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Deflating Prospects

TIMES STAFF WRITER

One of two majestic hangars, built in 1943 to house blimps at the Tustin Marine Corps Air Facility and a symbol of World War II construction ingenuity, may be torn down--a proposal that has triggered a controversy involving military, local and state officials.

Tentative plans by Tustin to demolish the south hangar to make room for a road have Marine and state officials scrambling to preserve both hangars.

The landmark hangars are scheduled to be transferred to local control after the base is closed next year. Tustin officials say it would be too expensive to maintain both buildings, the largest free-standing wooden structures ever built.

The hangars, 183 feet tall and as long as three football fields, were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975. The designation does not guarantee their preservation.

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The hangars have housed military aircraft, served as a location for filmmakers and been the site of a religious gathering.

Hans Kreutzberg, chief of the project review section at the California Office of Historic Preservation, said there is broad disagreement between his agency, whose job is to preserve historic structures, and Tustin officials.

Kreutzberg said the state agency has asked the Marine Corps to place a “historic preservation covenant” on the building before giving it to the city when the base closes July 1, 1999. That would delay possible demolition of the hangar by at least six months.

“The new owner would have to preserve the structure in a manner that doesn’t adversely affect the structure’s characteristics,” Kreutzberg said. “Any proposal for use or work on the hangar would not change the structure’s historic identity and features.”

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Marine officials are studying the state’s request, Capt. Matthew Morgan said. He declined to elaborate except to say that such a covenant would apply to both hangars.

When the base closes, Tustin will assume ownership of the south hangar, and Orange County will get the north hangar. Marine and Tustin officials say that both hangars are in good condition, but the south hangar has minor structural damage.

Tustin’s preliminary development plan for the air station calls for the south hangar to be razed to make way for a road that would wind through a patchwork of commercial buildings. City officials have a backup plan that includes a road winding around the hangar if a plan is found to attract retailers to the hangar and generate enough money to maintain the facility.

But Tustin city officials say the $2-million annual maintenance cost per hangar makes it likely that only the north hangar will survive after the Marines leave. Tustin officials estimate that’s how much it would cost to meet fire and safety code standards and maintain 2.7 million board-feet of lumber and 143 tons of bolts, washers, ring connectors and other metal fixtures used in each hangar.

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“The fate of the second [south] hangar is very much up in the air,” said Tustin senior project manager Jim Draughon. “It all depends on economics. It’s difficult to maintain a small historic structure. But when you have a 7 1/2-acre structure it becomes problematical, and when you have two such structures it becomes more difficult.”

If an economic solution is not found, “the hangar will come down and the area is slated for . . . commercial office and related uses,” Draughon said.

The north hangar’s prospects are only slightly better.

Melinda Stewart, a county senior planner, said officials will try to find a way to preserve the north hangar, but she added that officials also will have to find a way to generate money to preserve it.

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County planners still are drawing up reuse plans for the building, but Stewart said that “the uses [under consideration] for the hangar will have to support the maintenance and operation of the facility.”

The north structure and about 85 acres surrounding it will be given to the county when the base closes, and authorities plan to turn the site into a regional park.

Stewart said that reuse plans under study for the hangar are “recreation-oriented,” and support the county’s plans to build a park in the area. A redevelopment plan for the north hangar also will have to be approved by the Tustin City Council.

Draughon and Stewart said that authorities hope to have final plans presented for Pentagon approval before the base closes.

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The hangars were designed by an engineer from the Navy Department’s Bureau of Yards and Docks, and housed the blimps used for anti-submarine patrols along the coastline from Lompoc to Ensenada, Mexico. But no enemy submarines were ever sighted during the war. Each hangar could fit six helium-filled blimps.

Construction--from design to completion--took only 18 months, with virtually no research and development. Each hangar covers 241,110 square feet and has a volume of almost 62 million cubic feet. The parabolic trusses that frame the buildings were prefabricated from Douglas fir grown in Oregon.

Over the years, the hangars have been used to house helicopters and airplanes, as a prayer hall for 12,000 Muslims to mark the end of Ramadan, and as movie studios. (“The Hindenburg” and, most recently, “From the Earth to the Moon,” were filmed there.)

Although he declined to comment on a possible covenant, Morgan, who is representing the Marine Corps in talks with city and state officials over the base, said that Marines have “an emotional attachment” to the hangars.

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“The Marine Corps is very sensitive to its own history,” Morgan said. “Obviously it’s [south hangar] a big deal for us, and we would like to see everything preserved as much as possible. But we also have guidance from Congress that we don’t leave behind a huge burden for the community. We’re trying to reach a middle ground.”

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Hangar On

Controversy surrounds tentative plans to scrap one of the 55-year-old blimp hangars after the Tustin Marine Corps Air Facility closes next year. The hangars are the largest free-standing wooden structures ever built. A closer look:

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Each hangar is made of:

* 2.7 million board feet of lumber

* 10 acres of roofing

* 143 tons of bolts, washers, ring connectors and miscellaneous structural steel

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* Doors weighing 30 tons each

Length: 1,086 feet

Width: 297 feet

Height 183 feet

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Seal Beach Pier (length 1,865 feet)

Source: Tustin Marine Corps Air Station


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