Abandoned Navy Hangar Prepares For Final Battle

 

The Mustin Field Seaplane Hangar opened in 1943 and was designed by German structural engineer Anton Tedesco, 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 Tedesco’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 Tedesco, the engineer that designed the Seaplane Hangar, was a defining figure in reinforced concrete innovation, yet his legacy remains largely unsung. Tedesco 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.

Tedesco 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–Tedesco 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.

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

Tedesco 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 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, photographer, and managing editor of Hidden City Daily. He is a former arts and entertainment reporter with Mountain Xpress weekly in Asheville, North Carolina and a native of South Carolina. Bixler has a keen interest in adaptive reuse, underappreciated architecture, contemporary literature and art, and forward-thinking dialogue about people and place. Follow him on Instagram



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