Cape May County on Tuesday night approved a plan to create a special historic district at the Cape May Airport that would include several surviving buildings from a World War II naval air station.
The Board of Chosen Freeholders approved the plan for the county-owned airport unanimously. Freeholder Bill Morey, an aviator who keeps his private plane at the airport, said the proposal still needs to be approved by the State Historic Preservation Office, which is expected to act in March.
Morey said the district will be a boost to the Naval Air Station Wildwood Museum, which displays antique aircraft in the 92,000-square-foot wooden post-and-beam hangar built when the site was a training base for World War II dive bombers.
The district would also include a second hangar dating to Naval Air Station Wildwood that the county currently leases to Penn Turbo Aviation as well as the original terminal building that now houses a restaurant. It also includes about 12 acres of ground.
“It enhances the visibility and puts it on a better platform for grants and funding. It creates a zone where the preservation effort can flourish,” Morey said.
Joe Salvatore, who directs the museum, hired architectural historian Joan Berkey and funded the effort to get historic designation, though he pushed for a larger area that included the 12 remaining World War II buildings and several runways. Salvatore had wanted to start a U.S. Coast Guard museum in a nearby World War II mess hall that served enlisted men from 1942-1945.
The county and the Delaware River & Bay Authority, which leases much of the airport, said the building was to far gone and needs to be demolished.
Salvatore’s original plan was strongly opposed by the county, the DRBA, the Federal Aviation Administration and pilots who use the airport.
Morey said the original proposal ended up in litigation, which the new agreement ends, and stopped progress at the Lower Township-based airfield by the county and the DRBA. He said the scaled-back proposal has been approved by all parties except the state.
“We free the rest of the airport up for development. The airport was being held hostage to the proposal. This is a win for tourism, historic preservation, and development. This had to get resolved,” Morey said.
Berkey said the three buildings in the district have “the highest level of integrity” of the remaining World War II buildings.
“We decided half a loaf is better than no loaf at all,” Berkey said.
A book on NASW written by Salvatore and Berkey said the training airfield had 126 buildings during the war. After the war ended and the base closed, 79 of them were sold and moved off site. Others have slowly decayed or been replaced as other uses at the airport, which also serves as a light industrial park, arose.
Berkey said becoming a historic district will make projects eligible for tax credits and historic preservation money. She noted the Penn Turbo Aviation hangar has modern siding but the original siding and windows are still there.
“There is still talk of establishing a U.S. Coast Guard museum. There is no Coast Guard museum anywhere and it would be a natural to have it in Cape May County. There are a lot of possibilities for those buildings,” Berkey said.
Salvatore said the Penn Turbo hangar was built late in the war and wasn’t used that much. Berkey said the terminal building was one of the first that was built.
NASW covered almost 943 acres during the war and accommodated about 200 planes. Use peaked in October 1944 with 16,994 takeoffs and landings as pilots dive-bombed on targets before heading overseas to fight the Japanese and the Germans. At least 42 naval aviators lost their lives during training.
The freeholders approved a Memorandum of Agreement, or MOA, between the county, DRBA, FAA, State Historic Preservation Office, NASW Foundation, Lower Township, Lower Township MUA and Berkey.
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