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Museum of Air Sought for Historic Terminal

Times Staff Writer

The runway is gone, but the control tower of the old Grand Central Air Terminal in Glendale is still standing. And, though it hasn’t been used in 26 years, David H. Jacobs hopes to change that.

Jacobs isn’t interested in reopening the tower for air-traffic control. He wants to see an aviation museum established in the tower building to revive the memory of Grand Central, which served as the main airport for the Los Angeles area during the 1920s and ‘30s.

“A lot of experimenting that was pivotal” to the development of aircraft took place at the terminal, said Jacobs, 62, who served in the Air Force. “It’s part of local culture and history.”

Jacobs said he would like to see photographs, artifacts and other objects from the airport displayed in a museum, along with one or two aircraft from the terminal’s heyday.

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Author Favors Museum

John Underwood, author of “Madcaps, Millionaires, and ‘Mose,’ ” which details Glendale’s part in aviation history, said he thought the tower building “would make a good museum. . . . It wouldn’t take much to restore it to its old elegance.

“This is one of the more important historical sites,” Underwood said. “So much happened there. This was the cradle of the airline industry.”

A visitor to the site, most of which is now an industrial center, would hardly guess that an airport once was there. Only the winged figures sculpted on the tower’s corners are clues to its past.

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The terminal opened in 1923 and was used extensively for aviation scenes in early Hollywood films. Following a major expansion in 1929, Charles Lindbergh piloted the first transcontinental flight from there, a trip to New York, Underwood said. On board that day were movie stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks Sr., among other celebrities.

Amelia Earhart used the airport frequently. And Howard Hughes built his first plane, then the world’s fastest, in Glendale in the early ‘30s.

Lost Business in Late ‘30s

The airport was busy then, but began to lose business later in the 1930s with the opening of Mines Field (now Los Angeles International Airport) and Union Air Terminal (now Burbank Airport).

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The Glendale airfield was a training site for thousands of Air Corps cadets and civilian recruits from Britain’s Royal Air Force during World War II. Grand Central also became a major center for the repair and overhaul of planes and engines.

During World War II, its runway was extended to 5,000 feet. But in 1947, city officials ordered it cut back to its original length of 3,800 feet, Underwood said. That was far too short for the jets that were to become the mainstay of air travel, and business dwindled. The airport closed in 1959.

An industrial center was developed in its place. Jacobs works in the center, for WED Enterprises, a subsidiary of Walt Disney Productions, and he can see the tower from his office window. At one time, WED Enterprises leased space in the tower building, giving Jacobs an opportunity to look around inside.

“It’s a nice building,” he said. “I was talking with some people and it occurred to me that it would be a good location for a museum.”

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Vonnie Rossman, president of the Historic Preservation Commission, said she thinks Jacobs’ proposal is a good one but must be researched further.

“A feasibility study needs to be done,” Rossman said. “We have to research how it will be financed and if the community is interested.”

Plaque Recommended

The city’s general plan recommends that a plaque be placed at the tower building noting its role in aviation history. But any formal designation as a historic site would be up to the recently formed preservation commission and, eventually, the City Council. Both the commission and council are in the early stages of reviewing all historic sites in the city for possible protection from demolition.

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Jacobs also has just started trying to get the museum developed. He has not contacted the owner of tower building.

“I’m proceeding rather slowly in hopes that I don’t make a misstep,” he said. “I’ve never done anything like this before, and I hope people will be able to help me.” He said he would eventually like to form an association to help found the museum.

He said he also plans to contact companies that had previous ties to the airport, such as Hughes, Northrop, McDonnell Douglas, Lockheed, TWA and American Airlines. “There are quite a few people and organizations who might be willing to make contributions,” he said.

James Rez, Glendale city manager, said he has not spoken with Jacobs about the museum but “favors anything we can do to retain the historical importance of that very, very famous old airport.”

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