Wright Brothers' airplane factory is badly damaged in fire

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Wright Brothers' airplane factory is badly damaged in fire
A life size cutout of the Wright Brothers hangs in the front door at the original Wright Brothers Factory in Dayton, Ohio, Nov. 30, 2016. (Ty Wright/The New York Times)

by Amanda Holpuch and Christine Negroni

NEW YORK, NY.- A fire that broke out at a building complex in Dayton, Ohio, on Sunday damaged a factory founded by Wilbur and Orville Wright, the brothers who were the first people to successfully fly an airplane.

The fire throws into doubt the future of the factory, where the brothers built planes starting in the 1910s. It became part of the National Park Service’s group of aviation-related sites in Dayton in 2009.

The factory is a monument not just to the brothers and their consequential invention but to the role of leading industrialists of the day in giving birth to the age of commercial aviation. The factory was built shortly after Wilbur Wright visited New York in 1909 and “got buttonholed by the Vanderbilts, the Colliers, J.P. Morgan, folks like that,” said Dean Alexander, who was the park service superintendent in Dayton when the site was added. “The first thing they paid for was building that factory,” Alexander said.

The Dayton Fire Department said it is investigating the cause of the fire, which started at 2:28 a.m. Sunday and damaged the roof and interior of buildings in the complex. No one was injured, the department said.

But for the many in the area who take pride in the city’s role in the development of aviation, the fire left has left a pall. “I was there yesterday watching them put out the fire,” said Stephen Wright, of Dayton, the great-grand nephew of the brothers. “People were expressing their sadness at seeing something like that burn.”

The Wright Company Factory was under development by its owner, the city of Dayton, and other groups that sought to preserve its history. The building complex includes two buildings that the Wright brothers erected in 1910 and 1911, which made up the first factory in the United States built for airplane manufacturing, as well as newer buildings.

Restoration of those buildings was part of a larger improvement project in West Dayton where the loss of industry and the economic downturn of the past few decades left the neighborhoods around the factory riddled with shuttered homes. The $12 million Dayton Metro Library, located adjacent to the factory was part of those plans. It opened last year.

The Wright brothers were from Dayton and formed the Wright Company in 1909, according to the National Aviation Heritage Area, a nonprofit that manages more than 15 historical aviation sites in Dayton, including the factory complex.

In December 1903, the brothers became the first people to fly an airplane in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The brothers then refined their plane, the Wright Flyer, for several years before making the first public flights in August 1908, dazzling crowds and ushering in the age of aviation, according to the National Air and Space Museum.

The Wright Company produced about 120 airplanes in 13 models before the factory was sold; Orville Wright sold his share of the company in 1915, and his brother had died in 1912. Since the factory was built, the site changed ownership several times and for decades was used to make auto parts.

The city of Dayton purchased the property in October 2018. The next year, the Wright Company Factory was officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Last year, the Dayton City Commission authorized more than $1.4 million to be used to preserve the site, including plans for a museum created in partnership with the National Park Service.

As a historical site, the factory has hosted “hundreds, if not thousands,” of people for hard-hat tours, said Mackensie Wittmer, executive director of the National Aviation Heritage Area in Dayton.

Wittmer said that the previous building owners knew that two of the buildings were part of the Wright brothers’ legacy and that alterations they made to the facilities did not change the “historical integrity” of the space, including the wood roof and support structure.

“If you look at historical pictures that are available either through the Library of Congress or the Wright State University special collections and archives and you see pictures of the Wright Company Factory, that’s what it looks like,” she said.

Historical sites connected to the Wright brothers and buildings named after them dot the city.

“Dayton is known as the birthplace of aviation, but we continue to be an aviation and aerospace city, that is our industry,” Wittmer said. “It’s part of who we’ve been for over 120 years.”

At the same time that the factory became part of the National Park Service, the agency added the home of Orville Wright into the park. Stephen Wright is a frequent host when the home, called Hawthorn Hill, is open to the public.

“There is a fair amount of pent-up demand to see Hawthorn Hill. I presume the factory will have the same draw for people,” Wright said. “The factory site and the new library are things we hoped would infuse the area with visitors and help to revitalize that part of Dayton. I am still hopeful they can evaluate the factory structures and bring them back to some state that will allow that.”

When firefighters arrived, flames had breached the roof and were so intense that they could not enter the building. The fire was not fully extinguished until Sunday evening, said Capt. Brad French of the Dayton Fire Department, and crews continued to check the smoldering debris Monday for hot spots.

The city of Dayton said in a statement that the partners in the project were “saddened” by the fire and would convene a meeting to discuss future redevelopment of the property.

“Despite over 100 years of intense use, the Wright Company Factory still had most of its original wood roof, windows and other historic fabric intact,” said Kendall Thompson, the parks superintendent in Dayton. “We are working with our partners to assess the damage to this irreplaceable resource.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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