A former aircraft hangar with a swooping, arcing roof and band of windows in Northbrook stands out among otherwise blocky, flat-topped warehouses. Today, the hangar sits in an industrial park — one of two buildings left from an airport called Sky Harbor, which made national history for a flight stunt in 1930.
The 20,000-square-foot former-hangar is owned by AA Service, a heating and air conditioning company. Al and Larry Hirsch run the 80-person company, which was founded by their dad in 1965 in Skokie.
On a recent rainy morning, Al Hirsch walked me through the hangar. The main floor is mostly filled with offices, shelves of equipment and supplies. Up a staircase is the company’s conference room which, Hirsch said, was the old bunkhouse for pilots.
The arc of the ceiling overhead is still lined with beadboard wood from the 1920s and supported by metal trusswork. Along the north side is a wall of original windows. Outside these windows is another swooping metal arc, like on the south side.
The old building “was a mess” when AA bought it in 1998 for its ample storage space and parking lot, Hirsch said. Over the years, the family has repaired the stucco, steel and glass from the original building, because “we’re proud of the history here,” he said. Part of the building is rented to a restaurant, Maestro Seafood & Grill.
“The airport of tomorrow”
Opened in 1929, Sky Harbor was billed as “the airport of tomorrow,” making it possible to ride an air taxi from the North Shore suburbs to downtown Chicago. It was one of many suburban airports that necklaced the metro area at the time; there were also small airports in Waukegan, Park Ridge, Maywood, Robbins and Lansing.
But none of those others could claim the burst of fame that came to the Sky Harbor on the Fourth of July weekend in 1930.
Open less than a year, before a crowd that’s been estimated as many as 75,000 people, John and Kenneth Hunter landed their plane, the City of Chicago, after breaking an endurance flying record. The brothers had been in the air continuously since June 11 — a total of 553 hours and 41 minutes. Their record that wasn’t beaten for another five years.
The brothers’ flight that smashed the old record of 420 hours 21 minutes was a family enterprise. While John and Kenneth Hunter flew in big circles over Northbrook for 23 days, their brothers Albert and Walter periodically flew another plane, “Big Ben,” up to deliver fuel, food and clean clothes. On the ground, their widowed mother, Ida, and sister Irene cooked the meals.
The two brothers in the City of Chicago plane communicated with the rest of the family by passing notes to the other two mid-air. One note for Ida and Irene said the food they were making wasn’t manly enough: “Give us more hot dogs and hard boiled eggs and less of the fancy fixed duck and chicken.”
The Hunters were a family of former coal miners from Sparta, Ill., about 50 miles southeast of St. Louis. The brothers started out performing stunts on motorcycles, switched to airplanes in 1923, and had assorted jobs in airmail and air taxis while creating a “flying circus” show.
As the newspapers started covering the attempt, the flight attracted large crowds on the ground, where people could watch the two planes connect and sometimes see one brother crawl out to make repairs in mid-flight.
The Chicago Tribune’s front page headline the day after the Hunters landed was “End Flight 23 Days in the Air … ‘Give us a bath.’ ”
John and Kenneth’s success became a sensation that made them the toast of the town. A party was thrown in their honor on the roof of the Sherman Hotel, and they appeared on stage for several days at what’s now the Cadillac Palace Theatre in downtown Chicago. Hollywood beckoned them out to perform in a movie produced by Howard Hughes.
The brothers inspired fans everywhere, including a boy in Milwaukee who sat in a tree that week for 36 hours and 16 minutes, saying he was following the Hunter Brothers’ lead.
The Sky Harbor airport lasted until 1973. Somewhere along the way, the handsome old terminal, a stepped pyramid of stone blocks, was lost. The hangar’s big, roll-up doors were replaced with a permanent wall. Today, most of the runway space has been built into warehouses and office buildings.
But, sitting quiet in the bunkhouse, you can still imagine the sound of the City of Chicago soaring overhead.
Dennis Rodkin is a real estate reporter for Crain’s Chicago Business and Reset’s “What’s That Building?” contributor. Follow him @Dennis_Rodkin. Mary Hall produced the web version of this story. Follow her @hall_marye.