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Origins of the nation’s first state-owned airport

Early airport development in the United States was predominately private, but city and county ownership grew in prominence following the end of the First World War. At that time, airports were primitive facilities serving predominately as military fields. Some private landing strips existed, along with a few rudimentary municipal fields, but most consisted of nothing more than a clearing with a defined grass landing strip or possibly a waterway for amphibious aircraft. These conditions quickly became obsolete as rapid technological advances in aviation outpaced the growth and modernization of basic airport facilities. Responding to this situation was complicated by the fact that the federal Air Commerce Act of 1926 specifically prohibited the federal government from establishing, operating, or maintaining civilian airports. The Act did, however, create a pilot licensing program and provided funds for constructing a network of lighted federally designated air routes to permit night flying from one beacon to the next. The federal legislation also permitted government officials to encourage construction of new airports and improvements to existing facilities through providing advice and even design and engineering assistance. The Aeronautics Branch of the Department of Commerce provided much of the engineering and design services for airports constructed in the late 1920s and into the 1930s.

The Ford Motor Company's development of the Ford Trimotor all metal passenger airplane in 1925 and Charles A. Lindbergh’s flight from New York to Paris proved the viability of commercial and passenger aviation. By the late 1920s, new airports constructed, owned and operated either by private firms or municipal or county governments supported the expansion of commercial flights. The stock market crash of October 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression spurred airport construction through financial assistance from a variety of federal agencies. The State of Rhode Island took full advantage of this funding and became the only state to construct its own airport, creating what today is the Rhode Island T. F. Green International Airport, making it the first state-owned airport in the United States.

As early as 1925, Rhode Island officials realized that the state‘s civil aviation facilities were becoming inadequate. Recognizing the economic potential of air freight and passenger travel, businessmen from Providence and Warwick began lobbying for a centralized, state-operated airfield. In 1925 the state legislature authorized a study to investigate appropriate locations for the airfield. Warwick was particularly interested in the potential of an airport to spur commercial development within its town limits. Warwick had lost much of its industrial base when West Warwick was established and set off as a separate town in 1913, taking Warwick’s textile mills with it. In 1928 the Warwick Town Council passed a resolution asking the Governor to establish an airport in Warwick.

In 1929 a $300,000 bond issue was approved for the purchase and construction of a state airport and a State Airport Commission was created and given the responsibility of selecting a site. Based on recommendations from the New York engineering firm Black and Bigelow, Inc., on July 3, 1929 the Commission announced the choice of Hillsgrove in Warwick for the new airport. Of the 411 acres acquired and cleared, 158 acres were graded and seeded to provide a hard turf field, with the rest held in reserve for expansion. Cost was the primary consideration in selecting Hillsgrove over Gaspee Point in Warwick or What Cheer Airport in Pawtucket. Hillsgrove also allowed construction to proceed immediately and to fall within the limits of the bond appropriation. Other advantages of the location included:

  • its accessibility with respect to Providence;
  • lack of surrounding hazards such as high tension wires;
  • flat topography;
  • proximity to New Haven with its industrial and railroad facilities; and
  • the existence of natural navigation landmarks in its vicinity.

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, Hillsgrove had “ample space to prepare an ‘all over’ field with runways in all directions having a minimum length of 3,000 feet. This is an exceptional condition in New England and one which will entitle the site to the highest Department of Commerce [bond] rating [based] on size.” The Black and Bigelow report concluded that “With proper planning it is believed that this site can be developed into one of the largest, safest airports in New England and one of the most accessible to the center it serves.”

The Hillsgrove State Airport unofficially opened in July 1931. Rhode Island was a pioneer in public airport policy and planning and Hillsgrove was the first state-owned airport to open for traffic in the United States. It was officially dedicated on September 27, 1931. The opening was celebrated with an air show that attracted 150,000 people, the largest public gathering in Rhode Island up to that time. The first regularly scheduled commercial flights out of the area, however, between an airport in nearby Seekonk, MA and New York City, NY, had begun over a year earlier on March 1, 1930.

Early facilities at Hillsgrove State Airport were primitive. The flying field was an all-directional one, with three preferred take-off and landing strips, two each of approximately 2,600 feet oriented northwest-southeast and east-west, and one of approximately 4,200 feet oriented northeast-southwest on the axis of the prevailing southwesterly winds. These three axes correspond to the paved runways constructed five years later. Grading, drainage, runways and taxi strips were built by the Lane Construction Company of Meriden, CT, and lighting and electrical infrastructure provided by the New England Machine & Electrical Company of Pawtucket, RI. Buildings were concentrated at the north edge of the airport on Occupasstuxet (now Airport) Road and included administrative offices housed in a pre-existing structure, and two small hangars north of the airfield operated by private air companies, Wings, Inc. and E.W. Wiggins, Inc. The buildings also included a 20-foot by 32-foot concrete block building called a “comfort station” to provide restroom facilities for men and women. This building survives today as a component of the Fire Station.

In 1932, the State Airport Commission developed a five-year plan for improvements. The initial step in the plan was the construction of a new terminal building to handle passenger traffic, administrative and aircraft traffic control functions. The Hillsgrove State Airport Terminal Building was completed in January 1933. The Providence architectural firm of Jackson, Robertson and Adams designed the new terminal, the first public building in Rhode Island built in the Art Deco style. It reflected the influence of aerodynamic streamlined forms that became synonymous with modern transportation in the 1930s. The terminal, which survives in excellent condition and remains in airport administrative use, attained National Register of Historic Places listing in 1983. As the Terminal Building amenities included restrooms, the former “comfort station,” located approximately 125 feet west of the terminal, was adapted as a maintenance building. As the State began to feel the full effects of the Great Depression, airport officials carried out further airport improvements with assistance from federal relief programs, including the Public Works Administration (PWA) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Through these programs, the U.S. Government provided 30 percent of the funding for planned runway and facility improvements, and the State provided the remaining 70 percent. During this period, the Rhode Island State government underwent a major reorganization under Governor Theodore Francis Green. In 1935 Green placed state aviation affairs under the control of the new Rhode Island Department of Public Works, Division of State Airports, with Willard M. Fletcher as its chief administrator.

In 1936, the WPA provided funding for improving and expanding the flying field at Hillsgrove State Airport. A series of conferences between the Airport Commission and representatives from the aviation industry aided in determining the most efficient runway layout and configuration. Three new concrete runways measuring 3,000 feet long and 150 feet wide were constructed, with two forming an “X”? with its crossing point closer to the terminal, and the third bisecting the “X”? on an east-west axis. This pattern duplicated the previous strips established in 1931. The northwest-southeast runway was later numbered Runway 16/34 (still in use); the northeast-southwest runway was later numbered Runway 5/23, later 5L/23R (now Taxiway V); and the east-west runway was later numbered Runway 10/28 (now Taxiway N). The runways were connected by a system of 40 foot wide asphalt taxiways connecting their west ends (Taxiways 1 and 2, now Taxiway F) and east ends (Taxiway 5, now Taxiway B) to a 1,400 foot long by 150 foot wide apron in front of the terminal and hangars at the north edge of the airport. The project included new drainage systems and a state-of-the-art runway lighting system “to meet almost any requirement for night landings and departures.”?The runways were completed in August 1936 at a cost of $498,180. The majority of the original Hillsgrove State Airport runway, taxiway, and apron pattern at the north end of the airport survives today with some alterations and is still in use by small private planes and larger commercial cargo aircraft.

The final step in completion of the State‘s five-year plan for improvements was the construction of a large hangar with sufficient space to house and maintain a growing number of aircraft using the airport. With the approval of the State Emergency Public Works Commission, Governor Quinn awarded the contract for the new hangar on December 31, 1937 to Evangeliste Turgeon of Providence. Work began in January 1938. The two previous existing Wings Inc. and E.W. Wiggins Airways hangars had to be demolished for the construction of the new “State Hangar,” or “Hangar 1,” as it later became popularly known.

Hangar 1 was completed in June 1938 at a cost of $331,540, and the state officially took possession in January 1939. State aviation officials viewed Hangar 1 as the capstone of the overall construction of the Hillsgrove State Airport and as a means to improve the growth of aviation at the local level. Completion allowed administrative and air traffic control activities to move to the new building from the 1933 Terminal Building, which was then devoted entirely to passenger arrivals and departures. Designed by prominent Providence-based architect Oresto DiSaia, Hangar 1 was a “unified,” or “combined-type,” hangar. Its design was governed by the multiple functions that the building would serve, including aircraft storage and maintenance, administrative offices, and aircraft control. The T-shaped building included a large central hangar for larger transport planes with four smaller flanking hangars and shops totaling 45,235 square feet of hangar space. The administrative section, which fronted on Airport Road, featured an Art Deco facade and contained room for eight large offices. A notable “innovation in airport structure” was the integration of a 5-story control tower on the south (runway) side of the building, which contained the hangar superintendent‘s office, a U.S. Weather Bureau office, and radio and control tower apparatus, topped by a hexagonal control room built entirely of 3-ply laminated glass to allow operators to see aircraft in the air or on the ground in all directions. Hangar 1 retained its original functions until it was demolished as part of the airport expansion project in October, 2013.

On December 27, 1938, Rhode Island Governor Robert E. Quinn signed an executive order renaming Hillsgrove State Airport as the Theodore Francis Green State Airport (Rhode Island T. F. Green International Airport) in honor of the former governor (1933–1937) and state senator (1937–1961) who, as an avid supporter of aviation, was instrumental in the airport’s establishment. In 1939, the first full year after construction of Hangar 1, Rhode Island T. F. Green International Airport recorded 68,000 take-offs or landings, marking a 141-percent increase over the previous year‘s number. The number of planes based at the airport doubled to 49. The following year, Rhode Island T. F. Green International Airport was documented as the seventh-busiest public airport in the U.S. in terms of number of takeoffs and landings. By that time Hangar 1, which was built to accommodate 10 years of projected growth, was filled to capacity with new aircraft.

Source: Matthew A. Kierstead. National Register of Historic Places Nomination, Hillsgrove State Airport Historic District, Warwick, Kent County, Rhode Island, National Register #83000175, 2009.