San Antonio hangar to serve as World War I memorial

By Scott Huddleston
San Antonio Express-News

SAN ANTONIO — Brooks City-Base officials unveiled a plan Monday to restore a rare wooden World War I aircraft hangar as the centerpiece of a memorial plaza honoring pioneers of military aviation and space travel.

Rudy Purificato, a longtime military historian who is producing a public television documentary series on Brooks to air this year, called the plan a “grand design” for the historic Hangar 9 and adjacent Sidney Brooks Memorial, where the base’s namesake is buried.

“It’s a wonderful design and concept for one of the unique historical sites in the United States,” said Purificato, who has collected stories and interviews from the base’s long, colorful past.

Others, such as Tommy Green, a World War II veteran who served in the Army Air Corps and the Air Force, were relieved to see that Brooks officials are committed to preserving the hangar and surrounding area for posterity.

“My mind is at ease now, as far as what’s going to take place,” said Green, 89.

The cost of needed rehabilitation to the hangar and repairs and improvements to the memorial is estimated at $2 million to $3 million, officials told nearly 100 people at a community meeting.

“And I promise we’re going to get that done. We have to,” said Don Jakeway, president and CEO of the Brooks Development Authority.

A larger scheme envisions tree-lined paths, spacious lawns and a modern community center near the historic hangar, with the Brooks Memorial in the middle, creating a visual axis similar to the National Mall in Washington. Those additions would cost an additional $2.5 million to $7 million, depending on the level of community support.

The hangar, said to be the last remaining wooden hangar in the nation still in its original location, is the last of 16 hangars built as temporary structures at Brooks Field in 1918. By the late 1960s, when the Air Force announced plans to demolish Hangar 9, it was the only one still standing. Hangar 14 at Brooks had been destroyed by fire in 1962.

The Bexar County Historical Society raised money for a 1969 restoration of Hangar 9. It was named the Edward White II Museum of Aerospace Medicine, in memory of the astronaut from San Antonio who was one of three killed in an Apollo 1 fire during a practice countdown in 1967 at Cape Kennedy.

A study of the 8,700-square-foot, 30-foot-tall hangar revealed a need for foundation and window repairs, a new roof and siding, updated electrical and plumbing systems, and upgrades for disability access.

Green said he was among a number of people who attended the meeting out of concern.

“It would be a cold day in hell before I’d allow that hangar to fall into decline and be demolished. A lot of people feel that way,” he said.

To many, the hangar symbolizes the spirit of such famed aviators as Claire Chennault, Charles Lindbergh and Jimmy Doolittle, who trained there and made up America’s leading aviation corps of World War II.

Brooks later became a center for research on the effects of flying, astronaut training and development of equipment for space missions. The day before he was assassinated in 1963, President John F. Kennedy spoke there about the wonders he saw ahead with the space program.

Hangar 9 now stands as the cradle of Brooks’ aviation history. When it was built, the Army was quickly growing its aviation force in response to World War I. It initially housed primitive machines of canvas and wood that were flown by early aviators.

Sidney J. Brooks Jr., whose remains are entombed at the memorial, died at age 22 in a 1917 crash at Kelly Field. He was the first San Antonian killed in an aviation accident during the war.

Jakeway, of the Brooks Development Authority, said Monday’s meeting was the first of many to get feedback on priorities for the project. The hangar, which could be used for receptions and public events, is the “linchpin” in redevelopment of Brooks as a research and technology center, he said.

He noted that the San Antonio Conservation Society has nominated the hangar for the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s annual list of the nation’s most endangered historic sites.

Jakeway vowed to work more closely with preservation groups, and he disputed rumors that the development authority ever intended to raze the building or let it decay.

Manuel Palaez-Prada, chairman of the BDA board, reaffirmed the authority’s commitment to be “stewards of historic tradition” while redeveloping the base as a center for health care, energy, technology and related fields.

“It is important to make sure we respect history,” he said.