By Marlene Cook
LANSING, Ill. (January 25, 2023) – The building is 96 years old, but it looks much as it did in 1927. You’ve probably driven past it many times without noticing it. But the Ford Hangar deserves attention.
Ford Motor Company founder Henry Ford commissioned three hangars in the early 1920s to serve his growing automobile business. The Ford Hangar in Lansing, Illinois, is the only one remaining.
Proudly standing at Burnham Avenue and Glenwood-Lansing Road, slightly hidden by the younger war memorial on the corner, the Ford Hangar holds a spot on the prestigious National Registry of Historic Places. The Illinois Council of the American Institute of Architects (AIA Illinois) named the Ford Hangar one of Illinois’ 200 Great Places in honor of the state’s Bicentennial. And the NWI Times named it among the seven wonders of the region.
Henry Ford’s path to Lansing
Born in 1863, Henry Ford showed an early interest in mechanics. By the time he was 12, he was spending his time in a small machine shop that he’d put together himself. At age 15, he constructed his first steam engine.
Ford built his first “car” in 1896, a four-wheeled bicycle run by a motor. He called it a “quadricycle.” He launched his second vehicle, the Model T, in 1903 at his manufacturing plant in Highland Park, Michigan. That property sold in 1981.
Ford added plants in Dearborn and Detroit, Michigan, and Cleveland, Ohio. His first Chicago-area plant opened in 1924 at 3915 South Wabash Avenue. He founded his Hegewisch plant in 1924, and it is the only continuously operating automobile plant.
In order to more efficiently ship parts from Michigan to his Chicago-area operations, Ford began looking for land on which to build an airport and a hangar. In 1926, he discovered a parcel of land available through an estate sale. It was a large stretch of farmland that had belonged to Lucius G. Fisher, who had died in 1916. The land was partly in Maynard (now Munster), but the major portion was in Lansing. It was selling for $585 an acre, said to be three times the going rate of surrounding farms.
Ford reasoned the site was located far enough inland to skirt Lake Michigan’s fog belt and would provide a direct motor route on Torrence Avenue to his Hegewisch manufacturing plant. And the plot was large enough to house a factory.
Formal transfer of the 900-acre Indiana portion was made February 4, 1926, when Judge E. Miles Norton of the circuit court sanctioned the sale to Edsel Ford (Henry’s son) of the Ford Motor Company. The court entry authorized the transfer of the full 1,400-acre property at a price of more than half a million dollars.
Attorney George M. Burdick represented the First Trust and Savings Bank of Chicago, and Attorney Robert Davis represented the Bankers Trust Company of Gary as joint trustees for the estate. Similar action would be necessary in the courts of Cook County before the entire tract could be transferred.
Ford’s dream was to build an airport that would make it easier and faster to get parts from his manufacturing plants in Michigan and Ohio to his Chicago factories. He also planned to produce the innovative Ford Trimotor (also Tri-Motor; nicknamed the “Tin Goose”) airplanes in Lansing and showcase them in a state-of-the-art hangar.
He hired Albert Kahn, industrial architect, to build the hangar. Kahn was an accredited designer of industrial plant complexes, Detroit skyscrapers, and office buildings as well as mansions in the city suburbs. Construction on Henry Ford’s hangar began June 1, 1926, and was completed in January 1927. Ford commissioned weekly photographs of the project’s progress.
Kahn’s goal was to solve all the problems found in earlier hangars that were made of wood and resembled barns. To improve lighting, for example, Kahn designed five large 15×18-foot windows. The large windows, along with the sliding doors on each end of the building, provided natural light to 40% of the total floor area.
Kahn also made it possible for the giant hangar doors to be operated by a single person. On both the north and south ends of the building he designed a series of 19-foot high doors on wheels guided by steel tracks. The wheels made it possible for one person to move the doors, and the tracks ensured that the doors aligned consistently.
In addition, Kahn’s cantilevered construction technique allowed the interior of the building to be wide open without columns to support the 13,000-square-foot structure. This gave Ford’s trimotor planes plenty of room to arrive and maneuver and leave again.
Ford’s plans to build trimotor airplanes in Lansing did not materialize, but he did build 199 of them at his Michigan plant. For decades those trimotors did fly in and out of Lansing carrying automobile parts, mail, and passengers. The Ford Hangar supported about 70 planes and became a center of chartered freight, passenger service, and flying instruction.
Lansing’s Ford Hangar was also the first hangar in the country to have a waiting room, a feature that is standard throughout the aviation industry now. The world’s first airport waiting room was located on the west side of the building, along with an office and a boiler room. It was heated with a forced air system that was fired up with half a carload of coal per day.
When W.P. MacCracken Jr., Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Aeronautics, inspected the new hangar, he said, “There is nothing flimsy about the construction. It’s made up of steel, brick, and mortar and in full accordance with the latest designs.” The Ford Hangar in Lansing, Illinois, became the standard by which all hangars were built.
Amelia Earhart in Lansing
Convenience to Chicago was a major draw of the Ford Airport and Hangar in Lansing and therefore attracted some famous flyers who came to promote aviation in the United States. The hangar — with its waiting room — became the perfect gathering place to welcome these celebrities. Amelia Earhart flew into Lansing on January 24, 1932, from New York. She was given a triumphant reception when 40 Army planes welcomed her, honoring the only woman who had flown the Atlantic Ocean solo.
Charles Lindbergh in Lansing
Charles Lindbergh routinely flew into the Ford Airport. He was a contract U.S. Mail pilot in 1926, and his route was between St. Louis and Chicago. In 1927 Lindbergh was attempting to be the first person to fly nonstop between New York and Paris, and four of his close aviator friends sat in the Ford Hangar awaiting word on his progress. The four — Bill Bliss (manager of the airport), Roy E. Keeler, N.C. Browne, and E.A. Abramson — were all Ford pilots, and they recalled Lindbergh’s many visits. Bliss said, “He has had the New York to Paris ‘bug’ in his head for months. Never talked to him for more than five minutes but when he harped on the trip. Now he’s on his way. We know the kid and know that he’ll make if it’s possible.”
Another remarked, “Sure he’ll get there. He’s got a good motor, a good plane, and there isn’t a better pilot ridin’ the clouds.”
Charles Lindbergh’s mother — often in Lansing
Lindbergh’s mother, Evangeline, often used the Ford Airport. In December 1928, she and her friends flew from Mexico, stopped in St. Louis, and then headed for Lansing in a blizzard, flying at 200 feet all the way. Mrs. Lindbergh said, “It was more thrilling than flying 7,000 feet above clouds and over mountains in Mexico.” Pilot Harry Brooks overshot the Ford Airport and made an emergency landing on the old Roby Race Track on Indianapolis Boulevard. The passengers donned the Mexican ponchos they had purchased in Mexico, and they trudged through the snow to a soft drink parlor. When a reporter inquired about her adventure, Mrs. Lindbergh said, “Please don’t say we stopped in a saloon. Can’t we call it a restaurant?”
National Guard fliers in Lansing
Wiley Post and Harold Gatty landed the “Winnie Mae” at the Ford Airport on July 25, 1931, accompanied by an escort of regular army planes on their nationwide tour after completing their much publicized “Flight Around the World,” June 23–July 1. They also were part of the second annual air races held at Lansing in 1934, as featured fliers. An estimated 4,000 observers watched as National Guard fliers bombed a twin-engine plane on the ground.
Hollywood in Lansing
Then there were the three Hollywood stars who flew out of Ford Airport on October 28, 1927, to return to Hollywood after visiting New York and Chicago. Wallace Berry, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks decided to fly back by way of Detroit. They waited in the Ford Hangar for the large passenger plane from Detroit, sent to the Ford Airport by the Ford Motor Company, to pick them up.
Heroes and unknown VIPs in Lansing
Many other early flyers landed at the Ford Airport, including Jimmy Doolittle, who topped Air and Space/Smithsonian magazine’s list of the greatest pilots of all time and ranked sixth on the list of 51 Heroes of Aviation. Legend has it when he flew into Lansing on one of his trips, he saw both the north and south doors wide open and flew right through the hangar in a daredevil stunt — in one door and out the other.
Two Frenchmen, Maurice Rossi and Paul Godas, on June, 16, 1934, swooped down in the very plane they had used to cross the hazardous route from France to New York.
There may have been more VIPs that visited the Ford Hangar but when Elmer Browne left his manager position he took the irreplaceable register with him, so there is no documentation. The examples listed above were documented through newspaper archives.
Guy W. Amick saves the hangar
Ford stopped making airplanes by July 1932, hindered by the Great Depression. He rented the airport and hangar to his former airport manager Elmer L. Browne. Browne had high hopes of developing the field as a large commercial center.
In a February 6, 1933, letter to Mr. W.G. Gussett at Ford Motor Company, Browne wrote: “The wife and I have taken over the airport and moved into the [hangar] office and the oil room. You would not know the place. The company separated the farm from the airport, and they leased the airport to me. So, we now have a country estate, ha-ha.” (Browne’s letterhead read, “The largest and safest airport in the middle west.”)
By 1937, it was reported the airport had been operating in the red, and Ford decided the land would be more profitable as farmland. He began seeking bids for the removal of the hangar. Guy W. Amick was one of the 25 pilots who hangared a plane there. He wrote his account in a letter to a Times reporter in 1985:
“I and 24 others had a plane hangared at the airport when we received notice from the Ford office to vacate the building as they were going to close the airport and tear the building down to save taxes and expenses. I contacted the Ford manager at the Hegewisch plant. He arranged for me to go to Dearborn, Michigan, Ford’s main office, and I talked to Mr. Thompson in charge of all Ford’s real estate.”
Amick’s proposal was to lease the airport and hangar at $250/month for three years. On October 31, 1937, Amick received final approval from the Bureau of Air Commerce at Washington regarding the change of Ford’s plans. Amick was given permission to use the airport as a private field, with the stipulation that the 24-inch beacon and two red course lights be maintained. Amick’s lease covered 320 acres with another 180 acres leased to a farmer for corn.
“Near the end of my three-year lease,” Amick wrote “Chicago University was training [fighter and bomber] pilots under the government pilot program. [The Civil Aeronautic Authority Program] took over November 1, 1941. Within a year or two Ford sold the property. I believe I saved the hangar and the airport.”
The Ford Hangar is the only one of the three commissioned by Henry Ford in the early 1920s that has not been demolished.
In 1945 Ford sold 1,420 acres to a group of businessmen who planned to subdivide the Indiana tract into low-cost housing.
Conversion to a municipal airport
At that same time Ford’s Lansing airport was approved as a strategic site for air defense because major industry in the Calumet Region was seen as a military objective without protection. Armed guards were on duty night and day for the duration of the war.
The airport continued to operate under the name Chicago-Hammond Transcontinental Airport. In 1969 a rotating beacon light was installed atop the hangar to help pilots locate the airfield after dark. Earlier in 1948, Village President George Jones had announced the board was meeting with the Illinois Aeronautical Commission to discuss plans to convert Ford’s private airport into a municipal airport.
That didn’t happen then, but it did in 1976 when the Village of Lansing purchased the airport for $1,750,000 in order to qualify for federal funding. The cost was supplemented by federal and state grants. It was renamed the Lansing Municipal Airport.
Harold Christian, a former band director at TF South High School, recognized the important role the Ford Hangar had in the history of Lansing. With the backing of the Lansing Historical Society he spent six years gathering documentation to prove it should be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Assisted by society members Kay Bartley, Dennis Flanagan, Clem Wiedman, Julia Gault, and President Evelyn Mason, Christian spent days and weeks visiting libraries (without the convenience of computers) and gathering information.
His first application was rejected, and he was devastated until he realized that it wasn’t the airport they were interested in, but the Ford Hangar itself. The Historical Society authorized the hiring of historical architecture expert Daniel M. Bluestone from the University of Chicago to help prepare the nomination. It was sent to the United States Department of the Interior, Heritage Conservation and Recreations Service. On May 9, 1985, the Ford Hangar was entered into the National Register of Historic Places.
Four years later, in 1989, the Ford Hangar got a complete facelift thanks to Vern Boerman and a crew of dedicated workers who spent nine weeks performing major reconstruction work on the crumbling facade. Because of the building’s status as a registered landmark, restoration had to follow the original plan, so the work was often tedious, involving the roof, the windows, and the bricks.
The roof was made of 2×4-foot tiles that had been butted together with concrete. Ice and water got into the seams and caused a leaking problem. The crew spent 800 hours chiseling off the tar with hammers by hand, finally sealing the roof with a microfiber coating. They replaced all 2,000 window panes throughout the building so the glass would match. The blond brick was crumbling and dirty, but they restored it to its original appearance. An old coal stack that hadn’t been used since the 1950s was brought back to new.
To celebrate the Ford Hangar’s 80th birthday in 2006, Patty Eidam — who at that time was president of the Lansing Historical Society and a Lansing Village Trustee — initiated a public art project, “Tri-Motors In Plane View.” Lansing businesses, churches, and schools could sponsor a display plane 1/18th the size of an original Henry Ford Tri-Motor. The sponsoring organizations had artwork for their planes professionally designed and painted, each choosing a theme to correspond with their mission. Fifty-three organizations sponsored planes that year, and they were displayed publicly for three months. Several can still be seen around Lansing, continuing to remind residents and visitors of our historic connection with Henry Ford.
Eidam again paid tribute to the Ford Hangar by including it in the design of a new Village Seal when she was elected Lansing’s Mayor in 2017. In addition, the Ford Hangar’s role in Lansing history was commemorated in the artistic panels around the History Plaza at the corner of Burnham Avenue and Ridge Road. The project had been commissioned by the previous mayor, Norm Abbott, and the panels were installed in November of 2017, near the beginning of Mayor Eidam’s first term.
Adapting the Ford Hangar
Records show that the Ford Hangar was still used for aviation purposes through 2011. It was vacated in early 2012 to allow further restoration of the building. In August 2012, the Village formed a foundation to help stabilize and preserve the Ford Hangar through fundraising and to encourage folks to rent the hangar for public and private events. It seems the foundation is inactive; there is no record of its demise, however it is not mentioned again after the initial introduction.
In 2014 a huge step toward rehab was made when the north doors of the Ford Hangar were opened after being sealed shut behind a partitioned wall since the early 1970s. Officials said the opening of the doors was a step forward to eventually being able to make full use the building while also drawing more aviation business to the airport.
Since 2017 the Village has been working through a long process of agreements with different agencies that would provide some freedom from the various mandatory restrictions that limit the hangar’s use. That is, as the Village brings the Ford Hangar into compliance with modern standards, it must do so in a way that does not significantly harm the historical aspects. Entering into a Historic Preservation Covenant with the Federal Aviation Administration will allow the Village to have more control over restoration as well as usage.
Today, the Ford Hangar has been used for community functions and for aircraft displays. It was a regular meeting spot for the Illinois Chapter of the Pilots Association. It has been the venue for the Fetching Market, a wedding, and a Celebration of Life. Michael Jordan filmed two commercials in the Ford Hangar, and comedian Tom Dreesen filmed a TV pilot there with actress Yumeun Pardo.
Henry Ford probably did not envision the variety of uses his innovative Kahn-designed building would see throughout its history, but his spirit of entrepreneurship lives on within the historic walls of the Ford Hangar in Lansing, Illinois.
- Angel and Betsy Lopez first to marry in Ford Hangar – photos (November 21, 2022)
- Fetching Market returns to Ford Hangar (September 12, 2021)
- Ford Hangar freed to serve as event venue, museum (October 25, 2020)
- Lansing hosts CSEDC at Ford Hangar (October 27, 2018)
- Lansing’s Ford Hangar included in Illinois’ 200 Great Places (May 7, 2018)