More Common In The Past

We think of airports as being relatively few and far between, but they used to be much smaller and closer together. The growth of jet size since the DC8 and 707, and the simultaneous and related growth of commercial air travel has meant that bigger airports with longer runways are needed. Of course, small airports that serve small planes still exist, but they’ve been gradually wiped out in big cities because of the limited amount of sky that has to be divided among the people who want to use it. I knew of two abandoned airports in New York City: Floyd Bennett Field in southern Brooklyn and Flushing Airport in northern Queens. It turns out there was a third, Miller Field in Staten Island, which was built earlier and has been the subject of HABS attention.

Miller Field is on the south shore of Staten Island, facing the Lower Bay and, realistically, facing the Atlantic Ocean. The two peninsulas that separate the Lower Bay from the open ocean – Sandy Hook in New Jersey and Breezy Point (the west end of Rockaway) in Queens – provide little protection to the area around Miller Field. The shallowness of the bay outside of the shipping channels probably provides more protection. A lot of early commercial flights were seaplanes, and Miller Field, constructed in 1921, had ramps to the water to serve them as well as grass runways to serve other planes. The picture above shows the front of the seaplane hanger with the water off to the left.

The hangers are interesting in that they’re an adaptation of an existing form. They very much resemble industrial buildings of the era, including the clerestory skylights. It’s important to note how early Miller Field was: with a few minor exceptions, commercial air travel began in a few places after World War I, that is 1919 and later. So opening an airport in 1921 was not only betting on an uncertain mode of travel, it was doing so with no established infrastructure standards. The two buildings I’m discussing here – the seaplane hanger as seen above and the “landplane” hanger below – were both built around 1921. You design a building for a totally new use by modifying something similar, in this case the industrial architecture of the era. If you put me inside the hanger below without telling me where I was, I’d guess a warehouse.

The weirdest little detail concerns the former use of the site. Even on Staten Island, large pieces of land with unobstructed water views were rare by the 1900s. Miller Field was created by buying a former Vanderbilt estate. The HABS map, in addition to showing all of the pertinent airport structures, shows the location of the big house, demolished in 1936 at what looks (based on the dates) to have been a round of modernization of the facilities:

map of the airfield with buildings shown

Building A is the house removed in 1936 along with, I assume the adjacent driveway. Buildings B and C, off in the southwest corner, were the stables and riding circle, demolished earlier.

Miller Field is in use as a park, and the hangers are still there but, as far as I know, unused and in need of some work. As it is part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, a federal park with a number of sites along the edges of the upper and lower bays, it would require the National Park Service to take the lead for the hangers to be repaired and reused.

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