Mountain View Voice

News - June 18, 2010

Demolition set for historic "cork room" inside Hangar One

by Daniel DeBolt

As preservationists scramble to keep the Navy from removing the siding from historic Hangar One at Moffett Field with no plan to replace it, many are now realizing that a unique artifact of the airship era inside Hangar One is set to be destroyed in August — a small building known as the "cork room."

In the early 1930s, the massive Navy airship the USS Macon sailed over Mountain View and the Pacific Ocean like an airborne aircraft carrier with a handful of small fighter planes ready to be deployed from its belly.

In its home base, the 200-foot-tall, 1,133-foot-long Hangar One, the cork room was a temperature-controlled environment used to store and maintain the Macon's fragile helium gas cells which kept the airship aloft. They were made from cow intestines before Goodyear came up with a cotton fabric that did the job, said Bill Wissel, founding board member of the Moffett Field Historical Society. The fragile cells had to be constantly inspected and patched because of chaffing on the airship frame.

The 30-yard-long, narrow steel-framed room with double doors on one end is likely to be last of its kind after a similar one in Lakehurst, New Jersey (the location of the fiery Hindenberg crash) was demolished, Wissel said.

"In my opinion, the cork room is the most significant historical artifact in the hangar," Carl Honaker, the last chief executive officer at Moffett Field before it ceased to be a Naval base, said in an email. "It's the only physical evidence of the USS Macon/Lighter-Than-Air era, which was the purpose for constructing the hangar in the first place."

Hangar One's interior buildings, including the cork room, may be demolished as early as August, according to an e-mail dated Monday, June 14, from Sarah Ann Moore, the deputy base closure manager for the Navy.

"Preservation of the cork room is not a component of the Navy contract," Moore wrote. "Work associated with removal of Hangar 1's interior buildings is estimated to start in August 2010."

Navy officials have said it is impractical to decontaminate the cork room for preservation. It is unclear what needs to be decontaminated, though lead paint is found throughout the hangar and the hangar's asbestos-laden siding is scheduled for removal this winter.

The Navy currently plans to preserve a section of the five-inch-thick cork insulation and take photos of the cork room and other interior structures set to be destroyed.

"It is not the actual cork that is historically significant," Wissel said. "Cork is cork. The real technical value of the room is the design and its function. That is what makes it so unique. When you look at it, it is obvious what the room was designed for and how it worked."

Despite the asbestos and lead paint contamination which has kept Hangar One closed to the public for years, Wissel fondly remembers exploring the hangar when the Moffett museum was still located inside, saying it was "like shaking hands with Charles Lindbergh."

The last time Wissel was inside the cork room it was being used for storage, he said. But the sliding overhead hooks used to hold the gas cells were still there. The structure is located on the third story of a building inside the hangar.

If it can be preserved, Wissel believes it could make a "spectacular" walk-through museum exhibit.

The room's cork insulation, believed to be about five inches thick, kept a temperature-controlled environment inside for the fragile gas cells. Naval officers would sometimes take refuge in it during the hot summers, Wissel said.

"The Navy vets I talked to said that on hot days they would go into this room and it would still stay remarkably cold," Wissel said.

"I don't know why the Navy is determined to demolish it," Wissel said. "There are lots of steel-framed rooms they are going to keep. To say this one won't survive doesn't make any sense."

According to preservationist and environmental cleanup expert Lenny Siegel, saving the cork room is not too large an obstacle for the Navy.

"It is practical," Siegel said in an e-mail. "It may cost a little, depending upon how much sampling is required. We're talking about dust that might contain PCBs, lead, and asbestos, some of which may have penetrated the porous materials. They could easily remove and contain (the cork room) for storage, with treatment and/or sealant to be applied later."

The Navy has posted a list of items to be salvaged from inside Hangar One at www.bracpmo.navy.mil with Moffett Field's environmental documents. Items include some explosion-proof lights, man cranes that run on a monorail on the hangar's ceiling, an elevator cab, two pieces of the hangar's siding, three of the hangar's numerous window panels and a California historic civil engineering plaque. The double doors and overhead rack from the cork room will also be preserved.

E-mail Daniel DeBolt at ddebolt@mv-voice.com

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