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Preservation Of Historic Columbus Airport Terminal Expected To Begin

The original Port Columbus terminal building – which opened 86 years ago – could get a new lease on life this summer. 

Designated as one of Ohio’s most endangered buildings, the terminal was slated for demolition.  But a company is expected to lease the terminal from the Columbus Regional Airport Authority. And a group hopes its efforts will preserve a building that played a significant role in aviation history.

“What you see is because of the lack of putting a roof on the building since 2009.  So in 6 years when the building was last inhabited," said George O'Donnel.

George O’Donnel, co-chair of the effort to preserve the original Port Columbus terminal pointed out extensive damage in the 1929 airport building that had been renovated in the 80’s.  Water has seeped in from the leaky roof, spreading mold all over the ceilings, walls, and throughout the carpet. 

We toured the building with masks over our faces for safety reasons.  O’Donnel says though the foundation of the terminal remains strong.

“So you have a concrete structure, poured concrete floor with rebar reinforced with steel," said O'Donnel. 

The terminal opened at this site on East Fifth Avenue after aviator Charles Lindbergh selected the location following his successful solo flight to France in 1927.

“Lindbergh got back to flying, but not on his own.  The Commerce Department and the Guggenheim Fund sent Lucky Lindy as the papers now called him on a 40,000 mile tour to encourage U.S. aviation."

George O’Donnel explains why Lindbergh chose Columbus.

“He selected this site for a 550 acre airport because of its proximity to the rail line and the fact that it’s the first flat spot west of the Eastern Continental Divide," said O'Donnel.

The terminal which served as a transition point for the first flight on the coast-to-coast airline/rail passenger service is also on the National Register of Historic Places. 

O’Donnel’s group, The Columbus Airport Terminal Stabilization Project raised $50,000 through donors including $17,000 from the Columbus Regional Airport Authority or CRAA which owns the terminal.  The Columbus Foundation provided a matching grant of $50,000.  That money will be used for roof repair and mold removal.  Those are scheduled to be completed within two months.

Chief Development Officer for the CRAA, Robin Holderman says the airport’s operations department did not make an effort to get a new tenant after the former one moved out.  He says estimated costs of at least $1.5 million to renovate and improve the building were just too high.

“The cost to do it was so significant that from the airport authority’s perspective we couldn’t justify making the investment.  There was no way to get a return on that investment.    If we invested the money to stabilize the building then tried to go out and lease it, the lease rates that we felt we could achieve in the building didn’t justify the investment," said Holderman.

Marian Vance is with Preservation Ohio, the group that put the terminal on its Most Endangered list this year and last. Vance says renovation needs to happen as soon as possible.

“We can’t close our eyes to the fact that that still needs to be watched very carefully.  Things could happen at the last minute that we don’t anticipate and we’ve got to be ready for it,” said Vance.

Vance says the history of the terminal should be shared with generations to come.

“It’s so unique in the way it’s built.  I love the observation tower and the windows.  And I envision what happened there when transportation was in its infancy and air flight was such a novelty," said Vance.

George O’Donnel says the art deco style of the terminal and the observation tower will be preserved.

Meanwhile, local historian Richard Barrett is disappointed that it has taken so long to generate enthusiasm to save the terminal.

“History in Columbus doesn’t seem to have higher priority.  We’re the largest city in the country without a city museum. And we have an exhibition space down at COSI but not really a museum where we can put artifacts up and leave them for years," said Barrett.

O’Donnel says the potential new tenant will pay for renovation costs.  The lease will also include a nearby hangar still marked TAT for one of the first commercial airlines Transcontinental Air Transport.

A tree lined walkway will connect the hangar and terminal. O’Donnel also wants museum style kiosks showing the 14 different stops that the first cross country air-rail made in July 1929. 

“People have forgotten about it in a matter of speaking Debbie, but from an aviation historical perspective, what took place is huge and there will be people coming to Columbus from the region to see what goes on," said O'Donnel.

Just like there were hundreds if not thousands on hand when Charles Lindbergh made his historic journey by air.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hq-cua5DjsM