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Airport Exhibit Takes Off

Loudoun Museum creates 'Decision at Dulles'

Travelers picking up their baggage at Washington Dulles International Airport might have reset their watches only to come upon a display that will take them back in time.

Set in green and orange with a 1960s-70s retro look, the Loudoun Museum’s latest exhibit shows how the decision to locate the airport in Loudoun brought growth to the county. “Decision at Dulles: Planning as if the Future Mattered” is located in a 20-foot glass case in the hallway between the airport’s two baggage claim areas, one of two glass cases that are part of the original airport structure.

“It’s very eye-catching. You can’t miss it,” said Christie Hubner, collections manager at the Loudoun Museum.

The exhibit, which opened on July 29, coordinates with the 100-year anniversary of flight. It includes several text panels and 11 photographs, most of them provided by the Federal Aviation Administration, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) and the Library of Congress. The photographs depict the 9,800-acre site of farms and the small village of Willard where the airport was built, the major key players in the selection and building process, and the airport’s development from the 1950s to 2000.

“People wonder why it’s here,” said Hubner, who planned and helped assemble the exhibit. “It’s an interesting story to share. The Dulles Airport itself is such a prominent feature, a well-known landmark.”

THE NEED for a second metropolitan Washington, D.C. airport became apparent after World War II, according to information provided by the MWAA and in the exhibit. The Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport was built in 1941 south of D.C. without room for expansion, so another airport was needed to serve an increasing demand for airport capacity.

Planners proposed locating the Washington Dulles International Airport near Burke, but the public said the airport was too close to National and not cost-effective. In 1958, President Dwight Eisenhower selected another site southeast of rural Loudoun County that straddled both Loudoun and Fairfax counties.

Architect Eero Saarinen designed the airport, which underwent construction beginning on Sept. 2, 1958 with an opening on Nov. 19, 1962 at a cost of $108.3 million. Eisenhower named the airport after John Foster Dulles, Secretary of State from 1953-59.

“It was a unique and creative design at the time. It architecturally has become a very important site,” Hubner said about Saarinen’s modernist design for the main terminal. Saarinen, who built the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, described the design as “a huge, continuous hammock suspended between concrete trees,” as stated on an exhibit panel.

The airport did not prove a success at first, serving 2.5 million passengers in 1975 compared to National’s 11.7 million passengers that year. The Dulles Toll Road, which opened in 1984, helped increase air traffic to five million passengers in 1985 and 10 million passengers two years later. The Dulles Corridor of major Internet and telecommunication companies developed along the Toll Road and Route 28, and, in 1995, the Dulles Greenway opened.

A year later, the airport expanded the Main Terminal to 1.1 million square feet, opened Concourse B in 1998, added another 1,000 acres to the site in 1999 and began a $3.4 billion capital construction project, known as the Dulles Development, in 2000 to add two parking garages, a fourth runway, a new concourse and an underground train system connecting the concourses with the terminal, as stated by the MWAA. In 2000, the airport served nearly 20 million passengers.

“The airport has been the economic engine for Loudoun County,” said Scott York (R-At large), chairman of the Board of Supervisors. “One of the reasons we’re very attractive for economic development is because we have an international airport in our backyard.”

SINCE THE AIRPORT opened, Loudoun’s population grew from 24,500 residents in 1960 to 196,300 residents in 2002, according to the Department of Economic Development's 2002 Annual Growth Summary. In that time, “hundreds of businesses have moved into the area, including several national corporations,” as stated on the first panel of the exhibit. "The location of Dulles Airport has had a major impact on the landscape and population of Loudoun County."

Mark Stavish of the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce considers the airport to be one of the county’s best assets. “It’s a great recruiting tool because business travel is so important, and it’s literally minutes away,” said Stavish, vice-president of membership and past chairman of the Chamber and president and general manager of Evergreen Partners, LLC in Leesburg. “One of the things that makes Loudoun so special to people who live and work here is they have access to the airport. Most of use have to travel for vacation or business, and to have an airport 25 minutes away is a resource.”

The airport is one of three things businesses mention as being important for their success, along with education and proximity to Washington, D.C., said Larry Rosenstrauch, director of the Department of Economic Development. “Almost every business we talk to, without that airport in the mix, they might not have considered Loudoun or the region,” he said.

The exhibit, which was funded with $6,500 in Tourism Occupancy Tax funds, will be at the airport through the summer and possibly into the fall.

“It’s a positive way to tell the story of how [the airport] fits in with the county and how it has accelerated the growth of the county,” said Tom Sullivan, spokesperson for the MWAA. “It provides visitors to the area a quick education of Loudoun County.”