Jim Peters had the airplane hangar job of a lifetime staring him down, but he was skeptical.
Peters, a member of the Rural Builder Hall of Fame and president of Freeport Builders in Lena, Ill., was in the midst of a less-than-satisfying deal with the Ogle County Pilots Association when he received a call from Steve Thomas, president of Poplar Grove Airmotive. Thomas, it seemed, was planning something similar to the Ogle County group’s proposal, a build-them-and-they-will-come plan to erect hangars at a rural airport, and in Peters’ eyes that translated into guilt by association. As Thomas tells it, “Jim didn’t return my calls right away, but I pestered him and he got back to me.”
Good thing he did. Thomas’ project turned out to be a $1.3 million, seven-building, 58-hangar job that has addressed pent-up demand for hangar space in northern Illinois while emphasizing various strengths of post-frame building. It is a crowning achievement for Peters’ three-plus decade building career, and the latest in a string of profitable moves for Thomas’ aviation neighborhood venture.
An aviation neighborhood
Poplar Grove Airport had humble beginnings. In 1972 Dick Thomas, Steve’s father, discovered that Boone County was the only one in Illinois that did not have an airport, and moved to change that. He turned a farm field into a privately-owned public use airport, and with the help of his son turned a pair of cattle sheds into the airport’s first makeshift hangars. “My job was to haul the manure out of the cattle sheds,” says Thomas.
The airport remained profitable but modest for more than 20 years, and after Dick Thomas passed away in 1994, Steve and his wife Tina took a critical view of the airport and its future. The couple charted a plan for aggressive growth, a plan that has come to fruition. Ten years ago, 45 planes were housed at Poplar Grove; today, that number sits at 350, and when the new hangar project is complete, that number will climb to nearly 450.
Conditions were perfect for such rapid growth. Approximately 20,000 pilots live within an 80-mile radius of Poplar Grove, a great deal of them current or former commercial airline pilots based at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. The Thomases aimed to give these pilots, along with other aviation enthusiasts, an outlet for making flying fun with sport planes, antique planes, and amateur-built aircraft. “People come to airports like this to have fun, and a lot of that has to do with the architecture, the buildings, the environment we create,” Thomas says.
Growth has taken many forms at Poplar Grove. One expansion vehicle has been the erection of hangars, both new and old. In the mid-1990s, Thomas turned to hangar specialists Erect-A-Tube for 84 units totaling 200,000 square feet, and was pleased with the results from the manufacturer based in nearby Harvard. A quick look at other hangars on the property reveals older structures from Lester and Ceco.
He also used less conventional methods to add hangar space. In 1997, Thomas heard Rockford Airport was planning to scrap three 10-hangar buildings to make room for a parking lot. The buildings were still structurally sound, so Thomas offered to take the buildings, saving the airport $30,000 in demolition costs. Thomas hired a team of college kids and a couple lead guys, scrapped the buildings’ skin, sandblasted the steel, poured new slabs, and re-erected the buildings. Rescuing the hangars cost Thomas 60 percent of what it would have cost to build new hangars, and passing along those savings to customers, he rented all 30 in no time.
In addition to on-site hangar space, the other ambitious expansion plan involved the development of Bel-Air Estates, a residential fly-in community located on 180 acres adjacent to the airport’s primary paved runway. Of the 140 home sites available, 100 have access to the airport via dedicated taxiways. The idea is similar to that used to hook equestrian, golf, and fishing enthusiasts.
“Golfers like to live on a golf course, boaters or fishermen like to live on a lake or a river, pilots like to be as close to their airplanes as they can,” Thomas says.
A tour of Bel-Air Estates reveals multi-million dollar homes, virtually all of them with private hangars, some attached to the houses, others detached. Resembling oversized garages, the private hangars are primarily stick built, and designed to aesthetically match the exteriors of the owners’ homes. Some of the hangars are just now being built. The recent decline of the commercial airline industry, which employs or employed many Bel-Air residents, did not hurt Thomas — all the lots had already been sold — but did temporarily curtail building.
Poplar Grove Airmotive earns money in a number of ways. In addition to the Bel-Air venture, in which all lots were sold word of mouth without the help of a realtor, Thomas rents hangar space and sells hangars; sells fuels and lubricants to plane owners; provides mechanical support and engine overhaul services; and runs a flight school. Adding more planes to the airport’s stable generates revenue not only from hangar sales and rentals, but also from the sale of goods and services.
With that in mind, Thomas sought to expand the airport north of the existing hangars and adjacent to the grass runways. In addition to the additional hangar space, the new development would include a restaurant and an historic hangar that would double as an aviation/automobile museum. As with the Rockford hangars, Thomas got creative with the latter. Along a group of volunteers from Poplar Grove, Thomas rescued a historic hangar from the Waukesha County (Wis.) Airport. The bow truss hangar, built in 1937 as a Works Progress Administration project, featured a Lannon stone exterior, which was taken apart, transported 75 miles, and reassembled stone-by-stone at Poplar Grove. With new interior structural members and a new asbestos-free roof, the airport had its Vintage Wings and Wheels museum, currently open on Saturdays with plans to expand hours.
With a vintage hangar in place, Thomas sought to expand his aircraft housing capabilities with a group of vintage hangars.
Initially, Thomas was inclined to partner with Erect-A-Tube on the project. The product was familiar and satisfactory, the manufacturer local. But an agreement went awry, leading Thomas to Peters, for several reasons.
– After receiving a quotation, Erect-A-Tube raised the price of the project enough to irk Thomas.
– Erect-A-Tube’s bid included the price of their own doors, while Peters left Thomas to negotiate and purchase doors directly from Wilson Doors or any other door manufacturer.
– Peters’ post-frame proposal was more conducive to the vintage look Thomas desired than steel. “I told him, ‘You know, you’re going to stand inside the hangars and see the poles, see the trusses, see the girts,’” Peters says. “He said, ‘That’s what I want.’”
A key design element on the box hangars is false gambrel dormers. “It’s more vintage, that’s how they used to cover the span on old hangars,” Thomas says. “It’s a little different than a conventional pitched roof, adds a little nostalgia. It’ll leverage the museum; even though those hangars are not owned by the museum, when the hangar doors are open, with the old signage on them and old biplanes, people will say, ‘Geez, this is quite a place, a part of history.’”
Several of Thomas’ customers complained mildly that their new hangars would be constructed of wood, not steel, but Thomas chalks that up to preconceived notions and says none of the complaints led to cancellations. Peters, a dealer for Wick Buildings, says he doesn’t often find himself in competition with steel.
“If they want metal, there’s not much you can do,” he says. “In some subdivisions, they’ve got you zoned out because of roof pitch and things like that. Here he wanted a 4:12 pitch, and steel’s not used to doing that.”
In a sense, Peters says Thomas has acted as general contractor on the project. He has his own concrete crew, which poured the slab for the three T-hangars before crews from Freeport and Wick Buildings started. This led to a minor difficulty with regard to door installation. Peters says Wilson’s bi-fold doors have a pin-down element on their interior, which requires an additional 12 inches of concrete extruding from the main slab, and the T-hangar slabs were not poured with this requirement in mind.
Thomas also acquired the massive amount of fill required to set the grade on the yet-to-be-paved blacktop taxiways surrounding the hangars. Once again, the owner proved resourceful: a pilot at Poplar Grove is the president of one of northern Illinois’ largest road construction companies, and last summer was repaving a stretch of nearby I-90. Thomas offered to take the ground-up blacktop for fill, which led to the unusual sight of 35-40 semi trucks per hour dumping their contents at Poplar Grove every night, under lights that could have illuminated Wrigley Field. By paying only trucking fees, Thomas estimates he shaved $50,000 off his bill.
With the framework in place, construction began in earnest in January. Four 51×300 buildings sit symmetrically directly adjacent to a grass runway. Three of the buildings house 13 T-hangars apiece, and will be the first fully completed structures. The other building houses five box hangars, which were sold for roughly three times as much as the T-hangars. Three more box hangar buildings will finish out the project — two 51×360 structures housing six units apiece, and one 51×120 “two-banger hangar,” as Peters calls it.
All things considered, the hangars are straightforward buildings. “Airplane hangars aren’t that difficult, really,” Peters says.
Most twists and turns along the way have come from individual hangar owners looking to add personal touches to their units. For instance, Thomas says some box hangar owners expressed an interest in building lofts in the rear of their units. Tying such lofts into the post-frame structure proved to be cost prohibitive, so Thomas’ home builder proposed a solution in which lofts could be built independent of the larger structure.
Other hangar owners have added overhead doors, walk doors, interior steel liner panels, and hydronic radiant heating systems. “It’s a little more difficult equation,” Peters says. “We’re used to dealing with one person as the owner. Well, Steve Thomas is the owner, but he’s dealing with 58 sub owners, each one of which might have a different opinion about what he might want in his unit. They’re paying for whatever changes they want, and they can’t change the basic design of the building.”
The basic design of the building is strong. For door headers, Wick designed a web beam to 1999 BOCA standards, in lieu of steel headers. Footings are also more fortified than usual — each column sits atop a poured footing, and is strengthened by additional concrete and rebar, as well as plywood on top of the footing. “It’s solid,” says Peters.
Another unique design feature is the windows on the box hangars’ bi-fold doors. Ten CannonBall:HNP windows will span the lower portion of the upper half of each door.
The project is the largest single order in Wick history, says Peters, a dealer for the company since 1972. Any job of that magnitude is bound to hit some snags, but Peters says Thomas has been a most gracious customer. “There’s times he should have been yelling and he wasn’t,” Peters says.
Two Wick crews have been dedicated to the project, and as many as four have worked on the job at any given time. The project should conclude this summer, but that almost certainly does not mean the end of hangar construction at the Poplar Grove Airport.
“We’re building 58 units, and I still have eight people on a waiting list for T-hangars,” Thomas says. “We’ll complete these, chill out for a couple years, let demand get really strong, then take it up another level, see where else we want to build some hangars.”