In the 1940’s Howard Hughes bought 380 acres of the Ballona wetlands to build a private airport. During WWII his Hughes Aircraft Company built numerous hangers on the site including the massive wooden hangar where the reclusive business tycoon built his Spruce Goose (aka the H-4 Hercules). Abandoned since the 1980’s (accept for the occasional movie shoot) the sprawling grounds, which are now known as the Hercules Campus, have been preserved with renovations that reflect the original architecture’s historic purpose and significance.
About 2.5 football fields in length and as tall as a six-story building, Hangar 15 where the Spruce Goose was built, is about to undergo adaptive reuse renovations — meaning this is just about the last time visitors would be able to see it in the raw.
Photo credit: Library of Congress
Photo credit: Library of Congress
The former Hughes Aircraft hangars, including the one that held the Hercules, were converted into sound stages in the 1990’s. Scenes from movies such as Titanic, What Women Want, and End of Days have been filmed in the 315,000-square-foot aircraft hangar where Hughes created his flying boat.
Renamed the Hercules Campus, many of the site’s transformed historic buildings are thriving and in use by technology and creative firms such as YouTube and 72andSunny.
When the Los Angeles Conservancy first offered tours in 2011 the condition of the place could be described as raw at best. Four years after their last tour, the Los Angeles Conservancy returned to Playa Vista to once again offer public tours, this time of a thriving creative campus with renovations that reflect the original architecture’s historic purpose and significance.
The Los Angeles Conservancy’s, “From Hughes to Hercules” tour offered rare access to the massive wooden hangar where the reclusive business tycoon built his Spruce Goose (aka the H-4 Hercules).
In 2011, hangar visitors saw peeling blue and white paint and non-original drywall divisions. Now the structure’s skeleton has been stripped down to the original wood and the drywall is gone, offering a unique glimpse of its original state and aesthetic potential.
Unlike most businesses, Hughes Aircraft Company (HAC) did not originate as a money-making enterprise.
It was formed as part of billionaire industrialist Howard Hughes’ privately owned Hughes Tool Company to track expenses related to his aviation interests. In addition to being a brilliant aviator, Hughes was a determined entrepreneur. With the likelihood of U.S. involvement in World War II, Hughes sought to expand HAC into the lucrative market for wartime airplanes and defense systems.
Needing more laboratory and production space, the company moved to a site just south of Culver City, which was undeveloped land at the time. The first building on the site housed operations for the development of the D-2 prototype fighter plane, and for production of aircraft parts and armaments.
One of HAC’s most prominent projects came from this time with the construction of the legendary H-4 “Hercules” (popularly known as the Flying Boat, or, to Hughes’ disdain, the “Spruce Goose). Over two hundred feet long, with a wingspan of 320 feet, the H-4 still holds the record as the largest airplane ever to fly.
As Hughes Aircraft Company grew, a flurry of construction took place to accommodate the company’s success. Multiple buildings were constructed at this time (1950-1952), and everything was painted a particular shade of light green that came to be known as “Hughes Green.” Most of the buildings were built between 1942 and 1952 in the International Style. Some dozen or more buildings housed not only the manufacturing operation, but also administrative offices, an employee cafeteria, and even a firehouse. After Howard Hughes’ death in 1976, HAC was sold and operations gradually moved away from the Culver City location. Most of the historic buildings stood empty, and some were demolished.
In October 2010, The Ratkovich Company (TRC) purchased the twenty-eight acres containing the remaining historic buildings and launched an ambitious project to transform the site into an office and production campus for creative media, named in honor of the great H-4 “Hercules.” One of the first companies to move into the newly renovated buildings was Japanese game maker Konami, who are now located in the old HAC firehouse. For Mr. Ratkovich, the Hughes buildings represent the latest in a series of redevelopment projects that began more than three decades ago with the 1928 Oviatt building, a former haberdashery on Sixth and Olive Streets in downtown Los Angeles. The success of that project taught him that historic architecture can be very marketable. He’s also responsible for the renovations of the Wiltern theater in Los Angeles and the Alex Theatre in Glendale.
YouTube took over a 41,000-square-foot warehouse in building #17 for The Lab, which focuses on boosting the careers of YouTube’s most popular content creators, offering them the chance to collaborate with industry experts and one another while using equipment provided by YouTube.
A nod to the area’s past. Hughes’ first major successful helicopter was the Model 269/300, known to the U.S. Army as the TH-55 Osage. Built in 1956, and entering production in 1957, it served to capture a large portion of the commercial market for Hughes.
One of the first things Howard Hughes built was a motorized bicycle, using parts from a dismantled steam engine. Today the Management of the Hercules Campus provides bikes to its tenants, red for YouTubers & white for Konamians.
Of course YouTube has their own coffee shop. Got keep those kids caffeinated.
A lot of action was going the day we were there so we didn’t get a chance to look around much.
In the central core of the complex, new modern office buildings and parking garages lie empty – victims of too much ambition and the economic downturn. In 2008, in what had seemed like a major coup for Playa Vista, Fox Interactive Media signed a $350 million long-term lease for 420,000 square feet at Lincoln Property’s Horizon complex.
But the decline of its social media site, MySpace, led Fox Interactive to trim its staff and cancel the move. The company, which is using only 50,000 square feet at the moment, is obligated to pay rent of $44 a square foot for the remaining on the lease which ends in 2020.
Building #1 was the corporate headquarters for the Hughes Aircraft Company for 35 years.
Howard Hughes and his top level executives had their offices on the second floor, and decisions that impacted the national defense and the direction of technological advancement were made here. Its richly appointed hardwood interiors earned the building the nickname “Mahogany Row.” The building functioned as a reception center for senior military officers and other visiting dignitaries, in addition to initially housing Customer Relations, the Legal Department, and Planning on the second floor, and Purchasing and Industrial Relations on the ground floor.
An aerial photo of the campus that shows the old runway which was later broken up and used to pave the streets of Playa Vista.
Since all the buildings were built on top of what was once the Ballona Wetlands, flooding has always been a problem.
Fortunately they were able to preserve the 100-year old Sycamore trees that line the courtyard of the old 1940’s administrative offices.
As I was leaving I found these laying on the ground, not sure if they were part of the original Hughes Aircraft Company’s campus or the new one.