The historic Wright brothers’ factory buildings in Dayton are in jeopardy. The buildings are the first American facility specifically designed and built for the manufacture of airplanes from 1910-1916. In these buildings, The Wrights helped to transform the airplane from a curious wonder into a serious method of transportation.
The Delphi Corp. now owns the buildings and has continuously used them for the manufacture of airplane and automotive parts. Delphi entered bankruptcy reorganization on Oct. 8, 2005. There are five Delphi plants in Dayton employing 4,200 employees.
The Delphi plant where the Wright buildings are located is the former General Motors Inland complex located on West Third Street several miles further west of the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Park site on West Third street.
Delphi desires to reject its union contracts and terminate post-retirement health-care plans and life insurance for hourly employees.
The Delphi complex covers 67.3 acres. The original Wright Company factory buildings occupy approximately one acre.
The first Wright factory building, building no. 1, was completed in November 1910. It was equipped with the most modern machinery available and capable of producing two airplanes a month. Building no. 2 was built a few months later raising the production capability to four airplanes a month, a capacity greater than any other airplane factory in the world in that time period.
The Model B was the first airplane built at the Wright factories and the first to be mass-produced. Many aviation advancements and improvements were introduced. The Model B was followed by the Models R, EX, C, D, E, F, CH, G, H and HS.
The two factory buildings are single-story rectangular commercial brick. They retain much of their original architectural integrity, including gabled roofs with eyebrow parapets. During the Wrights tenure, building no. 1 contained a double-door entry. There was an office located in front of building no. 1. I have been told that the office is still used.
In 1915, Orville Wright sold The Wright Co. to a group of eastern investors and accepted payment for services as a consulting engineer during the new owners first year of operation. In 1916 The Wright Co. merged with the Glenn Martin Co. to form the Wright-Martin Aircraft Co. and the factory buildings were sold. The General Motors Corporation-Inland Div. owned the buildings during much of that time.
One good thing that Delphi and the previous owners have done is to maintain the factory buildings in good condition. This has not always been the case with other historic Wright buildings. Orville’s laboratory on West Third St. was torn down to make room for a gasoline station.
The downside of the GM/Delphi ownership is that they have had insufficient appreciation of the historic significance of the Wright buildings. Visitors are not permitted. Even during the Centennial Celebration in 1903 Delphi would not allow a picture to be taken of the exterior of the buildings.
I, a former General Motors employee, experienced this myself during the Centennial celebration in 1903. The Wright buildings are located just inside the Third street entrance to the complex. I pulled up the gate and asked the guard if I could take a picture. He said no. I asked him to check with his boss. The answer from his boss was still no. I returned on Sunday when no one was there and took pictures through the closed chain link gate.
The National Park Service has conducted a thorough Assessment of the issues and alternatives involved incorporating The Wright Company factory as a unit of Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park in Dayton, Ohio. As I am writing this, the draft NPS Assessment is being widely circulated for public review and comment.
Here is an excerpt: “If The Wright Company factory buildings (site) were to be added to the park, rehabilitating factory buildings 1 and 2 to their 1910-1911 exterior and interior appearance would offer a unique opportunity to discuss the techniques and practices that the Wright brothers employed for the construction of the nation’s first mass-produced airplanes in surroundings that appear much as they did during the period of significance.”
“The park’s interpretive focus would be on how The Wright Company factory played a role in the birth of the American industry through the early development of the age of flight. Possible exhibits include replica Wright brothers’ aircraft, machinery, and interpretation of the social and economic impacts of the world’s first airplane factory. After rehabilitation, the buildings could accommodate the display of up to six aircraft.”
The are two major obstacles confronting the National Park Service. The first is finding a willing owner to either sell or cooperate in developing the Wright brothers’ factory site as a historic park.
The second is finances. The assessment estimates that it would require $8.8 – 13.2 million in development cost if the National Park Service were to develop and manage the site. This figure includes the cost of interpretive exhibits and media, including machinery, replica aircraft, and aircraft components, estimated at $3.1 – 4.0 million.
The obstacles are great but may be overcome. There is no question that it would be a tragedy not to save this historic gem for the American people.
The National Park Service, if requested by the owner, is willing to provide technical assistance for nomination of the site as a National Historic Landmark. Maybe that is where to start.
Update, 2008: Wright Factories Buildings Closer to Joining National Park. A House committee recently approved a bill that would add The Wright Company Factory buildings to the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park. U.S. Rep. Mike Turner and Amanda Wright-Lane, great-grandniece of the Wright brothers, testified in support of S 3286 and HR 4199 bills. The buildings are currently owned by Delphi Corp.
Reference: The Wright Co. Factory Boundary Assessment and Environmental Assessment. Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park, Dayton, Ohio. The National Park Service. January 2006.