Hotel owner, pilot and third generation real estate developer Jim Dunn never really considered himself a front man for anything. That is until a wrecking crew and bulldozers hit the ramp at Van Nuys Airport (VNY) last December to dismember the airport’s first and only surviving structure.
Originally built in 1928, “Hangar No. 1” was a staple of then Van Nuys Metropolitan Airport. Perfectly placed among 80 acres of trees and farmland, it was a place where barnstormers and other pioneering aviators like Amelia Earhart and Florence “Pancho” Barnes would soar—and landing fees were a mere 50-cent charge.
The hangar had seen almost 80 years of aviation and movie history, highlighted by its most memorable scene as the backdrop in the finale of the 1942 movie classic, “Casablanca.” The hangar was also a backdrop in the late 1930s for “The Flying Deuces,” directed by Edward Sutherland and starring Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.
More recently, Holga Metal Products had used the hangar for storage, until early last year when the owner listed the property for sale and slated the hangar for demolition.
Outcry from local history buffs and aviation enthusiasts, as well as Dunn’s own appreciation for all things classic, prompted him to whip together an eleventh-hour deal with the building’s owner to save—at least—the historic hangar’s famous façade.
“It really was more like an eleventh-hour and fifty-ninth-minute deal,” explains Dunn. “It was about 8:30 in the morning, and I was having breakfast, when I heard the crews had arrived and the hangar was being demolished. By 10 a.m. I was there on-site pleading for them to stop.”
Dunn won a brief stay of execution for what remained of the fabled structure, enabling him to contact the owner to propose a deal.
“We got really, really lucky,” said Dunn. “We had a very cooperative landowner who understood what we were trying do and gave us the time to do it.”
So in January 2008, a new crew arrived to gracefully dismantle what remained and ready it for its new home. Like a giant 95-foot piece of toast, the brown stucco façade was loaded onto a custom mobile crib normally used to move entire houses.
Local media, as well as hundreds of onlookers, gathered on the rare windless California day to watch the structure make its way along the half-mile trek to the parking lot of Dunn’s aviation-themed Airtel Plaza Hotel, located near midfield on Van Nuys’ most famous runway, 16R.
The move took about an hour and a half.
“I was able to salvage the original stucco façade, as well as the original hangar doors,” Dunn said. “We placed the façade next to the pool, west-facing, so when people land on 16R, they’ll be able to see the structure, just like in the movie.”
But keep this piece of Hollywood history as a mere standing façade? No way, says Dunn.
“We’ve got big plans,” he said.
According to Dunn, the façade will be the featured design element in a new 5,000-square-foot meeting facility.
“There will be a covered area where guests can hold meetings, parties and weddings, as well as just about any other social event you can think of,” explained Dunn. “There will be room for a band and access to the pool, so guests can really take advantage of our beautiful location and climate.”
According to Dunn, he plans to keep the project as historically accurate as possible, but still accessible enough for the guests to touch and truly enjoy the magic qualities this piece possesses.
When asked if the effort and expense to save the façade was worth it, Dunn paused and said, “Of course it is.” His answer rests in the premise that the façade is the perfect tribute to both the movie and aviation history of Southern California.
“And that’s definitely something worth preserving,” he said.
With all the excitement building, it begs the question as to when the project will be complete.
“We’re looking at just a few months, probably sometime in the mid to late summer of this year,” Dunn said.
And how does Dunn plan to celebrate?
“With one heck of a party!” he said.
While plans are still in the works, Dunn said the event would be fitting for the occasion.
“We’ll certainly have some sort of grand opening or special recognition,” he said. “Whatever it is, it will be one big party and you can mark your calendar!”
But Dunn saves the best part for last.
“We also plan on hosting an outdoor movie night at the new facility,” he said. “We’ll be featuring classic movies from old Hollywood as well as a collection of aviation-themed films on a regular basis.”
And the first movie to be shown? “Casablanca,” of course.
For more information, visit [http://www.airtelplaza.com].