip A. Callahan claimed that “members of the council instructed him informally that they would not approve the appointment of Albert Kahn.” Callahan and councilman Sherman Littlefield suggested that some council members were “angry” with Kahn because three years earlier he had built the Maccabees Building right to the edge of Woodward Avenue. He should have set the building back, they claimed, in order to make room for the future widening of that street.

The cost explodes

When Kamper was substituted as architect it was based on his assurance that he could provide plans for a hangar that would cost $1 million. However, when Kamper presented his final plans to the city council, the cost had soared to a whopping $2.5 million. Worse, the council approved the plans without reservation and construction began.

After the enormous increase in cost became a front page story, architect Kamper presented the city council the following day with new plans having an estimated cost of $1.5 million. Given that the cost was still a half-million dollars over the originally anticipated cost, and with the matter being covered on an almost daily basis by the press, debate raged in the chambers of the city council.

Kahn renewed his offer to construct the hangar for $1 million and have it completed by April 1. The city’s department of public works entered the fray arguing that they could handle the job just as well as Kamper and most likely at a lower cost, particularly as the architect’s fee of five percent of the total cost would be eliminated. The department, though, wasn’t willing to promise completion by April 1.

On January 29 the hangar contract was put on ice. Councilman John Kronk sent the project back to committee, effectively killing the Kamper contract. Kronk reported that his action was a response to the citizens of Detroit who were fed up with “the lack of business foresight and irregularities,” and “demanded that the ‘rush act’ be ended.”

Other architects chime in

The Detroit chapter of the American Institute of Architects also joined the debate. They had sent a letter to the council several days prior, but when council members met, they voted against hearing the letter. The letter stated that the “the architectural profession has been placed in an unfavorable and unmerited position by the controversy” over the hangar contract. The letter explained that the contract had been awarded in a manner that violated the architects’ code of practice. (Louis Kamper had his membership in the Institute briefly suspended due to this affair.)

On February 6 the controversy reached the boiling point as the Free Press ran a front page banner headline “Council Told Rumor of $1,500,000 Hangar ‘Bribe.’” The accompanying article reporting on the previous evening’s council meeting quoted councilman William P. Bradley stating that he had received letters accusing him of being in on “some deal,” an accusation he denied. Kamper was harshly questioned at the council meeting on what type of hangar he could provide for $1.1 million, his latest contract figure. He indicated that the reduced figure would mean a hangar with cheaper flooring, roof, and windows, as well as no lights, heat, water, or fire protection.

Finally on March 12 the city council terminated the contract with Kamper and voted to have John W. Reid, commissioner of public works, design and construct the hangar. The plans were approved the beginning of May for a hangar costing slightly more than $1 million and containing 200,000 square feet—100,000 square feet less than the $1 million hangar previously quoted by Albert Kahn. The hangar was constructed by contractor W. E. Wood and became operational at the end of November 1929.

The massive Detroit City Airport hangar shortly after its completion. This photo was taken on Sunday, April 12, 1931, the first full day of the National Aircraft Show, held at City Airport. (Wayne State University, Virtual Motor City Collection)
Detroit City Airport and the hangar in an aerial photo taken April 16, 1937. (Wayne State University, Virtual Motor City Collection)
A colorized postcard from 1944 showing the hangar at Detroit City Airport.

 

The City Airport hangar in 2020. (Max Ortiz, “Detroit News”)

By Michael G Smith

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