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Wright-Patterson Air Force Base structure dates from 1947-1948


How many times do we pass an interesting building without really seeing it?

Our series on “Architectural Treasures” is designed to help remedy that all-too-common situation by focusing on some of these special structures.

We’re encouraging readers to view both professional and residential buildings in the area through a different lens: the eye of a professional architect. It’s your chance to take a closer look at buildings you see every day but may never have thought of as a work of art.

For help we’ve turned to the pros: AIA-Dayton, an organization of professional architects in our area. We’ve asked members to pick their favorite structure and to tell us what’s special about it.

Meet today’s architect:

Ed Young is the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base Command Architect for HQ AFMC (Headquarters Air Force Materiel Command).

The Dayton resident is an Ohio registered architect, a LEED Accredited Professional, and a member of the AIA-Dayton. He personally shot the exterior photo of his favorite building and also obtained historical photos of it he thought would be of interest to our readers.

MY FAVORITE BUILDING

Where would one find a local “cathedral” that functioned for decades as an innovative research laboratory? The former Radar Test Facility at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base is a towering structure built in 1947–48. The major scientific experiments performed inside the facility influenced Cold War technology and led to the development of stealth technology and such aircraft as the B-2 bomber.

The building’s most noticeable feature is the curving roof that resembles a blimp hangar. The roof is shaped by 13 parabolic arches that rise 78 feet high. A ribbon of windows built into the roof provides natural daylight to the interior. The barn-like roof, large access doors and cavernous interior evoke a religious or rural structure, hence its nicknames, the “Cathedral” and the “Barn.”

The building’s designers intended radar to penetrate its wooden walls. To minimize radar reflections, they specified wooden pegs instead of nails. They did not permit the use of any metal. The designers hired Amish farmers, skilled in traditional barn building techniques, to erect the completed structure. The arches are glue-laminated timbers, clamped and glued in a facility on base.

Encountering problems

As radar technology advanced, unforeseen problems arose. High-energy radar waves passed beyond the building’s walls and picked up unintended objects outside. As William Bahret, a brilliant Air Force avionics engineer, said, “we found out there wasn’t a lot of call for data on a ballistic missile with a garbage truck behind it.”

In 1953, Bahret placed polystyrene foam radar absorption cones on the interior walls, similar to low-echo film sound stages. The cones provided a radar-absorbing material, thus creating the Air Force’s first anechoic chamber. Experiments in the anechoic chamber rapidly led to discoveries that reduced an object’s radar signature, creating the new science of stealth technology.

The building continued to function as a radar testing laboratory until 1990, when the Air Force removed the anechoic chamber. By then, the aging structure had developed chronic maintenance problems. The roof leaked; the huge, folding, exterior metal doors froze in their tracks; heavy rainstorms flooded the floor. Further, its location on National Road in Fairborn, just outside the Area B perimeter fence, posed security headaches.

Nowadays

The Air Force has since renovated the structure and assigned another base tenant. Although off-limits to the public, it can easily be viewed from the street. It remains a largely unnoticed but unique reminder of the rich aviation history that exists in and around Dayton and a remarkable piece of architecture.

The Ohio Historic Inventory lists the former Radar Test Facility as eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places.



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