Travels in Time : New Santa Monica Museum Will Showcase Aviation History

Times Staff Writer

Through the years, one of California's oldest airports has been a haven for barnstormers and Hollywood stunt pilots and the place where the likes of Howard Hughes and Hal Roach tied down their private planes.

But it was the arrival of the Douglas Aircraft Co. in 1922 that ushered Santa Monica into aviation history.

In 1924, when it was little more than a dusty airstrip in a barley field, the Santa Monica Airport (then called Clover Field) was the launching point for the first around-the-world voyage of an airplane, the Douglas World Cruiser.

$20-Million Overhaul

Eleven years later, Douglas engineers built the first DC-3. From Santa Monica, the aircraft embarked on its maiden voyage, revolutionizing commercial air travel.

That history, plus other examples of aviation's influence on culture and society, will be recounted in a $3-million museum under construction at Santa Monica Airport.

The new Donald Douglas Museum is part of a $20-million overhaul that the 69-year-old airport is undergoing. In addition to the museum, a restaurant, 80 hangars and a modern administration building are being placed north of the airport's single runway.

The museum, scheduled to open by November, replaces an older museum housed in a World War II-era building that many people said was too dark and cramped for visitors to appreciate the exhibits.

The new showcase is a cavernous, hangar-like building, shaped of galvanized-steel decking and modern glass blocks, nearly 60 feet high and with 32,000 square feet of floor space. A concrete elevator shaft and a rust-colored metal staircase jut up the middle.

It will house the memorabilia of Donald Douglas Sr., aviation pioneer and founder of Douglas Aircraft, and up to 20 vintage airplanes, including a 1930s Spitfire, a P-51 Mustang and at least one DC-3, the so-called work-horse aircraft whose safety, speed and durability made the transportation of passengers comfortable and economically practical for the first time. Some planes will be suspended from the museum's ceiling.

Among other planned exhibits, which will appear on a rotating basis, is a retrospective on the relationship between aviation and the entertainment world. It will look at how movies, such as Howard Hughes' 1927 "Wings," have revolved around aviation themes, said the museum's managing director, Rol Murrow.

"Our dream is to turn from a collection of dusty old planes to something great," said Murrow, who is also president of the Santa Monica Airport Assn.

Histories Intertwined

"This museum is about human achievement as expressed in aviation," he said. "Our ultimate dream is to stimulate other peoples' creativity to accomplish great things."

Much of the history of Santa Monica and of Douglas Aircraft is intertwined; as a leading producer of military aircraft, the company's hangars, runways and other buildings occupied a huge parcel of land north of the airport and was a major employer in the city. By the early 1960s, Douglas had evolved into a sprawling aerospace firm but increasingly found Santa Monica less willing to allow it to expand. It merged into the McDonnell-Douglas Corp. in 1967 and moved to Long Beach in 1976.

The airport reached its peak in the mid-'60s, with about 1,000 takeoffs and landings a day. Now, it is used primarily by business executives, medical-rescue groups, traffic reporters and occasionally by President Reagan. Takeoffs and landings are down to about 500 a day.

Notable Aviation Leaders

The museum, restaurant and hangars are part of a complex being built by the Supermarine Aircraft Co., co-owned by David G. Price, who is also president of the museum's board of directors. Donald Douglas Jr. is chairman of the board, and other members include Paul MacReady, who invented the human-powered Gossamer Albatross and Gossamer Condor aircraft, and Walter Boyne, former director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum.

The restaurant will be called the DC-3 and will be operated by Bruce Marder, owner of the trendy Rebecca's and West Beach Cafe in Venice.

The museum is also expected to serve as future site of a series of epic murals painted in 1935 by noted California artist Stanton McDonald-Wright, Airport Director Hank Dittmar said.

McDonald-Wright painted the murals for the Santa Monica Library as part of the WPA project. They were removed from the library walls when the library was torn down in 1964 and have been in storage at the Smithsonian for nearly two decades.

For years, Santa Monica officials and art lovers have hoped to have them returned. The Smithsonian now appears willing to lend them to the city if Santa Monica provides transportation, restoration and a suitable, climate-controlled site for their display, Dittmar said.

He estimated the restoration will cost about $35,000. The murals are valued at $5 million.

Special Murals

McDonald-Wright, a leading member of the synchromist school of art, is considered one of Southern California's leading artists of the century. Using a technique he mastered called Petracrome, which mixes crushed tile into the paint, he painted 38 murals in all. They are made of fabric-covered white pine panels 133 feet long and 6 to 10 feet high.

In the murals, the artist uses scenes of history's great thinkers and artists--from Confucius and Copernicus to Michelangelo and Bach--and history's great events--from the invention of the wheel to the filming of movies--to depict the two streams of man's development: the creative and imaginative versus the rational and scientific. The two streams finally merge.

"I'm really excited that they are interested in (placing the murals at the new museum)," said Roger Genser, a member of the Santa Monica Arts Commission who for years has campaigned to have the artworks returned to the city.

"It's a shame we were silly enough to give them away in the first place. The artist is highly important in the history of American art, right there on the cutting edge of 20th-Century avant-garde art. And this is a really important piece."

The murals also depict part of Santa Monica's history, including portraits of the Carillo family, one of the city's pioneer families, and of a 1924 Douglas Cloudster flying over a man building a skyscraper. The Douglas family was among private and public donors financing the painting of the murals.

Restoration Fund Raiser

To help raise money for the restoration of the murals, an event called "Fly for Art" is being staged from 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday at the airport. Tickets are $50 and available from the SMARTS nonprofit arts foundation.

The event will also feature vintage aircraft, buzzing the skies over Santa Monica. Rides in a DC-3, Hawker Sea Fury or A-26 Invader will be given to the bigger donors.

Of the money raised, $30,000 will go to the artist who wins a competition for designing a sculpture that will be displayed in the lobby of the airport's new administration building.

The five finalists in the competition are Karl Ciesluk, Ron Pippin, Sylvia Gentile, Will Nettleship and Peter Alexander. Maquettes of their proposed sculptures will be displayed at the administration building.

Dittmar said he hoped the new museum and other improvements at the airport will open the facility to more public use and create more support for it.

In the past, the airport was at the center of bitter and protracted legal fights among residents who protested the noise, city officials who wanted to put the land to other use, pilots and the Federal Aviation Administration that culminated in an operating agreement in 1984.

'Open It Up'

"The airport has been viewed as a private enclave, the private dominion of pilots who owned airplanes," Dittmar said. "We are trying to open it up for the community to enjoy.

"We are trying to make this part of the community, not a wall to drive by and look at. That's why the museum is important. Beyond showcasing history, it will get people in here . . . interacting."

Dittmar said the upgrading of the airport does not include plans for air traffic to increase appreciably because the land occupied by the airport is decreasing.

Also, an agreement with the FAA limits the number of tied-down planes to 550, plus 40 transient craft.

Construction of the new facilities is part of a plan to vacate 37 1/2 acres of land south of the airport. The city will lease that land to the Reliance Development Group, which plans to build a 1.4-million-square-foot office complex.

Controversial Project

The Reliance project has drawn a barrage of protest from neighboring residents who fear the new offices will dump huge amounts of traffic onto their streets. The controversy over the office project has overshadowed the construction at the airport itself, and, so far, there has been no organized opposition to it.

"Everybody is just waking up to the fact that we've been concentrating on the other (project) and not looking at what's happening at the airport itself. Now, there are two big buildings there," said Gregory Thomas, head of a homeowners group near the airport that has led the opposition to the Reliance project.

"It depends on what their plans are, whether it remains an airport for weekend fishermen taking their Pipers up, or becomes (an airport for) executive jets and commuters," he said. "If the airport stays the way it has been, then I don't think anyone is going to (object). If it changes direction, we will have to take a hard look at it."

For the Record Los Angeles Times Sunday August 21, 1988 Home Edition Westside Part 9 Page 2 Column 1 Zones Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction In a story on an aviation museum that appeared in Thursday's Westside section, the 1927 movie "Wings" was attributed to the wrong director. The movie was directed by William Wellman and produced by Lucien Hubbard.
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