By CHELSEA DAVIS
Courier staff writer
---- — OTTUMWA — The naval air station's administration building is one step closer to looking like its old self.
The cupola — a dome-like structure that once sat atop the building — was taken down "who knows when," said Friends of NAS Ottumwa board member Mike Gretz. But the building was then re-roofed and the structure hasn't been seen since.
Stephen Black, who has spearheaded the effort to restore the administration building alongside his board members and volunteers, said he also isn't sure when the cupola was removed, but when he flew at the Ottumwa airbase in the 1970s, it wasn't there.
"But I think in 1962 there was a big storm that came through and did a lot of damage," he said. "One of the hangars was blown down so it may have been then [that the cupola came down]."
The original plans for the cupola were found at the airport, though, so Arlo Northup and Howard Cudworth set out to construct a new one, this time internally with cedar and then wrapped in aluminum. The cupola acts as the only vent opening for the roof, but it was also a distinguishing feature of the building.
On Saturday afternoon with the help of Southeast Iowa Crane, the new cupola was lifted and swung on top of the building, where volunteers helped secure it.
Volunteers also continued the sometimes seemingly never-ending sweeping and cleaning of debris inside the building.
During a tour of the first floor of the building, Black noted that while it "looks like hell," with busted walls, crumbling paint and debris, that's nothing compared to when they began the project. Paintball marks cover the walls, though there was some dispute as to whether they're connected to kids playing in the abandoned building or the urban assault training local police launched in the 1970s.
The building is structurally sound, which was reinforced by Snyder and Associates engineers who came to Ottumwa to review the building and "told us we weren't nuts," Gretz said.
"We've got our work cut out for us," Black said. "You wouldn't believe what it looked like when we first walked in."
That led to a conversation between Gretz and Black in November 2010: "Do we really want to do this?"
Yes, they decided. Other similar buildings were in worse shape before they were rehabilitated — and it's important to preserve this chapter in Ottumwa's history.
Larry and Elsie Mae Cofer were the "flame" behind the project, Gretz said. After Elsie Mae wrote the book "Carrier on the Prairie" and they began fly-ins, Gretz and Black were convinced something needed to be done.
In the northwest corner of the second floor was Richard Nixon's office when he was stationed in Ottumwa as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, Black said. That and the commander's office across the hall will have to be restored nearly identical to what they were.
The contract to tear out and reconstruct the concrete front steps had already been let, Gretz said, and the next step will be to reconstruct the porch and restore the four large pillars on the front of the building. An Amish company has also given the group a quote to create the wood double door that opened up into the lobby and insurance office.
"We're hoping to get this all done this summer," he said. "By fall, the whole front could be done."
Then they'll tackle the 111 windows next summer "to look period," Black said. But one idea is to create panels that would be secured over the windows on the inside, in particular in what used to be the waiting room when the building was functional. The panels could have photos of the barracks and mess halls — what those inside the original building would have seen when they looked out the windows.
The hope is that someday, NAS Ottumwa will be able to install flight simulators, a simpler one for children and a one for adults, to give them a hands-on flight experience.
"Then besides some brick repair, we'll have the outside all buttoned up and we can start on the inside," he said. "It's probably going to have to be gutted due to the four to five years the police used it for SWAT activity. They blew holes in the walls."
Black said gutting the inside is likely due to asbestos and dated infrastructure.
"There are electrical wires in here that were installed in the 40s," Black said. "That's one fast way to burn down a building."