High-flying real estate

The lot that was once home to Howard Hughes’ aircraft concern is slowly being revamped into a mixed-use development featuring soundstages, basketball courts, offices and residential units.

Hughes Aircraft Company, the aviation company started by billionaire inventor/filmmaker/recluse Howard Hughes, grew out of the tool company he started in the 1930s. Business started booming in World War II and, in the early 1940s, Hughes decided to build an aircraft factory on farmland. The facility was oftentimes erroneously referred to as Hughes’ “Culver City facilities,” even though it was located within the city of Los Angeles.

Between 1941 and 1953, 11 buildings and hangers were built on the site, featuring more than 569,000 square feet of space. In addition to offices, factory space and hangers, the site sported a 9,600 foot runway. A two-story, 36,000 square foot administration building was constructed in 1950 by then-New York Yankees owner Del Webb. The building was home to Hughes’ wood-paneled office and, because of his fear of hallways, a series of doorways that sliced through the rest of the offices in the building. The offices were kitted out with a screening room and a wall-sized global aeronautics chart, both of which have reportedly been relocated to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC.

Despite Hughes Aircraft’s many successes in the field of aviation, the company’s best known plane was a flop: the Spruce Goose, designed and built at the facility in 1946. The 150-ton military seaplane, constructed solely out of wood and featuring the largest wingspan of any plane ever produced, was built in the 249,000 square foot hanger at the site. Hughes himself later test-flew the plane in November 1947, after which the plane was put back into a specially built hanger in Long Beach, California, and kept “flight-ready” on Hughes insistence—at a reported cost of $1 million per year. The plane was never flown again.

In the post-war era, Hughes Aircraft became a formidable part of the military-industrial complex blossoming in the former orange groves of Southern California. While Hughes died in 1976, the aviation company continued to use the site in Los Angeles until the 1980s. Hughes Aircraft was sold to General Electric in 1985 and is now part of Boeing.

The large hangers at the site were converted to soundstages in the 1990s and the former factory became a back lot used to make movies like Titanic, End of Days and World Trade Center. But a huge swath of vacant land won’t stay that way for long in a hot property market like Los Angeles. The plant is currently being redeveloped as Playa Vista, a mixed-use development that has office and residential components. It will soon be home to the LA Clippers new training facility, while Walton Street Capital and Tishman Speyer have announced plans to develop offices in the project.