Barker Hangar
Barker Hangar Credit: Barker Hangar

In the second of a series of features on the future of Santa Monica Airport, we look at one of the most iconic local business enterprises currently based there, the historic Barker Hangar.

This unassuming semicircular structure is located just over half way along Airport Avenue, on the left hand side as you head towards Bundy Drive. In fact, you’ve probably driven past it half a dozen times on the way to either the amazing airport museum or to The Cloverfield restaurant and bar.

The origins of the 35,000 sq ft space go all the way back to 1954, during the halcyon heyday of Santa Monica Airport when the Douglas Aircraft Company was still based at the site developing commercial and experimental aircraft before it had to move to Long Beach in 1958. The enormous arch-type steel truss hanger was built by Bill Lear, an American inventor and entrepreneur best known for founding Learjet, one of the most familiar brands associated with the private jet industry. He also developed the 8-track tape and the car radio, which was called the Motorola, ultimately establishing the foundations of the telecommunications company.

However, the City of Santa Monica refused to grant Lear permission to begin building his fleet of private aircraft, so he sold the building to Pacific Airmotive. However, the likes of Howard Hughes still rented space as he used it as a base for his personal fleet of three private jets while he lived in Bel-Air. As did Conrad Hilton, who housed his corporate aircraft in the structure.

Meanwhile, 1,400 miles to the east, another chapter in the history of this humble hangar was just beginning and involved a gifted engineer named James Barker. He worked for North American Aviation in the early 60s and lived with his family in Tulsa, Oklahoma. North American Aviation was NASA’s prime contractor for the Apollo spacecraft and manufactured, among other things, the Command Module, the main fuselage structure for the Service Module and the Spacecraft Lunar Adapter, a 28 ft cone that housed the Lunar Excursion Module on the Saturn V rocket.

Judi Barker with Nikki Sixx, co-founder and bassist for the band Mötley Crüe and friend and college , Jeff Coggins, in May 2010
Picture: Judi Barker/Barker Hangar

Tempted by a small, sun-drenched city in Southern California, James moved his family to Santa Monica in the late 60s where he took a job with Pacific Airmotive managing modification, repair and maintenance contracts. However, in 1969 the parent company, Purex Corporation, began to significantly reduce its aviation commitments and it was at this point that the humongous hangar space became vacant for the first time.

“When PacAir [Pacific Airmotive] went out of business and the hangar was offered to the city to buy because this is Santa Monica land — just the hangar is owned by my family, by me. They didn’t want it, my dad said ‘I want it’ and so he bought it,” explained Judi Barker, current owner of Barker Hangar and James’ daughter.

For another 15 or so years James continued aviation-contract engineering in the hangar, converting Convair 580s, DC-3s, DC-10s and such like until his tragic death from leukemia in 1986. At this point Judi, who was studying at Santa Monica College and had her sights set on becoming an interior designer, fell into the family business.

To begin with first the hangar was just being used to store massive amounts of aircraft memorabilia while the museum was being relocated. “Donald Douglas Jr. had a lot of the stuff that was going to go in the museum. He comes to me and asks ‘are you taking over the building?’ I said yes and he asked if he could continue to keep everything in there,” Judi said. “We got all the planes inside ‘cause it was important for the museum. We cleaned up the hangar and I started to rent the space to people.”

From propellerhead to proprietor

After an attempt to lease another, different building on the site fell through, Judi was ultimately faced with a choice. “I had to make up my mind, am I going to actually make this a living, working, breathing hangar? Or am I just going to use it for storage?”

Together with some close friends, Judi worked to achieve exactly that. She turned the space into a fully functioning venue with a personality all of its own. “This was around 1987, I think and everyone had pretty much moved. A few tenants stayed, some were friends of my fathers, but the rest took off … It was like an abandoned city over here.”

The undertaking was no mean feat. Judi had to scrub the hangar from top to bottom, which measures 150 ft wide, 234 ft long and 43 ft in height. This included climbing ladders and transplanting several families of pigeons that had nested in the rafters. “You can’t believe the physicality that was involved in cleaning up this hangar,” she laughs. “Thankfully, my father taught me everything about this building, even how to drive a forklift.”

A beautiful photograph illustrating quite why Barker Hangar is the venue of choice for high-profile entertainment awards events
Picture: Judi Barker/Barker Hangar

The nerve center of the Barker Hangar business is a labyrinth-like series of offices seemingly glued on top and to the side of the main building. Just stepping into a meeting room is like stepping back in time. Southern Californian sunshine pours through the modest windows and creates a day-long haze that bathes everything in a gorgeous, golden glow. Countless shelves are stuffed to bursting point with antique books and aged flight manuals. Not a single space is wasted and that goes for the walls too.

Posters, framed photographs and vintage metal signs adorn every inch of vertical space, each one a snapshot in time of a single moment somehow connected to this curved cathedral of culture. Given some of the names that have come through here in the last 37 years, you could easily spend hours pouring over every detail.

The People’s Choice Awards, the NBA Awards and the MTV Awards have all been hosted here on numerous occasions, together with charity events, food festivals, political rallies, art exhibitions and even weddings. Legendary Australian rock band INXS recorded a live album INXS: Live at Barker Hangar in 1993, two years before the tragic suicide of lead vocalist Michael Hutchence. The limited number of approximately 4,000 tickets sold out in less than three minutes, but despite being broadcast live at the time, the album wasn’t actually released for another 12 years, in 2005 as a digital download only.

No one knows what the future has in store for this hangar or for this airport. No one is entirely sure what’s best for the people of Santa Monica either. What is for certain is that not everyone will agree. However, in order to have a more informed idea of how complex this issue actually is, we will be looking at every side of this argument, presenting the facts and debunking the myths, so you can draw your own conclusions.

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Scott Snowden

Scott fell in love with Santa Monica when he was much younger and now, after living and working in five different countries, he has returned. He's written for the likes of the FT, NBC, the BBC and CNN.