O’Hare International Airport may be the Chicago area’s largest airport, but the area's oldest airport building is about 40 miles southeast in suburban Lansing.
While it hasn't been used as an airplane hangar since 2011, the building remains an important part of the southeastern suburb's history. It was built by the Ford Motor Company, about 10 miles from Ford's Model T plant in Chicago's Hegewisch neighborhood. Flights taking off and touching down in Lansing shuttled people and auto parts to and from factories in Michigan and Ohio.
But Ford originally had bigger plans for the land: He wanted to manufacture the Model T of planes. Here’s a closer look at the building's industrial and innovative history.
Ford’s attempt to make airplanes ubiquitous
Around the time Ford bought the 1,400 acres of farmland in Lansing he also bought the Stout Metal Airplane Company, a small aircraft manufacturing company. In 1926, Ford rolled out the Ford Tri-Motor airplane, followed by the Ford Flivver, a single-seat airplane that was supposed to do for planes what Ford had already done for cars: make planes inexpensive enough to get into the hands of millions of people.
At the time, speculation was rampant that the company would manufacture the Ford Flivver in Lansing, but Tri-Motor startup only lasted about three years, in part because a test pilot crashed into the ocean off Melbourne, Florida in February 1928. Ford’s flying car business was then put on hold, and eventually shut down.
Still, the Lansing site remained important to the Ford Motor Company, which started regular flights between the Ford factories in Dearborn, Michigan, Cleveland, Ohio and the Lansing field. The Ford Air Transport service, as it was known, would become the first regularly scheduled commercial flight service in the United States, according to articles from the time.
The first flight on the service was completed on April 13, 1925. According to an article from the time, it carried 1,000 pounds of freight between Dearborn and Lansing and the round trip took about three hours.
The architecture is a predecessor to today's airport designs
In 1926, Ford decided to build a terminal for the Ford Air Transport service and recruited architect Albert Kahn, who designed many buildings for Ford, including the Highland Park assembly line plant. Kahn’s design of the Ford Hangar was innovative on multiple fronts, and would become a model for future airport construction.
The cantilevered ceiling, supported by steel beams, create a cavernous space wrapped with glass doors and windows. This allowed for daylight to fill the rooms, a departure from other hangars of the time which felt like dark barns — likely because many were, in fact, barns.
The big sliding glass doors, which are still intact, were another innovative piece of Kahn's design. They could be opened by one person, even on windy days, which simplified the process of moving planes in and out of the hangar.
The airport was also unique because it included passenger waiting areas. At most airport terminals at the time, people stood around the hangar waiting to board the plane. But at the Ford Hangar, they waited in a separate space.
Kahn's influence can be seen at modern airports. Studio Gang's design for a new terminal at O'Hare, for example, continues the tradition of light and airy airport architecture.
The space today
Ford stopped the Ford Air Transport Service in the 1930s, as the Great Depression hit. According the Village of Lansing, some wanted to turn the area back into farmland, but it was eventually leased to a series of other flight operators. In 1976, the village became the owner and continued to operate the space as a hangar until 2011.
Since then, the building has stood empty, though it's used occasionally for municipal events. Some have also suggested using it as a wedding venue, but that might prove tricky. The land around the building still operates as an airport, which makes the Ford Hangar’s sliding doors a security concern because they open directly onto the tarmac. The building also doesn’t have restrooms — the nearest ones are in a much younger building on the other side of a parking lot.
Lansing continues to take pride in the historic hangar, which is depicted on the village's seal. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.
Dennis Rodkin is a real estate reporter for Crain's Chicago Business and Morning Shift's "What's That Building?" contributor.