Architecture Lifestyle


What are the most important buildings in OC—the most historic, architecturally significant, and the most beautiful? What built spaces and public places make us unique? These are the questions that Blue Door Magazine explores as we tour Iconic OC.

The two World War II-era blimp hangars in Tustin are arguably Orange County’s most striking and superlative structures. Built in 1942-1943, they remain two of the largest freestanding wooden structures on the planet, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, and the hangars enclose the largest covered, unobstructed open space of any structures in the world.

The Tustin base was commissioned in 1942 as the Santa Ana Lighter-than- Air Base and eventually became Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Tustin. It would have a rich military history over those six decades, and be best known for its massive, iconic blimp hangars, which the Navy called Buildings 28 and 29. 

The dimensions of the hangars are difficult for first-time visitors to grasp. The first impression is the vastness of a covered space that is three football fields long, one football field wide and 17 stories high—all enclosed in a single, self-supporting wood structure.

The hangars were designed by Arsham Amirikian, Principal Engineer of the Navy Bureau of Yards and Docks. Amirikian, an Armenian immigrant, was known for innovative designs and creative construction methods of large structures using timber, reinforced concrete, and steel. Designing and building the Tustin hangars would be challenging enough today. Accomplishing it in wartime, on a hyper-accelerated schedule and with a nearly all-wood design, put the hangars on the Historic Civil Engineering Landmarks of the 20th Century list.  

In January 1942, just weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. was on high alert for an attack by Japan on the Pacific Coast, or by Germany on the Atlantic Coast. Developing a network of “Lighter Than Air” blimp bases to patrol both coastlines became a top priority. 

The all-wood design was a direct result of the realities of war. Virtually all the steel produced in the country was earmarked for weapons and armored vehicles. While 33 tons of structural steel was used in building the hangars, traditional construction would have required over 4,000 tons of steel.

The War Department had identified two possible base locations on the Irvine Ranch in a sparsely populated (about 130,000 people) rural agricultural area called Orange County. One was at the mouth of a canyon called Cañada del Toro, would become MCAS El Toro. The other would become Naval Air Station Tustin and eventually, MCAS Tustin. James Irvine accepted $100,000 for both the Tustin and the El Toro sites, the equivalent of about $20 per acre. Construction of the Tustin LTA facility began on April 1, 1942; it was operational in just over 6 months. The hangars and support buildings were completed in just one year, in October 1943, at a total cost of $10,062,482.08. 

Airship patrols along the California coast were conducted 24 hours a day from the LTA bases at Tustin and Moffett Field. The airship fleet performed far beyond the War Department and the Navy’s expectations in terms of both reliability and effectiveness—with 89,000 escort missions through submarine-infested waters for ships loaded with troops, equipment, and supplies. By 1944, just two years after the Tustin hangars were completed, the need for blimp patrols and escort missions along both coasts was fading fast. In 1943, the number of ship sinkings dropped to 65 from the 1942 high of 454, then to just eight in 1944. The Tustin facility continued to serve as an LTA base until 1949, when it was decommissioned. 

After World War II, MCAS Tustin served as a major facility for Marine helicopter training and operations on the Pacific Coast and played a critical role in major U.S. military operations from 1942 to 1992, including Korea, Vietnam, and Operation Desert Storm, which were heavily dependent on helicopter operations.  The hangars were entered into the National Register as a historic district on April 3, 1975, both for their historic connection with World War II and other conflicts and their status as two of the largest wooden structures in the world. 

At each end of the hangars are a series of vertical flat-leaf, rolling doors. Each 120-foot-high, 37-foot-wide door leaf sits on a rolling carriage set on rails and operated by electric motors. Each opening has a pair of reinforced concrete towers approximately 145 feet high, which support the overhead box beam, serving to guide the top of the door panels and providing part of the roof enclosure. The door panels open at the center. They were operated by motorized cables and took about two minutes to open or close.

In addition to being architectural and aviation icons, the mammoth hangars served as important cultural resources, both while the base was an active military installation and after it closed. On July 3, 1999, MCAS Tustin was officially closed, 57 years after the base and its iconic hangars arose from the farm fields of Orange County. 

The MCAS Tustin hangars remain landmarks and symbols for the generations of OC residents who worked in the defense industry, and the thousands of men and women who served at the Tustin base.  

The photographs in this story are by Brian Grogan. They are from the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) collection of the Library of Congress. HABS was established in 1933 to create a public archive of America’s architectural heritage. HABS was just one of many cultural New Deal programs initiated during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration that offered relief to the unemployed during the Great Depression, while at the same time enriching American life both materially and culturally. Within weeks of receiving its approval, hundreds of unemployed architects were in the field recording for HABS. The HABS collection represents “a complete resume of the builder’s art,” ranging “from the smallest utilitarian structures to the largest and most monumental.”
Select text courtesy of City of Tustin and County of Orange document The Tustin Hangars: Titans of History, prepared by RBF Consulting, Irvine.

One Comment

  1. Thank you for this memory of a time not that long gone. One of my strongest memories is of my family picking my dad up at the gate at El Toro upon his return from Vietnam. There were also horse stables and I would often go horseback riding there. An awesome base in it’s time and place.