Hughes Aircraft Campus, c. 1953 – Source: Unknown.
Situated near the coast and southwest of downtown Los Angeles, the site had the optimum conditions for a factory and airstrip.
At the end of the 1930s, Hughes Aircraft operated out of leased space at Grand Central Air Terminal in Glendale. The growing company did not have sufficient space for production facilities, making it difficult to secure large government contracts. To solve the problem, Howard Hughes started buying land west of Culver City, in what is now known as Playa Vista, to build new headquarters and consolidate his various aviation activities in a single location. He was already familiar with the broad, flat Ballona wetlands, which had been used as a filming location since the 1910s. In fact, Hughes filmed portions of his 1930 film Hell’s Angels there. Situated near the coast and southwest of downtown Los Angeles, the site had the optimum conditions for a factory and airstrip. It was somewhat isolated and undeveloped, yet conveniently located near a large labor pool. Hughes’ original purchase consisted of a 380-acre tract bordered on the west by Lincoln Boulevard (then Roosevelt Highway), on the north by Jefferson Boulevard (then Florence Boulevard), and by Teale Street to the east and south. The Westchester Bluffs rose along the southern boundary. A watercourse known as Centinela Creek flowed through the property near the base of the bluffs. The original 380-acre campus would eventually grow to 1,300 acres.
Hughes commissioned Henry L. Gogerty, an accomplished Los Angeles architect, to plan the facility and to design the buildings. The plan called for a new runway and a complex of industrial buildings at the east end of the property. At 9,500 feet in length, the runway was to be the longest private airstrip in the world. Construction of the plant began in December of 1940 and continued through the spring and summer of 1941. During the Fourth of July holiday weekend, Hughes Aircraft Company staff moved to the new facility. At that time, only one structure—Building 5—had been completed. Most of the buildings in the complex were assigned numbers or letters as identifiers rather than names. Later in 1941, Buildings 6 and 9 were completed, along with a generator building. A fifth building, known as Engineering III, was later moved to the site from Burbank and placed on the north side of Building 5. It was moved again two months later to the east side of Building 6.
In 1942, Hughes Aircraft Company secured an $18 million, 10-month contract to produce “flying boats.” The extremely tight deadline for the project was exacerbated by the lack of production space necessary to build cargo planes as large as Hughes and his business partner Henry Kaiser had promised. Expansion of the Hughes Aircraft campus commenced accordingly. Under the terms of the Flying Boat contract, the cargo plane itself, as well as all of the buildings erected for its production, had to be constructed of non-essential wartime materials–in other words, wood. No metal was allowed.
Plans for the first two buildings constructed for the Flying Boat project—Building 2, the engineering building, and Building 3, the mock-up building—were actually drawn before the contract was even awarded. Constructed in 1942, the new structures were located immediately east of Buildings 5 and 6 on the opposite side of a Pacific Electric rail spur. In response to the curvature of the adjacent railroad tracks, Building 3 was constructed with a clipped southwest corner.
Building 15, the cargo building, was constructed during the spring and summer of 1943. By fall, Hughes Aircraft staff was already fabricating Duramold (an early form of glue-laminated plywood) components for the Flying Boat in Building 15’s giant hangars. The massive hangar building dominated the site. Located approximately 450 feet west of Buildings 5 and 6, Building 15 was 740 feet long and rose to a height of 73 feet, or about six stories. It was widely believed to be the largest wood-framed building in the world at the time. It was built using large Duramold arches for its structure and redwood siding as its exterior cladding. Buildings 14 and 16 were constructed immediately adjacent to Building 15, creating one large unit.
The end of World War II and the completion of major projects like the Flying Boat marked a period of downsizing and consolidation of activity at the Hughes campus. During the late 1940s, the company’s primary focus shifted from aircraft to development of sophisticated electronics for military and commercial applications. In 1948, Hughes Aircraft beat out several large electronics companies in securing a major contract with the Air Force for a radar-based fire control system to be used in interceptor aircraft. Additional contracts soon followed.
In order to meet their increasing contractual obligations for electronic weapons systems and missiles, facility planners and company scientists in charge of research and development determined that more than 200,000 square feet of additional laboratory, shop, and office space would be needed by 1951. To meet these needs, an extensive expansion program for the facility was initiated and completed between 1949 and 1952. Building 5 doubled in size with multiple additions. Building 6 grew to be even larger in footprint than the enormous Building 15. To serve the burgeoning Hughes workforce, the existing cafeteria was expanded in 1950 to more than twice its original capacity with an outdoor seating area and a small second-story dining room. The new cafeteria became known as Building 10. Building 11, originally the paint shop which stood to the west of Building 5, was moved to the south side of Building 10 in 1951. Around the same time, Building 17, a large warehouse, and Building 1, an administrative building, were constructed. With the completion of Building 1, all of the Hughes Aircraft administrative offices were concentrated under one roof at the easternmost end of the campus. The long, narrow, north-south oriented structure housed the upper echelons of the company and their support staff, including Howard Hughes’ own office. Building 19, a receiving building, was erected further to the west shortly thereafter.
Indicative of the changing nature of the company’s focus, several buildings were completed to house radar and guided missile staff. Building 12 was completed in April of 1951 and was immediately filled by the Radar Department and elements of several others. Building 20 was constructed in the summer of 1951 and added another 78,000 square feet of space for guided missile staff. The one-story building marked the westernmost limits of plant expansion. Building 18, the fire station, was also constructed in 1951 between Buildings 10 and 17. It became the southernmost building on the campus. Lastly, Building 21, a two-story facility housing research and development offices and testing laboratories, was completed directly south of Building 20 in 1952.
As part of the expansion program, the plant took on a more unified appearance with all of the buildings painted a distinctive shade of green. Opinions differ as to how the color was selected. Some say Howard Hughes had the light yellowish-green color developed by Sinclair Paints specifically for use at the plant, while others state that the color was chosen simply because it was surplus and cheap. In any event, the shade was so closely associated with Hughes Aircraft and the campus that it became known as “Hughes Green.”
After 1953, with the reorganization of the company and the dispersal of production facilities to newly established locations in Tucson, El Segundo, Canoga Park, and the Los Angeles International Airport, new building construction at the original Hughes Aircraft campus was limited to smaller support and warehouse buildings. The last major construction project was Building 45, a hangar at the far west end of the site that was completed in 1954.
The sale of Hughes Aircraft’s helicopters division to the McDonnell Douglas Corporation in 1984, followed by the purchase of Hughes Aircraft by General Motors in 1986, brought a steady decline in the level of activity at the facility and ultimately led to the removal of numerous buildings. By 1991, when the Army Corps of Engineers determined that the campus constituted a historic district eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, 22 buildings remained. Of these, 16 were considered contributors to the historic district, with a total of 6 non-contributors.
Between 1991 and the early 2000s, nine buildings were demolished (Buildings 5, 6, 12, 19, 20, 30, 34, 35, and 37). The overall setting and landscaping has also changed in recent decades. New construction abuts the campus on the west, north, and east. Apart from the sycamore grove between Buildings 1 and 2, the landscaping in the district is new. The new planting palette consists of a variety of ornamental grasses and succulents. The street pattern has changed with the addition of new streets and the realigning and renaming of others. The district is now bisected by Campus Center Drive, which serves as the primary access route from Jefferson Boulevard. The circulation routes throughout the district are characterized by landscaped concrete medians and flanked by concrete sidewalks. Four new office buildings and two new parking structures were constructed along the east side of Campus Center Drive in the late 1990s, changing the general shape of the district from a single group of buildings to three separate clusters. Buildings 1, 2, and 3 comprise the cluster to the east; Buildings 14, 15, 16, and 21 make up the cluster to west; and Buildings 10, 11, 17, and 18 make up the cluster to the south.
In 2010, The Ratkovich Company purchased the entire Hughes Industrial Historic District, rebranded it as The Hercules Campus, and embarked on an ambitious plan of rehabilitation and revitalization. Their first task was to stabilize, restore, and upgrade the core and shell of each building to make it attractive to potential tenants. Once the core and shell improvements were complete, new tenants were eager to lease the district’s buildings not only because of their aesthetic appeal and size, but also their rich and important histories. Each tenant has put its own stamp on the interiors of the buildings while maintaining all of the original features that define them. By 2018, all of the buildings—even the massive complex of Buildings 14, 15, and 16—will be fully occupied by prestigious tenants in the media, technology, and entertainment fields, bringing a truly fitting, creative, and exciting new energy to such an important, historic place. For details on each individual building’s history and transformation, please visit our Visual Tour.
For additional reading on the Hughes Industrial Historic District, Howard Hughes, the Spruce Goose, and the history of aerospace in Southern California, see the following sources, which were used in the preparation of this website.