Architectural History of Moffett Field


The Department of the Navy’s Bureau of Yards and Docks designed NAS Sunnyvale and construction began in October, 1931. The base supports two conventional runways running in a north by northwesterly direction, with three functional architectural areas to the west, each clustered together with a uniform style. The first structure commissioned and built was the enormous Hanger One, home to the airships and centerpiece of the base. The footprint of Hanger One is equivalent to ten football fields placed side to side. Beside Hanger One is a collection of generally utilitarian support structures, such as the water tower, control tower, and fire station. Beyond these is the more formal architecture surrounding Shenandoah Plaza, home to officers and administrative functions. These structures were designed in the Spanish Colonial Revivial style, popular for Navy buildings on both East and West Coasts. Generally, the style derives from 17th century Spanish architect Jose Churriguere, then revived in 1915 by Bertram Goodhue for the San Diego Panama Pacific Expo. The Navy adopted this style for its Chollas Heights Radio Transmission Station in 1916, and brought on Goodhue to design the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in 1920, Naval Air Station North Island in 1921, and the Naval Training Center in San Diego in 1922. As we see, Moffett Field adopted this style relatively late in its popularity, and the 1920’s influence of Modern and Art Deco impacted the design, particularly Modern’s philosophy of removing ornamentation.



U.S.S. Macon alongside the structures of Moffett Field, 1934. Macon is anchored to the mooring mast on the south mooring circle. The tall, skeletal structure next to Hanger One is the helium storage tank.


The Spanish Colonial Revival architectural style implemented in the original 1933 structures around Shenandoah Plaza may be characterized as rising to a height of two stories, with flat, off-white stucco walls. The buildings are topped with low-pitched roofs of Spanish tiles, broken occasionally by chimneys and ducts. The facades of the rectangular buildings are stark, with ornamentation occurring only at doorways and windows, with a recurring pattern of urn motifs, cartouches, and quarter-foil windows across all the buildings. The Bachelor Officers’ Quarters and the Administrative Building feature arching arcade entrances on the portico, and the central Administrative Building anchors the plaza with an ornate bell tower, rising above the rest of the base with its classic columnated dome. As one enters NAS Sunnyvale from the west the Administrative Building lies at the far end of the greensward, framed by the massive Hanger One beyond, with the other buildings symmetrically arranged alongside. To some extent the layout of Shenandoah Plaza may be considered Beaxart, with its centrally planned arrangement and the fact that is was purposefully constructed all at once.

At the entrance to the Plaza there is a road branching off to the right, southward. This leads to the detached Officers Housing, a cluster of 9 two-story Spanish Colonial Revival homes settled amongst curved roads and unbroken lawns. Although these residences match the architectural style of the base alongside, their naturalistic arrangement in the landscape contrasts with the “planned city” organization of Shenandoah Plaza. Predating the post-war arrival of the true suburb which would often follow in this style, the Officers Housing follows in the lineage of the Garden Cities movement, expressed in the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1892 and illustrated in 1902’s Garden Cities of Tomorrow.



Moffett Field, looking east. Officers Housing is to the right, mostly unpictured.


In contrast to the largely pre-Modern architecture of these buildings, and their placement within 19th century landscapes, the enormous Hanger One that rises imposingly beyond the Administrative Buildings was constructed in a hybrid of Streamline Moderne and Deco styles. As elucidated by Corbusier, Modern derives from the need for an architecture worthy of the sheer mechanical efficiency of 20th century locomotives, ships, and particularly airplanes. Corbusier advocated an adoption of the steel practicality of these vehicles, with function leading the design before form. As these vehicles transformed the speed of life, so too did our architecture adopt an increasingly windswept, curved look. Hanger One is a structure inspired by both of these new styles. In many ways the adoption of a utilitarian, steel Modern architecture was a necessary practical choice, dictated by the structure’s triple hinged arches that peel open on either end of Hanger One, to allow for the entrance and exit of enormous, floating airships. This challenging requirement called for the utilization of the 3-hinge arch, first practiced by Eiffel in his Tower of 1889 and his Palace of the Machines.

All the proportions of Hanger One are tailored to house a single airship. As befitting the fact that all American airships were built by the firm, Goodyear’s civil engineer Ernest L. Wolf was the Principal Designer of Hanger One at NAS Sunnyvale, as he had been for similar hangers in Akron, Ohio, and Lakehurst, New Jersey. The Navy’s Bureau of Yards and Docks, Twelfth Naval District Public Works Office in San Bruno adopted the design, and Rear Admiral A.L. Parsons approved the drawings and oversaw construction of Hanger One. The concrete footprint of the hanger was laid by Raymond Concrete Company, and Wallace Bridge and Structural Steel Company constructed the enormous steel frame. The resulting trapezoidal silhouette, with its rounded top corners, angled and corrugated steel walls known as “Robertson Protected Metal”, and the embedded horizontal windows, form a strikingly futuristic example of Streamline Moderne. Hanger One is still visible from miles around, and at the time of its opening in 1933 it was even more of a stark Modern monument in the landscape, rising dramatically above the sleepy, agricultural flatlands of South Bay.



The Age of Aircraft-Carrying Airships



At the same time as the establishment of NAS Sunnyvale, the Navy commissioned two new LTA airships, one to be based in Hanger One. The LTAs were a product of the Goodyear-Zeppelin Corporation, built in Akron, Ohio. These two gargantuan airships were equipped with eight powerful, 4,500 horsepower propeller engines, allowing for a top speed of 85 mph and an 11,000 mile range. ZRS-4 and ZRS-5, known as the U.S.S. Akron and the U.S.S. Macon, were the world’s first aircraft carrying LTAs. Macon and Akron utilized helium cells like their predecessors, but five F9C Sparrowhawk bi-planes were stored internally, nestled below the gas bags. While the airships were in flight, the Sparrowhawks would be lowered from the belly of the LTA and then released by means of a stiff “trapeze” into the air moving by. At the summation of their mission, hooking back onto these trapezes proved to be quite difficult. Nevertheless, the fighters aboard Macon and Akron gave each airship an effective reconnaissance diameter of 120 miles, with each Sparrowhawk positioned 60 miles away on each boom. Along with their already impressive speed and range, the addition of HTA fighters made Macon and Akron very capable scouts, able to cycle between NAS Sunnyvale and the Aleutian Islands to the north, Hawaii to the west, and the Panama Canal to the south, all correctly perceived as targets of the impending Japanese war effort.


U.S.S. Akron over San Francisco. Notice the Sparrowhawk fighters visible below and below-left of the airship.


In late October 1931 the Navy accepted the U.S.S. Akron into the inventory as ZRS-4, and transferred the airship from its construction yard at Akron to NAS Lakehurst, in New Jersey. For several years Akron performed technical exercises over the East Coast and inland, then moved to the Pacific to participate in “Fleet Problem XIII”. This exercise simulated the retaking of Hawaii after it had been captured by the Japanese, developing joint strike techniques that both informed the US Navy and the Imperial Japanese Navy, who studied “Fleet Problem XIII” in advance of their real attack years later. U.S.S. Akron returned to NAS Lakehurst, but on April 4, 1933, the airship was traveling to Rhode Island when it encountered an electrical storm off Atlantic City and crashed into the sea. 74 of the 77 enlisted souls aboard were killed, including Rear Admiral Moffett.

Just one short month later ZRS-5, U.S.S. Macon, was completed at Akron and traveled across the country to Sunnyvale. On October 15th a crowd of 20,000 greeted Macon as it touched down at the newly renamed NAS Moffett Field. The buildings around Shenandoah Plaza were still under construction but Hanger One had been hastily completed, and for a brief time the shiny building housed the airship as intended. Macon participated in Pacific training exercises, and in July 1934 U.S.S. Macon unexpectedly intercepted the heavy cruiser U.S.S. Houston, which was transporting President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on a patriotic tour that brought him from Annapolis, Maryland through the Panama Canal to Hawaii, and then to Portland, Oregon. The airship Macon intercepted Houston in the Eastern Pacific, delivering letters and the newspaper to a surprised and delighted President Roosevelt. Despite earlier failures, the late Admiral Moffett’s airships were still in favor.


Crew of U.S.S. Macon inside Hanger One, 1934.


U.S.S. Macon was cleared to participate in 1935’s “Fleet Problem XVI”, but the airship encountered an insurmountable storm. On February 12th, as it was returning to Sunnyvale from a routine Pacific fleet exercise, Macon encountered thundering weather off Big Sur, south of Monterey, and crashed into the sea. 2 of the 83 enlisted souls aboard lost their lives, and the loss of both Macon and Akron left the Navy without an operational airship. Rear-Admiral A.B. Cook, the relatively new Chief of Aeronautics, thought the airships were too costly relative to their capabilities, and pointed out that they monopolized the nation’s supply of precious helium. In light of their quick and consistent losses, and without the late Admiral Moffett’s support, Rear-Admiral A.B. Cook’s opposition won the day. The Navy ordered no replacement airships.