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Smithsonian Perspectives

A patriarch of flight, Paul Garber devoted his Smithsonian career to the preservation of historic aircraft

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There is nothing fancy or imposing about the National Air and Space Museum's Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration and Storage Facility. A collection of windowless, corrugated- metal buildings barely visible behind a tall chain-link fence in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Suitland, Maryland, the place resembles a down-at-the-heels rental storage facility or a low-budget industrial park.

But looks can be deceiving. The Garber Facility is the behind-the-scenes heart and soul of the world's most visited museum. More than a hundred treasures of the age of flight are on view in these nondescript buildings. Visitors who sign up for a docent-led tour of the no-frills Garber displays will see a Curtiss JN-4D "Jenny" essentially untouched since the day in 1918 when U.S. Army Air Service officials turned it over to the Smithsonian; a Sikorsky JRS-1 flying boat that survived the attack on Pearl Harbor; Caroline, the Convair 240 that Sen. John F. Kennedy traveled in during his 1960 Presidential campaign, and a score of other aircraft and space vehicles that cannot be seen anywhere else in the world.

Paul Edward Garber (1899-1992) collected more than half of the 352 Smithsonian-owned aircraft on display at the facility named in his honor, at the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) on the Mall and, on loan, at other museums around the world. He fell under the spell of both aviation and the Smithsonian while growing up in Washington, D.C. As a 10-year-old, he took a streetcar across the Potomac to watch Orville Wright fly the world's first military airplane at Fort Myer, Virginia. Alexander Graham Bell, a Smithsonian regent, taught young Paul how to bridle his kite. At the age of 15, Garber built a full-scale biplane glider based on a model he had seen at the Smithsonian. His mother helped him cover the wings with red chintz, after which a group of friends towed him into the air with a clothesline.

Garber joined the Army in 1918, and was about to begin flight training at College Park, Maryland, when the war ended. He took a job as a ground crewman and messenger with the Postal Air Mail Service. But Garber, a talented craftsman and model maker who frequented Smithsonian museums, decided that he could best contribute to the future of aviation by preserving its past. In 1920, he began working at the Institution, building models and preparing exhibitions. For the next 72 years he dedicated himself to the preservation of the nation's aeronautical heritage and to sharing his boundless enthusiasm for flight with Smithsonian visitors. He played a key role in the creation of the National Air Museum in 1946, and was indispensable in the effort to construct the present National Air and Space Museum building, which opened in 1976. Most important, Garber, as curator and devotee, assembled the most impressive collection of historic aircraft in the world for the Institution.

The storage of that collection had not been much of a problem prior to World War II -- virtually everything that Garber collected was on display at the Arts and Industries Building or on loan to another museum. But when he returned from service as a naval officer, he faced an entirely new set of problems. Gen. Henry H. "Hap" Arnold, commander of the U.S. Army Air Forces, presented the Smithsonian with a collection of U.S. aircraft that had fought and won the war in the air, along with captured examples of enemy aircraft. When Paul Garber accepted responsibility for this vast collection, it was stored in an abandoned airplane factory in suburban Chicago, now the site of O'Hare Airport. The U.S. Navy had a similar collection of historic aircraft in storage for the Smithsonian at Norfolk, Virginia. The crisis came with the Korean War, when the U.S. Air Force needed the factory and began to force the Smithsonian out the door.

Determined to safely relocate the treasures to the Washington area, Garber searched in vain for empty warehouse space in the neighborhood of the nation's capital. He then persuaded a pilot friend to assist him in conducting an aerial survey of the Maryland and Virginia suburbs from the cockpit of a Piper J-3 Cub. His search revealed 21 acres of woodland in Suitland. The National Park and Planning Commission, which controlled the land, was more than pleased to turn it over to the Smithsonian in 1952.

"When I first went out there and walked around," Garber later commented, "the tree-filled 'wilderness' was just about as the Indians had known it, and my only companions were the bullfrogs and mockingbirds." There was no budget for this project. "I had to scrounge," he recalled with pride.

His powers of persuasion were legendary. Army engineers at nearby Fort Belvoir provided a bulldozer to clear trees and brush from the site. Garber persuaded a local contractor to donate any excess cement remaining aboard his trucks at the end of the workday. Navy officials agreed to provide, at cost, the first of the prefabricated buildings that would soon dot the site.

Paul Garber continued for the rest of his career to "scrounge" for the funds with which to support the preservation and display of the collection, and eventually bequeathed the task to his successors. If all goes well, the new NASM Dulles Center will open its doors in 2001. Although the process will take time, the Dulles Center will eventually replace the Garber Facility, providing much better conditions in which to preserve, store and display the world's finest collection of aeronautical artifacts. You can rest assured, however, that the spirit of Paul Garber will accompany the collection to its new home.

By I. Michael Heyman

About I. Michael Heyman
I. Michael Heyman

I. Michael Heyman served as the secretary of the Smithonian Institution from 1994 to 1999.

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