Port Columbus-America’s Greatest Air Harbor Part II
by Douglas Terpstra
The first two buildings ever constructed at John Glenn Columbus International Airport are still standing. Construction of the administration building/passenger terminal and a hangar for the Transcontinental Air Transport Company (TAT) began at the then-Port Columbus Airport in May of 1929. Although not quite finished, the terminal was open to visitors when the TAT began passenger service from the airport on July 8, 1929. The terminal was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 on its 50th anniversary. Although not normally open to the public, ASC architectural historian Douglas Terpstra and company owner Shaune Skinner attended an open house at the terminal held on July 13, 2019 to celebrate its 90th anniversary. The Columbus Historical Society and other organizations seeking to preserve and restore the building had historical displays set up in the building. Still owned by the Columbus Regional Airport Authority, the building has been vacant for years, and efforts are underway to find a new use, potentially as an air and space museum.
The exterior of the building has a relatively simple design of yellow brick accented with darker bricks. A projecting octagonal control tower is located at its northwestern corner and is topped by a band of alternating triangles and diamonds. Internally, the building has a concrete frame with brick walls. The ground floor originally included a lounge, a waiting room, a ticket office, a dining room, a kitchen, a newsstand, rest rooms, and a lunch and soda counter. The upper floor originally included an office for the TAT, rest rooms, a pilots’ dressing room, a pilots’ lounge, the airport administration office, the airport manager’s office, an office for federal Department of Commerce officials, and offices for companies operating from the airport. The airport manager’s office was located in the tower with broad sweeping views of the airport from the large windows. The control room at the top of the tower was reached via a spiral staircase located just outside of the airport manager’s office. Expansion of the terminal building began after World War II ended; by the 1970s, the building had additions on its western and northern sides. These additions were removed in a restoration that begun in 1984. Unfortunately, water damage from the leaking roof and subsequent mold infestation has led to the removal of most interior walls and original wall surfaces.
Following World War II, the facilities at Port Columbus were inadequate to handle the growing demand for air travel. Take-offs and landings grew from 64,500 in 1940 to 218,258 in 1947. With an eye to expanding the airport, the city began purchasing land in 1948 until, by 1959, the property had a total area of approximately 2,200 acres. Voters approved bond issues for the airport expansion project in 1951 and 1956. In 1952, the east-west runway was extended from 4,500 to 8,000 feet with parallel taxiways to accommodate the large airplanes entering use. Later known as the south parallel runway, this runway was relocated to the south in a project completed in 2013.
In anticipation of future growth, the city decided to move airport operations from the original terminal on Fifth Avenue to a more centrally located site. Work on a new control tower began in 1953, and a new $4 million terminal building was dedicated in September 1958. The runway was extended again to 10,700 feet, making it the longest commercial runway between New York and Tucson. A second east-west runway was constructed north of the new terminal around this same time. Trans World Airlines (TWA) became the first air carrier to begin jet service at Port Columbus in 1961. With the establishment of a US Customs facility in 1965, Port Columbus reached international status. In 1970, the city opened Bolton Field southwest of downtown to take over much of the general aviation traffic and relieve congestion at Port Columbus. Projects to renovate and expand the 1958 terminal began in the 1970s and continued into recent years.
Other early airport terminals survive elsewhere in Ohio, although they are not as old as the Columbus terminal. The terminal at the Akron-Fulton International Airport (NRHP listed 2001) is an Art Deco-style building completed in 1931 and now houses private offices. The 1936 Moderne-style terminal building at Cincinnati’s Lunken Airport now houses offices and a restaurant.