Abandoned Navy Hangar Prepares For Final Battle

September 14, 2018 | by Michael Bixler

The Mustin Field Seaplane Hangar opened in 1943 and was designed by German structural engineer Anton Tedesko, the father of thin-shell concrete construction in America. | Photo: Michael Bixler

If you have ever taken Kitty Hawk Avenue at the Navy Yard all the way to its end chances are you’ve encountered what remains of Mustin Field. Today the Naval village that once surrounded the military aircraft factory is nothing but gates and wind-swept earth. The network of manufacturing buildings dating back to WWI has been dissolved. The abandoned Naval barracks and officer’s swimming pool are all gone too. The runway, which once saw thousands of war planes take first flight during WWII, is now a graveyard of dead rail lines, cracked asphalt, and packed dirt. But there is one structure left and it emerges from the barren expanse like the sun-bleached vertebrate of a tremendous sea creature from the Mesozoic Era. Building 653, better know as the Mustin Field Seaplane Hangar, cuts through the empty landscape like a mammoth drill bit with its undulating concrete dome. Philadelphia Regional Port Authority (PhilaPort) is currently conducting environmental studies on the proposed demolition of the 302-foot long hangar, built in 1943 and designed by groundbreaking structural engineer Anton Tedesko, the father of thin-shell concrete construction in America.

The old hangar is considered a contributing structure within the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard Historic District and it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. PhilaPort and PennDOT are in the initial stages of conducting a cultural resources evaluation of the building with consultation from the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office. The Navy Yard is abundant with Georgian Revival mansions, stately former officer’s quarters, and adaptable industrial gems most brilliantly displayed by Urban Outfitter’s 2010 transformation of a block of late 19th century machine shops into a contemporary corporate campus. But nothing is left of Mustin Field save for Tedesko’s Seaplane Hangar and an adjacent electric substation. Clearing the area for a potential Amazon HQ bid win may be a slick, timely assumption, but officials maintain that the area is being prepped for more imported car parking coming in from Hyundai and Kia. One PhilaPort employee remarked that a team of excavators would be no match for the burly concrete coil and that it would take dynamite, lots of dynamite, to put the building down.

On the production floor inside the Seaplane Hangar some time between 1943 and 1945. | Images courtesy of PhilaPort

Structural engineers rarely get their due and are almost always eclipsed by the egos and acolytes of architects. August Komendant was a longtime collaborator of Louis Kahn and the go-to engineer for the Philadelphia School. His work in Philadelphia is best experienced at the Police Administration Building, built between 1959 and 1962 and designed by Geddes, Brecher, Qualls & Cunningham. Nicknamed “The Roundhouse,” the Brutalist masterpiece is one of the first buildings in the U.S. to use a precast concrete panel system, called Schokbeton, that completely integrated the building’s structural and mechanical systems. Komendant is often discussed in academic and architectural circles, but usually plays a small, backseat role when evaluating the importance of a building.

Anton Tedesko, the engineer that designed the Seaplane Hangar, was a defining figure in reinforced concrete innovation, yet his legacy remains largely unsung. Tedesko took his first job in Germany with Dyckerhoff & Widmann, the firm that pioneered thin-shell reinforced concrete construction, made famous for their work developing the Zeiss Dywidag System in the early 1920s for Carl Zeiss Company planetariums and their steel and concrete cupola domes. In the 1950s Buckmeister Fuller would retool the innovative system into his signature geodesic dome.

Tedesko revolutionized long-span roof construction when he brought his thin-shell concrete expertise to the United States in 1932. Over the next 18 years the structural engineer designed over 60 concrete shell roofing systems and structures for industrial and governmental projects. He worked as a consultant for the Air Force from 1955 to 1970 and even collaborated with Modernist architect I.M. Pei. Along with a bevy of airplane hangers across the country–North Island Seaplane Hangars in San Diego and Ellsworth AFB Pride Aircraft Hangar in South Dakota to name just a few–Tedesko designed the St. Louis International Airport Terminal, the Denver Coliseum, the Vehicle Assembly Building at Cape Canaveral, Hersheypark Arena, and the Hayden Planetarium in Manhattan that was demolished in 1997.

He also designed the Philadelphia Skating Club & Humane Society at 220 Holland Avenue in Ardmore. The club, founded in 1849 as The Skater’s Club of the City and County of Philadelphia, was the first skating club in America. The PSCHS cruised around frozen ponds, lakes, and rivers throughout the Philadelphia region. Activities centered around the Schuylkill River and they used a clubhouse in Fairmount Park as their headquarters. The club moved operations to the Philadelphia Ice Palace at 45th and Market in 1910. They opened the doors of their new rink on the Main Line in 1938 after buying land from Haverford College.

The Philadelphia Skating Club and Humane Society opened the doors to their new Ardmore rink, designed by Anton Tedesko, in 1938. | Photos: Michael Bixler

The Henry C. Mustin Naval Aircraft Factory ceased operations due to pressure from private manufacturers in 1945, just three years after the Seaplane Hangar opened. It was next used by the Navy as a aviation testing facility until 1963, then a gymnasium, then as a commissary store until the Navy Yard officially closed in 1995.

In 2009, director M. Night Shyamalan filmed the interior shots for his epic box office flop, The Last Airbender, underneath the sprawling, concrete dome.

The Seaplane Hangar was last used during the Philadelphia papal visit in 2015. According to a PhilaPort employee, Pope Francis was helicoptered into the Navy Yard next to the hangar where he was greeted by the Popemobile and a small army of FBI agents that had mobilized their security detail within.

Step inside the cavernous concrete coil of the Mustin Field Seaplane Hangar. Photographs by Michael Bixler.


About the Author

Michael Bixler is a writer, editor, and photographer engaged in dialogue and documentation of the built environment and how it relates to history, culture, and the urban experience. He is the editorial director and chief photographer of Hidden City Philadelphia.


  1. Joseph Phillips says:

    This is cool. My grandfather repaired fighter planes used to train pilots in WWII. Always wondwred about his era.This gives me a palpable sense of urgency and purpose. It’s a thoughtful collection. Thank you.

  2. Also Davis says:

    The Minneapolis Armory was just such a structure. Many others were supermarkets, many uses.

  3. James says:

    Why not ask the Ed Snider foundation to consider buying the building and converting it to an ice hockey/basketball use? This would get a lot of use if a health club installed equipment in a small portion of the building. Serious coin needed to make it a reality.

  4. James says:

    Plus this would make up for the ice skating rink lost at the Germantown Boys and Girls Club days ago.

  5. Philly Born says:

    I believe there is another huge building quite close to the Mustin Field Hangar that also has an interesting current use! This facility I have heard is ocassionally used as a sound stage for movie productions! Perhaps in the future HC may want to take a look at this repurposed mega building in the Navy Yard?

  6. Edward Krauss says:

    I lived a trailer in Mustin Field trailer park. The USS Guam [LPH9] was in the yard at the time [1980]. My wife shopped at the hanger as the commissary since it was so close. I often felt the seaplane ramp would be a fantastic boat launch.

  7. James says:

    Current status of abandoned navy hangar at Mustin Field?

    1. Michael Bixler says:

      Still there, although I don’t know the status of PhilaPort’s demolition study.


  8. John Egan says:

    Great story and pix! This structure was also used to house the Beaux Arts Ball fundraiser for the )now defunct) Foundation for Architecture in the early aughts (02?).

  9. Linda Garcia says:

    My Dad was a Navy Chief(AviationBoatswainChief). In1957 we were transferred to Phila. He taught Catapults & Arresting Gear to young enlisted at NATTU(this Navy hangar). It had a huge mockup of a flight deck for training.

  10. Scott Murdock says:

    Nice article about a significant but little-known structure. May I ask, why did you choose to spell Anton Tedesko’s name with a “c” instead of the “k” that he used?

    I’ve only seen “Tedesco” used in non-English writings about him. He published articles, approved building drawings, signed autographs, and his papers are cataloged at Princeton using “Tedesko.”

    Just curious about your reason. If you have found documentation of him using the “c” I would sure like to add it to my references. Thanks!

    1. Scott Murdock says:

      Thanks for making the corrections!

  11. craig lukezic says:

    Great Article!
    We have several of these at the Patuxent River Naval Base in southern Maryland. They are still being used as hangars after 70 years. Roof repairs have always been a challenge with these. Thanks for the fine work!

    1. marianna thomas says:

      I woke up this morning realizing that the Seaplane Hangar must have been a Tedesko design and found this article. Thank you, Michael. I write as chair of the Building and Grounds Committee of Philadelphia Skating Club and Humane Society in Ardmore. I can add that the architect for the building, E. Nelson Edwards, a Haverford College alum, was probably responsible for the Art Deco flourishes of the building. I am chasing leads, especially on others confronting the roofing issues of these thin-shell structures. This is complicated by the skylights on the PSCHS roof. I am interested in contacting Craig Lukezic to compare roofing stories and would be grateful if you could forward to him my contact info. Thanks.

  12. Salvador Lami says:

    The hangar was removed in 2021. Kia/Hyundai uses the entire area now for vehicle storage. The entire eastern portion of the airfield has been fully paved. The seaplane ramps still remain, so you can see where the old hangars were at one time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.