412th CE, AFFT Museum work to save historic wall
Aside from archived photos, videos and historical accounts of pilots taken during the golden age of flight test at Edwards, some stories of Edwards’ past remain hidden, waiting to be restored and told.
In the case of the historic Muroc Manor signature wall, the wall literally remained hidden, but under a thin coat of paint within the basement of Muroc Manor, the original home of the commanding general of Muroc Army Airfield. Until recently, the wall was initially going to be included in the demolition of Muroc Manor, but with the efforts of multiple organizations on and off base, team members were able to extract the wall in November in order to preserve a part of flight test history.
“Many visiting dignitaries, celebrities, Air Force personnel have signed this wall, so it holds a piece of history that is unique to Edwards and the Air Force as a whole,” said Michele LaComb, 412th Civil Engineering Directorate asbestos, lead and demo project manager. “Pictures of the wall are on display at Club Muroc in Pancho’s Bar, but the resolution is not as clear as it would be if the wall was able to be restored to its original condition.”
Constructed in 1943, the building is important because it served as the social hub for the base and played host to aviation pioneers and the Hollywood elite, according to Reymundo Chapa, 412th CE Base Historic Preservation officer.
“People who visited the bar at Muroc Manor signed a wall to immortalize their visit. That wall potentially holds thousands of signatures dating from the early 1940s to the 1960s,” added Chapa. “The wall is unique in that it tells the story of Edwards from the perspective of those who were here. Reading their signatures like a chronological roll call, one can begin to place people into the historical events that occurred here. So the wall allows us to populate an otherwise static history of events with the names of people who made those events happen.”
Although the building holds an important significance in Edwards history, due the time it spent unused and weather beaten by the elements, LaComb said the building needed to be demolished. The signature wall was also painted over during renovation efforts.
“Since there were no funds to renovate or bring the structure back to its original state, it had sat vacant for many years and it became a target for vandalism as well as deterioration,” LaComb said. “The house itself is contaminated with both asbestos and lead which poses a health hazard as well.”
Even though demolition on the building began mid-November, Chapa said preservation efforts wouldn’t have been possible without the help of multiple organizations within Edwards, like CE and Environmental Management. Of the outside organizations, Chapa also mentioned that T. Simons, a prime contractor for asbestos, lead, and demolition; Midwest Environmental Control, Inc.; and Spectra Company were all main contributors with the extraction efforts.
“Initially, Chris Wilson, [412th CE base architectural historian with JT3], contacted Spectra and ARG Restoration companies and received separate proposals for the removal of the signature wall. I had also contacted the Judge Advocate office to see if we could use the demolition funding for the removal of the wall,” LaComb said. “Since the removal portion only was considered part of the overall demolition process, we obtained approval to submit the wall removal along with the abatement and demolition costs to command.”
During the extraction, Chapa said the team of craftsmen had to bring in an infrared camera to further evaluate the structure in order to carefully remove the wall after running into a hurdle that involved the wall being attached to two different parts of the foundation.
“This extraction process changed upon the discovery of a diagonal joint running through the entire signature wall, consisting of two different materials, soft adobe mud brick and hard formed concrete,” said Tom Bilisoly, Spectra Company supervisor and senior artisan. “It is unknown at this point why these two materials were used at this location, so Plan ‘B’ had to be brought into operation, of an approach from the outside.”
“Fortunately, Spectra was able to remove the wall starting from the exterior to the interior with the help of MEC, avoiding the building’s exterior and stairs, so they could actually saw cut the concrete stairs to gain access to the back side of the wall,” added LaComb. “Although there was a small piece of the upper right corner that broke off, it was wrapped and placed with the wall so it could be restored.”
Additionally, of the organizations that contributed, Chapa said the base Air Force Flight Test Museum correspondingly stepped in with the preservation efforts by offering to house the signature wall.
“Since it is a piece of Edwards history, we felt it was our duty to save this mark in Edwards history. Most people don’t know this, but for the last three years, we used to go up to the house and maintain it in order to preserve the building. We had a really bad windstorm one year which took down the roof and we just didn’t have the resources to continue preservation efforts,” said George Welsh, 412th Test Wing AFFT Museum curator. “Until such a time when the new museum is built at the West Gate of Edwards, we’re going to be the caretakers of the signature wall where it will be kept in one of our warehouse facilities until we acquire enough funds to remove the paint and restore the wall back to its full glory.”
“Preservation is not always a high priority, but General Brewer [412th Test Wing commander], immediately understood the importance of the wall and tasked Mr. Judkins [412th CE director], to make it happen. Despite the complexities that this relatively small project had on the larger demolition effort, Mr. Judkins, Michele LaComb and Chris Wilson went above and beyond a good-faith effort and made the project happen,” added Chapa.
Eventually, Welsh said the Muroc Manor signature wall will be incorporated and placed on display in the new museum in order to tell visitors and history enthusiasts a piece of what Edwards was all about.