A field that gave wings to Baltimore

Baltimore Glimpses

April 20, 1993|By GILBERT SANDLER

TODAY, out of what is known as Baltimore-Washington International Airport, there are planes taking off for 80 destinations across America and around the world. The "BWI" terminal occupies almost a million square feet on 3,200 acres; its parking lots accommodate 10,000 cars; it manages 600 arrivals and departures a day -- through 47 jet gates and 18 commuter gates.

The whole complex of counters, ramps, runways, luggage terminals and restaurants (12 of them) is bewildering, massive, overwhelming. Time, then, to recall Baltimore Municipal Airport.

From 1941 to 1950 (when Friendship, later BWI, opened), Baltimore Municipal Airport occupied the acreage in Dundalk that then and now abuts Broening Highway (about where Colgate Creek meets the Patapsco River).

The site today is the Dundalk Marine Terminal. Municipal took over as Baltimore's airport from little old Logan Field, which was across the road to the west and is now the Logan Shopping Center. (When Friendship opened, the city fathers renamed Municipal the Harbor Field.)

But in its glory days, from 1941 until the 1950s, Municipal was Baltimore's airport. It was used by the modest number of Baltimoreans who in those pre-jet days chose to fly instead of taking the train.

The airport and the airlines serving it, including American, Eastern, United, Pan Am and British Overseas Airways (to Bermuda) shared a wild dream: They were betting that airline (including seaplane) travel would help shape the world of tomorrow.

Guests who visited the airport's terminal building in its opening days were rhapsodic about it. One noted: "It's smaller than but more tastefully designed and decorated than New York City's LaGuardia. Sunlight streams into the rotunda from a dozen high narrow windows. The floor is covered with quarry tile in a pastel red; the baseboard is deep blue, the walls are beige tile. The woodwork is a pale blue pastel."

In 1936 Pan Am designated Municipal as the hub of its trans-Atlantic seaplane operations. Glenn L. Martin, whose company was building the famous Clipper seaplanes, said at the time: "Baltimore will face a golden opportunity of becoming a world port."

So promising was Municipal that the German Zeppelin company was thinking of flying dirigibles out of the facility. The war made seaplanes obsolete and --ed Baltimore's dream of becoming he leading seaplane port of the world.

Many Baltimoreans remember flying out of Municipal. Jerold C. ("Chuck") Hoffberger (former chairman of the National Brewery) recalls how Municipal, or at least the view from over it, helped shape Baltimore's image:

"Early in the 1950s we had just taken off -- Dawson Farber, Sydney Marcus and myself from the brewery, and Wilfred 'Brud' Doner and Herbert Fried from W.B. Doner, our advertising agency. The airport was right on the water's edge, and it was a brilliant, sunlit day. I remarked on what a gorgeous sight Baltimore was -- spread out in the sunshine below. Doner picked up on that. He said, 'this place looks like the land of pleasant living.' "

You know the rest of that story.

Albert Sehlstedt Jr., who covered aviation for The Sun, flew out of Municipal often on assignment, usually to Florida. He recalls:

"It looked like a 'Lindbergh' airport. By that I mean it was of 1940s' vintage, with one of those chain-link fences around it, protecting passengers from the Termac. The terminal was a domed, art deco building. I remember it as small and sort of intimate. They maybe had 20 or so arrivals and departures a day. Thinking back on it, the pace of the place seemed so slow."

Robert Rappaport used the airport to fly to Syracuse University, where he was a student. "I flew Eastern," he said. "They gave you a box lunch for a dollar. Hard-boiled egg, a chicken sandwich and an apple. Maybe a cookie."

If you want a measure of how the city has grown in 40 years, compare Municipal Airport circa 1950 (20 arrivals and departures a day) with BWI in 1993:600.

Or better still, think about Mr. Rappaport's hard-boiled egg-and-chicken-sandwich lunch for a dollar . . .

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