Where was the very first airport hotel?
Oakland Airport Inn – Courtesy Port of Oakland
My “At the Airport” column on USA TODAY this month explores the history of airport hotels, including the three (so far) hotels I found that claim to be the first airport hotel.
In its long “History of Firsts,” Hilton Hotels & Resorts claims to have pioneered the airport hotel concept with the opening of the San Francisco Airport Hilton in 1959.
Their claim is off by at least 30 years.
Aviation historians say that, in fact, the first hotel built at a United States airport opened its doors to the traveling public on July 15, 1929, on the grounds of what is now the North Field of Oakland International Airport.
“The Oakland Airport Inn was adjacent to the dirt runway,” said Ian Wright, Director of Operations at the Oakland Aviation Museum, “And the structure still stands today.”
At opening, Oakland Airport Inn boasted 37 rooms, a restaurant, a barbershop and a ticket office, according to Air & Space Magazine,. But in 1931, in a article concluding that airport hotels would never catch on with travelers, Aviation described the hotel as being “almost completely devoid of patrons after a year of operations” because two airlines had shifted flights away from the Oakland airport.
To fill the rooms, the hotel management instead courted pilots and students from the Boeing School of Aeronautics, which operated on the airport’s grounds from 1929 until the early 1940s.
Today the building that housed the Oakland Airport Inn is home to the Amelia Earhart Senior Squadron 188, a local unit of the Civil Air Patrol.
That Earhart homage is fitting: Amelia Earhart was a regular guest at the Oakland Airport Inn. And in May 1937 she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, set out from the airport’s North Field for their ill-fated second attempt to fly around the world.
While guests can no longer check-into a room at the Oakland Airport Inn, they are able to book rooms at the Dearborn Inn, in Dearborn, Michigan (near Detroit).
The hotel opened its doors on July 1, 1931 and along with claiming this to be the world’s first airport hotel, the Michigan Historical Marker out front says Henry Ford built the inn to serve Detroit-bound guests arriving at the Ford Airport, which opened in 1924.
Stout Air Services, run by Edsel Ford’s friend William Stout, began offering flights between Dearborn and Grand Rapids, MI in 1926 and in 1929 was flying daily (except Sunday) to both Chicago and Cleveland using Ford Trimotor aircraft.
“The Dearborn Inn was actually the brainchild of Henry Ford’s son, Edsel, and was intended to be the ‘front door’ to the city of Dearborn and to The Ford Motor Company,” said Charles Sable, Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford, “Edsel wanted to provide employees, visitors and airline flight crews with nice, comfortable accommodations.”
Noted Detroit architect Alfred Kahn designed the building for a hotel Edsel wanted modeled after the charming New England inns with Colonial-style décor he’d stay in when traveling back and forth between his homes in Detroit and Bar Harbor, Maine.
“The exterior of the hotel is vaguely a Colonial design,” said Sable, “But one feature that’s really cool is that at the tippy top there’s a ‘widow’s walk,’ or observation platform, where guests could go out and watch the planes land at the airport.”
Today the Dearborn Inn operates as a Marriott Hotel featuring modern rooms that are still decorated with Colonial-style furniture and fabrics. The 231-room hotel complex also still offers guests the option to stay on “Pilots Row” – in rooms once used by airline crews – or in one of the five replica Colonial-style homes of Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe and other famous Americans that Henry Ford had built at the inn.
Other ‘early’ airport hotels
Some of today’s travelers may remember a few other early airport hotels that are now also footnotes in history.
Memphis International housed the Skyport Inn from about 1972 until around 2012. The in-terminal hotel had about 30 rooms split between the A and C Mezzanines and was popular with pilots and flight attendants who had early morning flights. Many, if not all, of the rooms may have lacked windows: in an article about the hotel being razed to make way for office space, the Memphis Business Journal noted that each room at the Skyport Inn had its own skylight.
The Airport Mini Hotel that once operated at Honolulu International Airport closed its doors not long at 9/11. But for many years the hotel offered travelers on layovers a space to nap and freshen up for less than $10 an hour. “Apparently the rooms were small, but the bathrooms were decent,” said airport spokeswoman Claudine Kusano.
And while we now know that th sprawling Hilton that operated at San Francisco Airport from 1959 until the late 1990s was not the world’s first airport hotel (by a longshot), we do know that a night club at the hotel called Tiger A-Go-Go was quite popular with passengers, airline crew and employees.
So popular, it seems, that in 1965, the pop duo Buzz & Bucky released a single about the lounge titled (what else but) Tiger-A-Go-Go (click on the link to give it a listen) which spent four weeks on the Billboard charts.
What are your favorite airport hotels?