AIN Blog: 1940 Air Terminal Museum: A Trip to the Past at Houston Hobby

 - June 26, 2014, 9:08 AM
The 1940 Air Terminal Museum at Houston Hobby Airport
The former Municipal Airport Terminal in Houston is seeing new life as a museum dedicated to the city's civil aviation history.

While Houston Hobby Airport hosts thousands of business aviation flights each year, I wonder how many of the crews transiting the airport are aware of the old Municipal Airport Terminal? It’s something that I didn’t know still existed until a trip to Houston earlier this year, for the opening of the new Million Air FBO/company headquarters. Driving on Telephone Road on the west side of the airport, I noticed the white art-deco wedding cake-shaped building set back from the street, along with a few signs advertising it as the 1940 Air Terminal Museum.

Like the other vintage terminals still in existence around the country, the one at Hobby stands because of some specific circumstances. Opened in 1940 when the airport was known as Houston Municipal, the Streamline Moderne design structure served as the airport’s primary terminal and administrative offices for 14 years, until the rising airline traffic and growing size of the aircraft it served rendered it obsolete.

The new international terminal, which opened in 1954, moved commercial operations to the other side of the airport, and a new control tower (opened in 1965) removed all the ATC functions from the old building, leaving a handful of remaining general aviation tenants. Hobby, as it was now known, was briefly surrendered to general aviation by the airlines, after the opening of Houston Intercontinental (now George Bush Houston Intercontinental) in 1969. Commercial service resumed there once again in 1971 with the arrival of low-cost carriers such as the fledgling Southwest Airlines. Through it all, the 1940 terminal baked and crumbled in the Texas sun until it was finally abandoned and shuttered in 1975.

Plans called for it to be demolished to make space for private hangars, but local airport supporters voiced strong opposition. Houston agreed to lease the terminal—which had once catered to the likes of Howard Hughes—to the non-profit Houston Aeronautical Heritage Society, which opened the first stage of the restoration on Dec. 17, 2003, the 100th Anniversary of the Wright brothers’ first powered flight.

Had things gone differently, the terminal, which will celebrate its 75th anniversary next year, could have been home to an FBO. Million Air president Roger Woolsey said his interest in acquiring the terminal was rebuffed because of structural changes the FBO would have required.

Instead, the building today is home to a museum on the first floor, the only level thus far restored. Its upper levels, including the old control-tower cupola—which will someday provide a spectacular panoramic view of the airport—will eventually be opened as funds and the restoration schedule permit. Also planned is a second-floor restaurant, with outdoor observation-deck seating.

Packed with civil aviation memorabilia, including the airport’s old tower beacon on display in the lobby atrium, the museum celebrates the city’s aviation history.  One of its rooms is devoted to corporate flight, a fitting tribute since the airport was one of the early hubs of business aviation, and a donated Hawker HS.125-400A maintains a vigil in the parking lot.  The museum also occupies a hangar down the street, one of the oldest structures on the field, dating back to 1929. Having once sheltered Hughes’s private aircraft, it now does the same for the museum’s prized possession, a meticulously maintained twin-radial Lockheed Model 18 Lodestar that served as an executive aircraft for nearly six decades, as well as some deactivated full-flight simulators.

To raise money for its projects, the museum hosts an annual aircraft raffle where one winner takes home a restored light airplane. This year’s prize: a 1960 Cessna 172B, which will be awarded in July at the museum’s monthly Wings & Wheels Fly-In and open house.