Viewport: Garber's Half-Century
- By J.R. Dailey
- Air & Space magazine, September 2002
AS A PEERLESS COLLECTOR AND HEAD CURATOR for the National Air Museum, which had been created in 1946, Paul Garber was responsible for the increase and preservation of the Museum’s excellent but largely unseen collection of aircraft. The collection suddenly grew after World War II when U.S. Air Force General Henry “Hap” Arnold gave the Smithsonian an astounding treasure: 97 Allied and Axis military aircraft—the most extensive collection in the world.
In 1948, Garber found a home for the collection in a government-owned aircraft factory in Park Ridge, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. But two years later, the onset of the Korean War required the factory to be re-opened, and Garber was given an eviction notice.
With the clock ticking, Garber and a crew of four helpers began working tirelessly to pack up for a move. Garber also looked for a new facility. Finding no warehouses in the Washington, D.C. area, Garber took to the air with a friend in a Piper Cub to survey the surrounding area and spotted a promising site in the Silver Hill neighborhood of Suitland, Maryland. A planned housing project on the tract had been shelved, so the land was available. Garber acquired the 21 acres for the Smithsonian in 1952.
Almost single-handedly, he scrounged tools and equipment from the U.S. Army, surplus prefabricated buildings from the Navy, and free concrete from a local company to build the new complex. The Air Force paid for shipping the aircraft, and by that summer—five decades ago—the last of the aircraft arrived.
For almost 30 years, the staff at Silver Hill protected the Museum’s aircraft in the hope that a much larger museum would be built. Construction of the National Air and Space Museum was authorized by Congress in 1966, and after it opened its doors on July 1, 1976, the Museum turned its attention to refurbishing Silver Hill.
On June 1, 1980, Silver Hill was named the Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration and Storage Facility. Garber was present to see the Smithsonian recognize his life’s work; he died 12 years later. His commitment to our aeronautical heritage enabled millions to see the aircraft that made history.
The Garber facility has been home to the Museum’s restoration shop and has provided a secure shelter for aircraft, spacecraft, and over 30,000 other aerospace artifacts, but today we have a problem similar to the one Garber faced 50 years ago. Unlike him, we have thousands of generous donors helping to solve it. After half a century we have outgrown the confines of Silver Hill. In keeping with Garber’s spirit, we are well on the way to completing a new facility that honors his dedication and continues his legacy. On May 30, the last of 21 support trusses was hoisted into position for the aviation hangar at the new Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Washington Dulles International Airport in Virginia. Soon the roof will be completed and attention will turn to the structure’s interior. We are ahead of schedule and on budget for opening this impressive facility by December 17, 2003, the centennial of the first powered flight. In this way we will be able to carry on Paul Garber’s work for the next 50 years and well beyond.
—J.R. Dailey is the director of the National Air and Space Museum