Historic Districts

Chandler Field/Fresno Municipal Airport Historic District

Detailed Description

The Chandler Field/Fresno Municipal Airport Historic District encompasses five buildings and infrastructure. Four of the buildings were constructed in 1936-1937 as part of the W.P.A. (Works Progress Adminstration) Project #2236 and are contributors to the district. The fifth building, which houses the Fresno Airparts Company, was constructed in 1955 and is a non-contributor. However, its close proximity to the other buildings places it within the district boundaries.

The Chandler Downtown Airport is located approximately two miles west of the heart of Fresno, along the north side of historic Kearney Boulevard. The WPA-era buildings are clustered in a campus setting that includes landscaping, several Beaux Arts-style lampposts and surface parking. Chandler Field currently serves as the "Executive" airport for the city, with commercial service located at the Fresno-Yosemite International Airport east of the city.

The district includes the following contributing properties:

  1. Administration Building (Terminal), 1936-1937
  2. Administration Building Annex (Memley Aviation Inc.), 1936
  3. Electrical Control Building, 1937
  4. Bathroom Building, 1937

View Map of District

Boundary Description

The district includes the four WPA-era buildings, the non-contributing building and landscaping. The southern boundary of the district is the entrance into the property at Kearney Boulevard; the eastern boundary is the beginning of the surface parking lot; the northern boundary runs along the fence at the edge of the runway; the western boundary follows the gated entrance to the hangars.

At least two hangars are shown in the WPA site plan of 1936 (as revised in 1941) and are potentially eligible to be included within the district in the future. The historic integrity of these buildings is currently unknown but further research is appropriate as time and resources allow. The district boundaries thus include the four WPA-era buildings that are indicated in the original project site plan and that are accessible to the public.

Historic Significance

Chandler Field was first dedicated for public use as an air field in November 1929, on a one hundred-acre site donated by Senator and Mrs. Wilber F. Chandler. Wilber F. Chandler was born 8 April 1855 in Illinois and settled with his family a farm north of Selma, California, in 1889. Over his long career he served five terms in the State Assembly and two terms in the Senate. He was an early investor in the petroleum fields near Coalinga, operated a large vineyard on his Selma ranch, was a director of the First National Bank of Fresno, and was in business with fellow Progressive Dr. Chester Rowell. In 1912 Chandler and Rowell constructed Fresno's first steel-framed building, known today as the Rowell Building and listed on Fresno's Local Register of Historic Resources. Chandler's wife of more than a half century was Edna Marie Goble, who was active in city's Y.W.C.A. In 1917 the family moved from their Selma ranch to a home west of Fresno, between Kearney Boulevard and Whitesbridge Road. Apparently the Chandlers had owned the land for some time, as the 1907 county atlas shows that the "Chandler Tract" was subdivided into forty-eight parcels. In 1925 the Chandlers moved from their property into a residence at 520 N. Yosemite Street.

Even prior to 1929 the Chandler property was used informally as an air field. Following World War I there were no real facilities for aviation in the Fresno area and so the Chandlers allowed pilots to take off and land in their fields once the crops were harvested. In 1923 local fliers organized the “World's Greatest Aerial Circus” to raise funds for a new aviation field. The event included races, parachute jumps and dual wing walking, and was held at “Chandler Field” in the afternoon on Thansgiving Day. The Chamber of Commerce attempted to pass two separate bond measures for the purchase of airport property, but both measures failed. Thus in 1929 State Senator Wilber F. Chandler and his wife Edna Marie stepped in and deeded one hundred acres of their farm to the city for an airport. The field was dedicated in early November 1929 in front of a crowd of 10,000. The five-year-old grandson of Senator Chandler held a ribbon, which was “snapped by a huge tri-motored plane bearing the official party,” according to the Fresno Morning Republican of 3 November 1929.

Improvements totaling $50,000 were made, including an oiled runway 2,500 feet in length. Early buildings included a “control station,” superintendent's house and “comfort station,” along with at least one hangar. On 23 March 1930 Colonel and Mrs. Charles A. Lindberg landed briefly at the airport and were greeted by a crowd of 20,00. In 1936 the City of Fresno's Public Works Department, with funding from the WPA, developed a site plan for an expanded airport that included an Administration Building (terminal), Administration Building Annex, Naval Reserve Building, a City Hangar, Schneider Hangar, a Bathroom structure and Electrical Control Building. Construction of the terminal building in a Streamline Moderne style was initiated in 1936. Apparently at the same time the bathroom facility and electrical control building were also constructed, although these two buildings are more Art Deco in appearance. The Administration Building Annex is designed in the Spanish Revival style. The Naval Reserve Building is no longer standing, but appears to have been Spanish in style as well. One component included within the WPA project site plan was never constructed: an amazing set of Art Deco entrance gates. Had these been built they would have far eclipsed in detailing at least the Kearney Boulevard pylons contructed in 1933 at the eastern terminus of Kearney Boulevard and designed by Charles H. Franklin.

The improvements to the Fresno Municipal Airport were undertaken under the direction of Jean Vincenz, Fresno's Commisioner of Public Works. Vincenz was born in Enfield, Illinois, in 1894 and moved to Fresno in 1912. He graduated from Stanford University with a degree in engineering and was elected to his position as commissioner in 1931. During his administration several major public works projects were accomplished, including the airport, the Memorial Auditorium, the new Fresno City Hall and the Belmont Subway. Vincenz also is famous world-wide for developing the concept of the sanitary landfill, and the Fresno Sanitary Landfill is a National Historic Landmark.

Vincenz's tenure and the contruction of the airport complex coincided with the Great Depression. According to Jim Martin, former Director of Public Works for the City of Fresno, “during the '30s work was so short for private architectural firms, the city made it a point to hire outside design for its buildings. . . . For one of the buildings, they even did it with a committee to spread the work as far as possible.” It is of interest then that all designs included in the 1936/1941 site plan for the airport were drawn by different architects or draftsmen, all under the direction of Jean Vincenz. The plans for the terminal are signed with the initials “L.L.I.”; the Main Entrance Gate was drawn by “W.B.” The site plans were completed by “E.E.S.” All drawings were checked by “A.C.W.” No original drawings have been located for the Annex buildings, bathroom or electrical buildings. “A.C.W.” may refer to Albert C. White, who is listed in the 1936 Polk Directory as an office engineer for the Public Works Department. The Streamline Moderne terminal may have been the work of Lyle L. Irwin, listed as a draftsman in apparently private practice. At this time it is unknown who designed any of the Art Deco work.

The team approach to the airport design would also explain the variety of styles used in the various components. The terminal itself reflects the visual vocabulary of the Art Moderne or Streamline Moderne of the 1930s. The style itself was given a kickstart by the Great Depression, as manufacturers turned to a new breed of industrial designers to help stimulate sales. Designs reflected the essential characteristic of all machines: motion through the reduction of friction. Commercial buildings such as the terminal incorporated soft or rounded (streamlined) corners, flat roofs, smooth walls devoid of decoration and horizontal lines or grooves in the walls. Windows often wrapped around the building's corners.

In contrast to the soft streamlined contours of the terminal building, the Bathroom and Electrical Control Buildings were designed in the harder linear style of the Art Deco. Art Deco was popularized by the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes held in Paris in 1925, and was in vogue for detailing downtown buildings by the late 1920s. The style borrowed loosely from a variety of sources, including Cubism, Mayan architecture and Frank Lloyd Wright, and in theory epitomized the Machine Age. Stylistic elements included linear, hard edge or angular compositions, often with vertical emphasis and highlighted with stylized decoration of floral motifs, zigzags and chevrons. Setbacks werer common on building facades. Art Deco persisted into the early 1930s although it gradually was replaced by Streamline Moderne. The third style incorporated into the 1936/1937 Fresno Municipal Airport plan was Spanish Revival. Elements of this style present on the extant Administration Annex include a cross-gabled roof of tiles, smooth stucco walls, glazed tiles embedded over the casement windows and carved, stained porch posts.

Chandler Field/Fresno Municipal Airport has two distinct periods of significance: 1929-1936 and 1936-1947. Although the runway was reoriented and lengthened to 4,000 feet as part of the WPA project in 1938, in 1947 the various commercial airlines announced that they would no longer allow their airliners to use the field, as it was deemed to small and too inadequate for the newer commercial aircraft. Therefore in 1947 the Fresno Air Terminal east of the city became the new municipal airport.

The Chandler Field/Fresno Municipal Airport qualifies as a historic district for the Local Register of Historic Resources under Criteria i, ii and iii. The four contributing buildings were constructed in 1936-1937 by the Public Works Department under the auspices of the WPA (Criterion i). This airport may be in fact the only WPA-constructed facility still in existence in the United States. The airport is associated with Senator Wilber and Mrs. Edna Marie Chandler (Criterion ii), who donated the land to the city and whose name is still attached to the site. The airport also reflects excellence in architectural design with a campus that includes three distinct styles: Art Deco, Streamline Moderne and Spanish Revival (Criterion iii). The Administration Building has had minor alteration to the south elevation, with ramps added for ADA access. One window of the Annex Building has been in-filled. Other than these changes the buildings have extraordinarily high integrity to the second period of significance, 1936-1947.

Adapted from the City of Fresno Historic District nomination, originally written by Karana Hattersley-Drayton.