Between the Westchester bluffs and the Marina freeway sits an agglomeration of grey buildings, warehouses, and one very large hangar. To the west is a development of luxury condos and apartments, in the California-Tuscan contemporary style. Built in the early 2000s on some of the last remaining undeveloped acreage on the west side of Los Angeles, Playa Vista now has its own zip code and is marketed as a self-contained “live/work/shop/play” community.
Shortly after construction on Playa Vista began, a large Native-American burial site was discovered on the property, halting the project. Over 300 bodies belonging to ancestors of the Gabrieleno-Tongva tribe were later excavated from the site by a team of archeologists hired by the developer. Outraged at this disturbance of sacred grounds, the tribe opposed the displacement of the ancestral remains and sued the Playa Vista Development. However, excavation continued, and the remains were reburied nearby, while the beads, arrowheads, deer-bone whistle, basketry and eating utensils sifted from the dirt were crated off to the archaeology department at UCLA.
The burial grounds had been part of the Tongva’s Washna settlement, located along the banks of Ballona Creek. The Tongvas inhabited this land for thousands of years before Spanish colonization. After the Spaniards came the industrial age: in 1940, Howard Hughes purchased a large parcel of the Ballona Wetlands on which he planned to build facilities for his expanding aircraft company.
Howard Hughes – aviator, filmmaker, and Hughes Tool Company heir – established Hughes Aircraft in Glendale, CA in 1932. The company operated out of a corner of a Lockheed Corporation hanger in Burbank until 1941, when it was relocated to the Ballona Wetlands site. Here, Hughes built a sixty-thousand-square-foot, air-conditioned plant, equipped with state-of-the-art machines and laboratories. The 11 buildings, including one very large airplane hangar, stood at the end of a nine-thousand-foot runway pointing in the direction of the Pacific: it was the longest privately-owned airstrip in the world.
For over 50 years, airplanes, missiles, helicopters, and satellites were manufactured at this site, including the “Spruce Goose”, the biggest plane ever built. In addition, Hughes Aircraft designed weapons and communications equipment, and developed radar and mapping technology, such as that used by the Landsat program. The company’s biggest expansion came during WW2 when over 80,000 employees worked at the plant. Hughes Aircraft remained one of Southern California’s largest aerospace employers throughout the Cold War years.
In 1984, Hughes Helicopter, a subsidiary of Hughes Aircraft, was sold to McDonnell Douglas; in 1985, Hughes Aircraft was sold to General Motors, a division of which was sold to Raytheon in 1997. McDonnell Douglas continued to operate the plant, tapering off production until shutting it down in the early 1990s. In 1991, the buildings were added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Since then, the empty buildings have been used as sound stages for various film productions, including Independence Day, Titanic, Avatar and the Howard Hughes biopic, The Aviator. In 1999, Dreamworks planned to take over the site, but eventually dropped out of the deal, reportedly because of the controversy over the Ballona Wetlands: environmental groups opposed the Playa Vista development because of the threat it posed to the surrounding ecology. A portion of the wetlands, extending west towards the ocean from Playa Vista, is now a protected wildlife refuge.
Today, the old Hughes Aircraft buildings stand empty. Access is difficult through the winding streets and cul-de-sacs of Playa Vista. The undeveloped land appears to be fenced off, though there is a gate that remains open at one end for film crews. Looming over an intersection with a flashing stoplight is the hangar where the Spruce Goose was built. The other Hughes buildings have all been painted grey, their interiors gutted. At the furthest end of the property, behind two newly-constructed parking garages, sit three buildings built around a central walkway surrounded by overgrown trees. Two of them appear to have been used as office space, as evidenced by the cubicle layout and the built-in file cabinets. The third has an engineering loft under a high ceiling, the wood paneling on the walls a match with old photographs of Howard Hughes standing in front of a helicopter model. In one of these buildings remains a rare emblem of the past: a peeling world map representing flight routes – perhaps of TWA?
As the fog rolls in from the Pacific and night falls, the buildings are obscured, while outside, the floodlights of a film production light the dimming sky as bright as day.
The 11 buildings of the former Hughes Aircraft plant were in foreclosure when they were bought by a commercial real estate developer in 2010. They were renovated and converted into office space and studios for film production companies in 2011. The development was named The Hercules Campus at Playa Vista.