Mountain View Voice

News - January 21, 2011

Race to save last historic piece of Hangar One

Unique windows at stake as Navy contractors complete interior demolition

by Daniel DeBolt

With Hangar One's restoration funding unexpectedly lost in last year's political re-shuffling in Washington, D.C., preservationists are fighting to save one last thing before it's too late — the hangar's unique corrugated windows.

In just over two months, the siding and windows will be torn off the landmark building, which will be left a bare steel skeleton unless funding for restoration can be secured.

The windows on the top half of the hangar were designed to withstand the explosion of a 1930s airship filled with hydrogen, said architect and preservationist Linda Ellis in a presentation to the Moffett Field Restoration Advisory Board last week.

The Navy has been planning to send the windows to a landfill rather than clean off the caulking that may contain toxic PCBs. Preservationists say that disposing of the windows may not be the cheapest way for the United States Navy to meet its environmental cleanup responsibilities, and would make long-term efforts to preserve Hangar One as a historic building much more costly.

At the RAB meeting, Ellis passed around a square-foot sample of the wavy windows, which have what looks like a layer of chicken wire for reinforcement. Reproducing the unique glasswork would cost $200 a square foot, according to a quote from one custom glass maker, she said.

"Holding this in my hand, I can tell that you can't just go down to Home Depot and buy this," said Lenny Siegel, RAB member and director of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight.

As of late last year, the inside of Moffett Field's iconic Hangar One has been completely gutted of its interior buildings, along with the toxic asbestos and PCBs used on walls, floors and pipes. So far, 1,897 tons of debris and nearly 5,000 fluorescent light tubes have been taken to special landfills at Altamont Pass and Newby Island. During the project, water was used to keep down the toxic dust, which did not reach dangerous levels, according to air sensor placed just outside the hangar. The work took thousands of man hours, and there were no accidents, said Mike Shulz of U.S. Navy contractor AMEC Earth and Environmental.

Navy officials say that NASA, Hangar One's owner, needs to come up with $1.2 million if it wants to save the windows, a figure that was questioned at the meeting by preservationists who wanted to know how much it would cost to send the windows to a landfill.

"Saving the glass could be cheaper than disposing of it," Siegel said.

NASA Ames said last year that it is committed to finding $20 million for Hangar One restoration with new siding. But NASA Ames deputy director Lewis Braxton said last week that that is now more difficult without Congresswoman Anna Eshoo's $8 million earmark, lost when Republicans took over the House of Representatives late last year.

Paying for new siding is "not a wise thing to do when you can't point out where you will get the additional funding to finish it," Braxton said, later adding that "we're facing significant cuts throughout the agency to try to deal with what's going on" in Washington, D.C.

Braxton also announced that he had been called to work in NASA's Washington offices for a year, where he will be "trying to find that $20 million."

If the Navy doesn't reconsider its plans to trash the windows, possibly in April, preservationists hope a few wealthy donors come forward to preserve them. It could be a step towards building a Smithsonian-chartered air and space museum in Hangar One. To that end, preservationists have formed the Air and Space West Foundation.

"This will be a test as to whether we can raise that kind of money," Siegel said.

The foundation is not asking the public for smaller donations, at least not yet. "We would need a whole lot of $100 donations to get a million dollars," Siegel said.

Shulz updated the RAB on AMEC's efforts to save artifacts inside the hangar. The Navy contractor said it succeeded in saving numerous explosion-proof lights, a mural of Moffett Field and many cranes that were installed along the ceiling.

Also saved, mostly, is the most historic structure in the hangar, the temperature-controlled "cork room" where airship gas bags were stored. The steel frame was left intact, pieces of a conveyor system put into boxes and its wooden doors put in storage. But the cork walls and wood floors, which preservationists tried to save, were said to be contaminated with toxic dust and had to be taken to a landfill. Nevertheless, the cork room can be "reconstructed in the future," Shulz said.

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

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