Kansas Aviation Museum building getting an update

Johnny McCoy, foreground, and Jimmy McGuire, both of H.D. Mills & Sons Excavation and Wrecking, demolish the original women’s restroom at the Kansas Aviation Museum so it can be remodeled as a men’s restroom. (Dec. 16, 2014)
Johnny McCoy, foreground, and Jimmy McGuire, both of H.D. Mills & Sons Excavation and Wrecking, demolish the original women’s restroom at the Kansas Aviation Museum so it can be remodeled as a men’s restroom. (Dec. 16, 2014) The Wichita Eagle

Soon, officials at the Kansas Aviation Museum will no longer have to apologize to visitors because the building’s interior is either too cold or too hot.

The art deco building that served as the Wichita Municipal Airport decades ago is getting heating and air conditioning – an elevator, too.

“This will have a strong effect on our ability to attract more people,” said Lon Smith, executive director of the Kansas Aviation Museum.

The city of Wichita and the museum are splitting the cost of a $1.3 million renovation project currently underway, which is creating handicapped-compliant restrooms and heat and air for the balance of public space in the building. The work is expected to be completed by July 28.

It is also expected to help grow the museum and make it a more inviting place for hosting special events throughout the year rather than only four months, as it does now, Smith said.

“There are a couple of ways a museum can make additional revenue, and that is through special events, such as Botanica’s Tuesdays on the Terrace,” Smith said. “Once our atrium is opened up, we will be able to have concert series and rental events.”

Currently the museum earns between $10,000 and $15,000 a year in hosting special events, he said. But after the renovations, Smith said, he thinks the museum could bring in $150,000 a year.

The Kansas Aviation Museum typically attracts 20,000 visitors a year. Smith expects those numbers to also grow, bringing in additional revenue.

The museum’s annual operating budget is around $500,000, Smith said. The majority of funding comes from private donations and operations; only a portion comes from the city, he said: $42,000 in 2012, $25,000 in 2013 and, $31,000 in 2014.

“The fact we are able to come out here and pay our bills, make payroll and grow the museum is pretty significant,” Smith said. “Business people know how hard it is to grow a business.

“We will end the year at $100,000 in revenue, and last year it was at $73,000.”

In the past eight years, there have been a number of changes at the museum: The building’s exterior was restored, a new roof installed, land was acquired from Spirit AeroSystems and the museum’s restoration shop relocated there, a $250,000 debt was paid off, and the museum’s staff grew from 1.5 positions to 10.

The current renovations will make the biggest difference, Smith said, by simply making the museum more accessible to the public.

“It will be so nice not to have to step out and explain to some 10-year-old who is probably going to be in a wheelchair his entire life why he can’t go and see the rest of the museum with his family,” Smith said.

Aviation beginnings

The Kansas Aviation Museum sits in a heavily industrial area surrounded by McConnell Air Force Base at 3350 George Washington Blvd. South. It is a place that marks the beginning of how Wichita became the Air Capital of the World.

“When you think historically about the development of aviation in Wichita, this is where it occurred,” Smith said.

Wichita’s claim as Air Capital of the World began when Clyde Cessna, a Kingman County farmer with no formal training in engineering or flying, flew his first plane in May 1911. More than 40 percent of the world’s general aviation aircraft is still made in Wichita.

“Before there was an airport here, there were air races here,” Smith said. “This location is the reason Clyde Cessna moved his factory here.

“Once this building was constructed, you can look at the history of all the aviators who came through this building – Clyde Cessna, Walter Beech, Lloyd Stearman – all those folks were here. Charles Lindbergh actually helped pick the site for this airport.”

Construction on the terminal began in 1929 but was halted during the Great Depression, and the building’s design was modified, Smith said. It was opened in 1934 and dedicated in 1935. It was sold to the federal government in 1951. Museum officials acquired it in 1990.

It is on the California Section, so named because the two sisters who originally owned it lived in California, Smith said. It also was the highest elevation in the Wichita area and had buffalo grass to make landings and takeoffs easier for pioneer airplanes and pilots.

“At one time, there was a plane taking off and landing here every 90 seconds,” Smith said.

The building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is one of 12 early air terminals remaining in the nation and the only one with Indian art deco. It was designed by Wichita architect Glen Thomas, who also designed North High School.

Records, drawings

The 56,000-square-foot building houses a 6,000-square-foot special archives center. The museum has 2.5 million artifacts, Smith said, including aviation pioneer Stearman’s fiddle and his Mercedes.

Aviation researchers around the world often use the museum’s archives, Smith said.

“If someone is building a historic plane and needs owners’ manuals, we have those,” he said. “We have tech and maintenance manuals. We have huge volumes of original drawings of historic planes, the original drawings of Travel Air airplanes.”

There is also the entire collection of Federal Aviation Administration identification cards from 1927 through the mid-1990s. The FAA required anyone who owned and flew a plane to register, so the collection includes the ID cards and signatures of flying legends such as Amelia Earhart, Lindbergh, Cessna and more.

The museum also has a huge collection of aviation cameras – 60 or more – that have been donated by Wichita aviation companies.

“We’d love to do a short-run exhibit here and then begin attracting new audiences through traveling exhibits,” Smith said. “And that will bring in an additional source of revenue.

“When you think about our mission at this museum, we think of this building as an artifact. We believe it is our mission to preserve this building.”

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @beccytanner.

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