Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration, and Storage Facility is
named in honor of Paul Edward Garber, (1899-1992) who was instrumental
in collecting more than half of the 352 Smithsonian-owned aircraft. He fell under the spell of both aviation and the
Smithsonian while growing up in Washington, D.C. As a 10-year-old,
he took a streetcar across the Potomac to watch Orville Wright fly
the world's first military airplane at Fort Myer, Virginia. Alexander
Graham Bell, a Smithsonian regent, taught young Paul how to bridle
his kite. At the age of 15, Garber built a full-scale biplane glider
based on a model he had seen at the Smithsonian. His mother helped
him cover the wings with red chintz, after which a group of friends
towed him into the air with a clothesline.
Garber joined the Army in 1918, and was about to
begin flight training at College Park, Maryland, when the war ended.
He took a job as a ground crewman and messenger with the Postal
Airmail Service. But Garber, a talented craftsman and model maker
who frequented Smithsonian museums, decided that he could best contribute
to the future of aviation by preserving its past.
In 1920, he began working at the Institution, building
models and preparing exhibitions. For the next 72 years he dedicated
himself to the preservation of the nation's aeronautical heritage
and to sharing his boundless enthusiasm for flight with Smithsonian
visitors. He played a key role in the creation of the National Air
Museum in 1946, and was indispensable in the effort to construct
the present National Air and Space Museum building, which opened
in 1976. Most important, Garber, as first curator and devotee, helped
to assemble the most impressive collection of historic aircraft
in the world for the Institution.
The storage of that collection was not much of a
problem prior to World War II - virtually everything that Garber
collected was on display at the Arts and Industries Building or
on loan to another museum. But when he returned from service as
a naval officer, he faced an entirely new set of problems. Gen.
Henry H. "Hap" Arnold, commander of the U.S. Army Air Forces, presented
the Smithsonian with a collection of U.S. aircraft that had fought
and won the war in the air, along with captured examples of enemy
aircraft. When Paul Garber accepted responsibility for this vast
collection, it was stored in an abandoned airplane factory in suburban
Chicago, now the site of the O'Hare Airport. The U.S. Navy had a similar
collection of historic aircraft in storage for the Smithsonian at
Norfolk, Virginia. The crisis came with the Korean War, when the
U.S. Air Force needed the factory and began to force the Smithsonian
out the door.
Determined to safely relocate the treasures
to the Washington area, Garber searched in vain for empty
warehouse space in the neighborhood of the nation's capitol.
He then persuaded a pilot friend to assist him in conducting
an aerial survey of the Maryland and Virginia suburbs from
the cockpit of a Piper J-3 Cub. His search revealed 21 acres
of woodland in Suitland. The National Park and Planning Commission,
which controlled the land, was more than pleased to turn it
over to the Smithsonian in 1952.
"When I first went out there and walked around,"
Garber later commented, "my only companions were the bullfrogs
and mockingbirds." There was no budget for this project. "I
had to scrounge," he recalled with pride.
His powers of persuasion were legendary.
Army engineers at nearby Fort Belvoir provided a bulldozer
to clear trees and brush from the site. Garber persuaded a
local contractor to donate any excess cement remaining aboard
his trucks at the end of the workday. Navy officials agreed
to provide, at cost, the first of the prefabricated buildings
that would soon dot the site.
Silver Hill in the beginning.
Prefabricated buildings at Garber.