While I primarily focus on aviation in Cleveland, I am also interested in the history of commercial flight in the wider region. Today, we head 28 nautical miles (33 statute miles) southeast of CLE to Akron Executive Airport (AKR) to learn about the history of that airport and its remarkably well-preserved air terminal from the early days of commercial flight.
A Brief History of AKR
Located in Northeast Ohio, approximately six miles southeast of downtown, the city of Akron’s original commercial airport is now officially called Akron Executive Airport, but it is still commonly referred to as Akron Fulton International Airport, named after barnstormer and airport manager Bain Ecarius “Shorty” Fulton and his son Bain J. “Bud” Fulton. Its IATA airport code is AKC, while its FAA code is AKR (not to be confused with Akure Airport in Nigeria).
Experiencing a period of unprecedented growth tied to the rubber industry, the City of Akron authorized $1,838,000 for developing the site of Akron's first airport in 1924. Altogether 850 surrounding acres were dedicated to the new airfield. It opened in 1929, as Akron Municipal Airport, and is home to the world-famous Goodyear Airdock, where the first lighter-than-air ships were built.
During World War II, more than 130 airships and over 4,000 naval FG-1D fighter aircraft (a version of the F4U-1 Corsair) were manufactured at the airport by Goodyear Aircraft. And in 1948, the US Navy designated the site as a Naval Air Station, NAS Akron, for use by the Naval Reserves as a training facility that trained personnel who served in combat during the Korean War and the Vietnam conflict.
The site is still home to the All-American Soap Box Derby and the now abandoned and partially demolished Akron Rubber Bowl stadium. In the 1950s, the airport was also the site of one of the Midwest's first drag racing strips known locally as the Fulton Airport Champions Raceway. But most importantly, the field has an extremely well-preserved, gorgeous Art Deco administration building/terminal, the main subject of this article.
The Akron City Council authorized construction of the terminal in 1930, with construction completed and the terminal opening on June 15, 1931. There was quite a celebratory event for the grand opening, including a flag raising ceremony by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), a night parachute jump, and the christening of an airplane operated by Pennsylvania Airlines.
The air carrier recently had begun service at Akron on the route from Cleveland to Washington, DC, via Pittsburgh, flying six daily flights. One-way airfare from Akron to the nation’s capital was $26.45, equivalent to about $461 in 2021! Air travel in the early days was certainly largely reserved for the very wealthy. The new Akron terminal building provided all the required facilities to accommodate both the transcontinental airmail crucial to early airlines, as well as growing passenger traffic.
The newly renamed Pennsylvania Central Airlines, with four daily Boeing 247 flights in each direction by 1938, was joined in Akron by United Air Lines, with two DC-3 flights each way on a route between Chicago and New York with a stop in Cleveland westbound and sometimes, Allentown-Bethlehem, PA, eastbound.
World War II put a halt to growth in commercial air service, but Eastern Airlines began service at AKR in November 1945, with six daily flights on a north-south routing. Flights between Detroit and Miami stopped in Cleveland, Akron, and a variety of cities along the way, including Roanoke, VA, Winston-Salem, Greensboro-High Point, Charlotte, NC, Columbia, SC, Savannah, Brunswick, GA, Jacksonville, Orlando, and West Palm Beach, FL. Fastest elapsed time from Akron to Miami was 8 hours, 5 minutes, flying aboard 21-passenger DC-3 aircraft. American Airlines also began service at AKR around this time on a routing from CLE to Columbus and Dayton and points south.
Postwar growth continued at Akron Municipal Airport, so much so, that air traffic grew too large for the 1930s-era terminal to handle. A new airport was designated for commercial air traffic, Akron-Canton Airport (CAK), which opened a new terminal in 1962, midway between its namesake cities. CAK continues to be the main airport for this area.
The original airport became a home to corporate and general aviation. AKR’s customs and administrative offices continued to serve flights from Canada, as well as small aircraft traffic, until the early 1990s. The building was adaptively re-used as an Italian restaurant, Cafe Piscatelli, until August 26, 2005, when the restaurant closed its doors for good. Today, the terminal is owned by NextStep Arthropedix, a medical technology manufacturer, part of the Akron-based Theken Companies, and is known as the Theken Terminal Building.
Akron Fulton International Airport was renamed Akron Executive Airport by the City of Akron in August 2018. In September 2020, it was announced that the airport was to receive about $3.2 million from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to cover all the cost of some safety and infrastructure improvements. Part of the COVID-relief CARES Act, the money will go toward resurfacing the main 6,336 x 150-foot Runway 7/25, as well as replacing runway lights with new LEDs, decommissioning another runway (1/19), and replacing signage at the facility. Removing the second runway will free up room on both the north and south sides of the airport for development, according to the city.
The Art Deco Terminal Building
The terminal/administration building was designed by Michel M. Konarski, built by O. C. Harbaugh for $81,700, and completed in 1931. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as of December 21, 2001. The National Register of Historic Places Registration Form from 2001, contains a wealth of information about the terminal’s architectural design and significance, as well as its historical importance. Much of what follows is taken from that application.
This beautiful administration building’s Art Deco architecture, with a symmetrical facade in scaled proportions of cream-colored brick and terra cotta detailing with cream, muted orange, and soft green colors, is an excellent representation of the development of airports during the first major expansion of air travel in the 1920s and 1930s. The only other Ohio air terminal from that era listed on the National Register is at Port Columbus, and there are currently plans to turn it into Ohio Air & Space Hall of Fame and Museum (https://www.columbuslandmarks.org/port-columbus-terminal/).
The location and layout of the terminal was influenced by the City Beautiful movement and reached through a landscaped traffic circle and at the end of a boulevard-like parking area flanked by trees. In terms of city planning, the siting of the terminal represented a visual and physical point of arrival and departure as seen from both the automobile and airplane. Today, the Christopher Columbus Memorial Park, dedicated October 10, 1999, and sponsored by the Council of Italian-American Societies of Summit County, is in the center of the approach to the building.
The terminal, which retains its original configuration and Art Deco design and detailing, has the historic integrity to convey its association with the earliest days of commercial air traffic. The central building’s entry and three-story control tower are carefully balanced on each side by a lower two-story stair tower. Their vertical emphasis is further accentuated by a hipped copper roof topped by flagpole pylons reminiscent of the air races of the era.
The thrill of the then still new mode of air travel is underscored in the designated use of the roof as an observation deck which is serviced by interior stairwells and exterior stairways at both ends of the terminal.
The early commercial aviation business in America was focused on airmail with passengers a distinct afterthought. The Akron terminal reflected this early emphasis with its customs area and post office, but also included a spacious main waiting area for passengers as well as a large restaurant in anticipation of growth in this sector.
It is noteworthy, that in the historic floor plan there is no designated area for the handling of luggage. Only a limited amount of baggage was permitted onboard early passenger aircraft, and any bulky or heavy luggage would have been shipped via rail or road.
There was also a doctor's office, private waiting room, and emergency vehicle space, reflections on early safety efforts by the nascent airlines. To reassure anxious passengers about the safety of this new mode of travel, early stewardesses were required to be registered nurses in order to attend to any need of the commercial passenger both on the ground and in the air.
A series of views of the terminal from the 1940s (and 1950s?) below show the gracious design of the public spaces, including the waiting room, lobby, ticketing counters for American and Eastern, as well as the dining room, snack bar and sundries shop (all images from Summit Memory, Akron-Summit County Public Library).
The simplicity of the air traffic control tower and adjacent weather balloon building also underscores the much slower, manageable and less technical side of early commercial air traffic. Over time, the control tower would undergo many (unattractive) alterations to accommodate the ever-evolving communication and navigation technology required by modern flight. Luckily, the control tower has been restored to its original configuration.
Restoration and the Terminal Today
As noted above, the old terminal was bought by the Theken Companies in 2004, which spent two years and about $4 million restoring the building to its 1930’s grandeur. Terrazzo floors were redone, where possible, or newly installed to carefully match the originals. The beautiful terrazzo compass that once graced the center of the coffered ceiling waiting room was moved to the main entrance door, and two original light fixtures were salvaged and used as models for new ones in the same style.
The 7,000-pound solid bronze entrance doors in the center of the terminal were restored, as were heavy wooden doors throughout the facility along with their solid brushed nickel handles. The utilitarian drop ceiling was removed, and plaster recast from original designs and molds by the company that made the originals, Fischer & Jirouch of Cleveland. The former airport manager’s office was transformed into the office of Randy Theken after he fell in love with the renovated space.
On the exterior of the terminal, water damaged bricks were repaired, a new copper roof and downspouts installed, and over 7,000 pieces of the 30,000 pieces of terra cotta refurbished by craftsmen who had to learn new skills in Boston to complete the task. Decorative copper weathervanes were specially crafted to replace the former flagpoles on either side of the main tower, and the original light beacon is still fully operational. The meticulous renovation has won multiple awards for historic preservation at the local and state levels
As the National Register of Historic Places Registration Form aptly states, “Surprisingly, throughout the terminal's active service, little change has occurred to the building, its support structures or its site features, even after the building and immediate site transferred with 2.68 acres to private ownership in 1993. A sensitive adaptive reuse as a commercial restaurant, the building maintains its simple cubic forms, strong symmetrical form, cream brick construction and Art Deco terra cotta detailing. The building stands as a prime example of how Art Deco was used to provide new public institutions with civic presence. The building and site still strongly represent and interpret the earliest years of air transportation and commercial traffic development in Akron, Ohio and the United States.”
Below are some pictures of the terminal's landside taken in April 2021. (All photos by Paul J. Soprano).
And here are some photos of the airside, gardens, and ramp areas taken in April 2021. (All photos by Paul J. Soprano).
For a great video tour of the terminal, including the interior today, check out this story from Ideastream, “Renovated Akron Fulton Airport Terminal A Reminder of Its Dirigible Past” (11/21/18),