Courier Staff Writer
Part of Ottumwa’s role in World War II will soon be reviewed in Washington, D.C.
The Ottumwa Historic Preservation Commission and Friends of Naval Air Station Ottumwa are working with a historian to nominate Naval Air Station Ottumwa for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.
Architectural history consultant Molly Myers Naumann told the commission at their Wednesday meeting the forms are filled out and that she has confidence in the strength of their application.
For those who wonder why the U.S. Navy would build a base in the middle of the country (they also built one in Indiana and one in Kansas), Myers Naumann reminded visitors “you don’t have to have water to fly.”
And that was the 1940s mission of Ottumwa’s naval base: To train pilots to fight in World War II. More than 4,600 pilots successfully earned their wings at the U.S. Naval Air Station in Ottumwa.
“Even when I was a little girl, it always fascinated me that we had this here,” Myers Naumann said.
It’s in Ottumwa, at least in part, because Ottumwa’s airport, located where the National Guard Armory now stands, needed repairs. And the city fathers wanted federal funds to assist in those repairs. When local officials heard the U.S. Navy wanted to build a flight training facility in rural America, Ottumwa boosters raised their hands.
There had been more than 60 buildings on the base, located where the airport still stands today. There are now 14, and the one that the group Friends of Naval Air Station Ottumwa believe they can save is the large Administration Building.
As she showed photos Wednesday, she admitted the insides of the building looked to be in rough shape.
“It doesn’t look good, but it’s doable,” she said. “There’s hope for this building.”
The historian said it wouldn’t be economically feasible to try to save everything, or to turn the whole area into a historic district. That one, important building can represent the Naval Air Station, she said.
Though the paperwork starts out at only a few pages, by the time she finished explaining what the building was used for, why it’s locally significant and evidence of the building’s role in history, the submission exceeded 40 pages.
Despite that, however, the commission, the “Friends” and the consultant are recommending that the Naval Air Station be considered for the “local significance” category. A member of the public asked why it wouldn’t be of broader interest.
The wider categories, Meyers said, require working through even more bureaucratic red tape.
Listing it as significant for the state, for example, would require paperwork that demonstrates NAS Ottumwa’s importance to Sioux City and to Dubuque.
Still, she explained, all the benefits of being on the historic register still apply, from financial incentives to the bronze plaque to the credibility offered by being on the National Registry of Historic Places..
Commission chair Fred Zesiger said the commission would take the nomination before the Ottumwa City Council on Feb. 5.
Zesiger said that the application to the national organization would be based on the Administration Building’s significance for its role as a nerve center of the NAS during World War II, as well as the interesting (and locally important) information about the construction of the building.
Myers Naumann said the U.S. Navy wanted these buildings put up fast so the training could begin. They were going to be wood frame buildings.
During the war years, there was a shortage of building lumber, she explained. The commanding officer was getting worried both about finishing on time and about the quality of the wood he was seeing.
One of the Ottumwans out working on the site may have been the one to offer a suggestion: Ottumwa Brick and Tile made high-quality material, could make enough of it and was right up the road.
The commanding officer inspected the materials and started ordering brick.
“It was more expensive,” said Myers Naumann, “but time was of the essence.”
That unique local connection makes the building even more significant.
A meeting with the Register Review Committee has been scheduled for Feb. 8. Though one never knows ahead of time what decision will be made, Myers Naumann has had a great deal of success with nominations made to Washington.
“I anticipate Feb. 8 will be a great day,” she said.