1940 Air Terminal Museum

1940 Air Terminal Museum


Posted 2021-10-26 by Gail Clifford MDfollow

When the south Houston, Texas airport, now known as William P. Hobby, first opened in 1927 as W. T. Carter Field, it was a privately owned general aviation airport. One of the first things I learned at this museum is that general aviation includes all aviation other than military or scheduled airlines. They tell me that there are 5,500 public use airports in the US but only 500 are served by scheduled airlines.

We took advantage of our tour with volunteer Jim Schachtschneider a retired commercial real estate appraiser who has always loved aviation and architecture, to learn the story behind the building. "We're volunteers," Jim says, "just because we have an interest in general aviation. What we try to do is let it live like in the 1940s."


Designed by architect Joseph Finger (also famous for the Texas State Hotel and Houston City Hall), the Houston Municipal Airport Terminal is now listed by the United States Department of the Interior on the National Register of Historic Places. But that wasn't always a sure thing.

The airport may have first gained national recognition in July 1938 when Howard Hughes set a new speed record flying around the world and celebrated in his hometown of Houston. The City announced Houston Municipal Airport's renaming as Howard Hughes Municipal Airport. Sadly, for Mr. Hughes, this only lasted 3 months when it was learned that the airport would be disqualified for Federal grant money if it is named after a living person. It resumed its name as Houston Municipal Airport.

Opening Day:
But in 1940, more excitement was in the works as Houston's two airlines, Eastern and Braniff monetized the DC-3, the first airplane to allow its owners to make a profit flying passengers. The "grand art modern air terminal," created by Joseph Finger, welcomed the wealthy and powerful who could afford to travel by this very exclusive means of transportation.

On opening day, September 28, 1940, seen in this aerial photograph (front and back) are the dedication of the new terminal and hangar. The ceremony featured an Eastern Airlines DC-3 and Braniff Airways DC-3 and DC-2, in addition to private and corporate aircraft. Raffles were held with a lucky few winning a chance to take a local flight."This was the air terminal for 15 years – only 15 years," Jim tells us, "from 1940 to 1955. And when it first opened, you look at this building, it's not a big building, but it was actually big enough for the city of Houston."

Jim continues, "Keep in mind, Houston was a much smaller city, and things were smaller, most people didn't fly because it cost 10x what it costs to fly today so when it first opened, it was big enough for the city of Houston."

Jim points to the left.

"That was the Braniff counter over there (in front) and the Eastern counter over there." (closest to tarmac in the back / to the right)."So, we have about 6-7 departures a day. Planes were about 10 to 35 passengers. So you can see from this scale that was about right."

He walks us over to a display case, and points to a photo."If you look at the photo here, it's where you're standing – the lady is at the Eastern Airline counter. The picture was taken in 1943, in the middle of the War effort, see the gentleman in his uniform? The lady in her very nice dress and hat. Of course, everyone dressed up to travel back then."

He looks at us expectantly and we nod, following along. He waves his finger over a man in the corner.

"And a fellow," Jim continues, "if you're familiar with old movies, named Humphrey Bogart. He's the kind of person who could afford to fly back then."

That drew the appropriate gasps of surprise. So Jim continued.

WWII:"Now, after the war (WWII), Uncle Sam had trained thousands of pilots, thousands of mechanics, for thousands of surplus airplanes and these guys started up new airlines. We went from having 6 to 7 departures to 60 or 70 departures a day."

And during the war, this airport played a very important role in both the war effort and women's rights causes. Aviation Enterprises fought for and was awarded the government contracts to train women for the Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program. The first three classes of female aviators trained in Houston before the program moved to Sweetwater, Texas.

They tried to expand the terminal building, including an international wing, even converting the terminal café into additional ticket counters, but it wasn't enough. By 1955, the building was obviously too small, so they moved all the airline traffic over to what we now think of as Hobby. In 1967, the airport was renamed the William P. Hobby Airport in honor of the late Texas governor whose wife had been part of the war effort.

Airport Competition:
"Keep in mind that George Bush (IAH) didn't come online until 1969." Jim shared. "So until 1969, all of the airlines flew into this airport. The original idea in 1969 was that all the airline traffic would move to Bush (IAH) and then this would be for general aviation."

And in 1970, it seemed this would be the case. Hobby Airport was a ghost town, with few flights, most related to the oil field and cattle industries. Until a San Antonio lawyer, Herb Kelleher, obtained Texas Railroad Commission approval to begin intrastate passenger service as Southwest Airlines from Hobby to Dallas or San Antonio."That's why we have two airports instead of just one. It works out pretty good, to have two airports. "

A New Life:
But it wasn't great news for this building. By 1978, the building was going to be torn down. In 1988, The City of Houston undertook a preservation program to arrest the deterioration of the 1940 Air Terminal to preserve it for future restoration. And the HAHS got to work.

"We got permission from the city of Houston to operate it as a non-profit museum. It's still owned by the city of Houston. We don't get any tax monies for the operation of the museum. It's all on us. It's all through admissions, donations, we rent the space out for events. We have a photoshoot going on here right now. That's how we keep the doors open.""So what we tried to do is bring it back to what it looked like in the 1940s. So you can see we re-created the ticket counter, we put the older bags back there. The floors are original, the chandeliers are original," Jim points to each item."And that was the experience back then. You were walking in, drop your luggage, stop at the coffee shop, and walk right out that door." He points towards the tarmac. "No TSA, no security, no fence …" so … the good old days.

The terminal has been turned into a full gallery of exhibits with much of the evolution of civil aviation. This includes flight schools, the first flight in Texas, early flight equipment, and a display devoted to Howard Hughes.

It even welcomed Fidel Castro in 1959, before he was perceived generally as a Communist dictator, during a tour of the United States and Canada.

The numbers are staggering:
1944 7,335 flights carrying 85,167 passengers
1950 44,033 flights carrying 538,399 passengers
1960 63,316 flights carrying 1,409,346 passengers
1969 156,966 flights carrying 4,501,362 passengers

By 1970, it went to nearly zero, but thanks to Southwest Airlines, William P. Hobby Airport is alive and well and the breathes new life into a welcome part of Houston history.

Contact information:
Houston Municipal Airport –
8301-8399 Travelair Street
Houston, Texas 77061https://www.1940airterminal.org/

The Museum provided complimentary admission. The opinions are my own.

94235 - 2023-06-12 01:14:41


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