Saturday, September 12, 2015

Old military balloon hangar near Sausalito gets new use

A historic balloon hangar in the Rodeo Valley near Sausalito is getting a makeover after surviving various military and National Park Service uses for more than 90 years.

The hangar at Fort Barry was built as part of the U.S. Army’s very brief experiment using tethered balloons as part of the nation’s system of coastal defenses.

Constructed in 1921 and abandoned for balloon use the same year, the structure is the only surviving hangar of its type that actually housed an army balloon, and one of only two examples of its type known to survive in the country, according to a report done for the National Park Service.

Over the years it has been used for military storage, a motorpool workshop during World War II, a repair shop for antiaircraft surface-to-air missiles during the Cold War-era and more recently as a horse riding arena.

“It’s a pretty cool structure with some interesting history,” said Rich Melbostad, project manager for the park service.

In recent weeks the structure’s sheet metal coating — which was covered with asbestos — was slowly peeled away and disposed of, leaving its naked Tinker-Toy-like structure exposed. That was then covered with white tarp to trap lead paint and rust that was being blasted off the steel structure, its beams stamped “Carnegie Steel.” Epoxy paint will then be applied and new and historically accurate shell — minus the asbestos — will be put on.

“We are stabilizing this to keep it from falling down,” Melbostad said. “It’s not so much a restoration as a stabilization.”

Between construction and clean up, the work will cost about $1.8 million. It’s new use upon completion in March: storage for large park service maintenance vehicles. Not the most thrilling use, but a needed one, officials said.

The airy space is about 10,000 square feet, stands 60 feet tall and looms behind the Presidio Riding Club stables just off the road to Rodeo Beach.

“The hangar was used as a riding rink for equestrians, one of its many uses,” said Jason Hagin, historical architect for the park service.

The equestrian use was its latest incarnation. The first was as a balloon hangar, completed on June 27, 1921. It is believed the 24th Balloon Company moved its balloon into the new structure not long after.

Then the work began on how to use the balloons for military purposes.

“Experiments continued ... into 1921 on various techniques for directing artillery fire. The first method was the simplest, consisting of a single balloon with two observers in the wicker basket watching for the splash (called ‘the fall of shot’) when a shell landed near a target, and relaying corrections back to the (gun) battery,” according to the park service report.

A long telephone line was strung from the basket to the ground.

“There were no cellphones in those days,” Hagin said.

High winds would wreak havoc with the balloons on blustery Bay Area days and before the end of 1921 the balloon companies were removed from the Harbor Defenses of San Francisco, according to the park service report.

“The balloons did not last very long at all, but the building has held up all these years,” Hagin noted. “Now we are making it safe. It’s an interesting part of history.”

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