It’s one of the things owners Rosemary and Dick Estenson love hearing from guests.
“How long did it take you to restore this hangar?”
The question is entertaining because the hangar is not old at all, it was built from scratch not quite a decade ago on the ramp of Gillespie County Airport (T82) in Fredericksburg, Texas. It is the product of the Estensons’ countless hours of research, sourcing and dogged attention to detail, and the result is a round-topped replica of a World War II hangar that would fool any veteran.
A Rare Atmosphere
Any confusion about the true age of the hangar intensifies as soon as you step into the lobby. Big Band music lilts faintly in the background. A rounded mahogany front desk separates guests from a clerk dressed in a vintage Army Air Corps uniform, and a ring of identical clocks tell the time around the world.
Overstuffed chairs covered in bomber-jacket leather discovered in Army surplus stores make for comfortable resting amid a collection of aviation memorabilia. Adjoining the hotel lobby is the Officers’ Club where guests gather at the grand piano, the pool table and the full bar.
Fifty hotel rooms are strung along an upstairs and downstairs. Accommodations are roomy and comfortable, continuing the Hangar Hotel’s 1940s flavor. Every room has king-sized sleigh beds with luxury linens and comforters. Replicas of Army-issue gray wool blankets are folded at the foot of each bed. A fully functional reproduction of a period-styled telephone sits on the nightstand and über-comfortable leather chairs bracket the rooms’ large windows, many of which offer a front row seat for the airport’s comings and goings.
And just across the runway is the Lady Bird Johnson Municipal Park featuring a par-72 golf course, an Olympic-size swimming pool, lighted tennis courts, volleyball and basketball courts, baseball diamonds, nature trails and picnicking facilities next to the dam or alongside a beautiful creek. In short, this is an aviation Mecca where pilots and their guests can stay and play.
Building the Vision
So it’s not hard to imagine why Dick and Rosemary Estenson were excited to move their entire family to Fredericksburg. At the time, the Hangar Hotel was just a faint flicker of an idea. The Estensons had no previous experience as hoteliers, though Dick did have a track record in the broader vocation of turning bits of his imagination into reality. He originally came to Texas to do just that for NASA.
He was also no stranger to General Aviation, flying a Beech BE-36 TC for a number of years before trading for a high-flying pressurized Cessna 340 twin. The idea of blending the enjoyment of aviation with a unique and challenging vision for a business seemed like a wonderful new adventure.
There was a moment, however, when the whole concept looked like a swing and a miss, presenting the Estensons with the ultimate go, no-go decision. After literally years of negotiation with the town planners of Fredericksburg, legions of county/state officials, even the FAA—and discussing everything from waste disposal to how many lights should be on top of the water tower—the entire project came to a startling and unexpected standstill.
Just as a mountain of documents was finally ready for signatures, the Twin Towers in New York were leveled. The world economy descended into chaos, governments around the planet switched to emergency operations, and the skies across America were closed to any and all air traffic. Clearly it was not the optimum time to start a new aviation business.
A Critical Turning Point
“At first we didn’t know what we were going to do,” Rosemary Estenson said. “We thought about it a long time.” No matter what their decision, it would be one that affected their lives for a very long time to come, especially the level of financial indenture a project like the Hangar Hotel requires.
“Finally we decided we had nothing to lose but money,” Rosemary said with a factual indifference. “And there is no debtor’s prison in America!” she added with a smile. “So we decided to go for it!”
Construction on the Hangar Hotel began during a very difficult period for America. Soon after work on the project began, Dick purchased a huge metal water tower, consistent with the era of the development, and had it trucked on site.
With the help of two humongous cranes, the water tower was slowly reassembled over the nascent Hangar Hotel. At a time when America was defending itself from attack by extremists, Estenson had the word “FREEDOM” written in giant letters on the side of the water tower where a town name might otherwise go. “To me, that says that no terrorist is going to hold us back,” Dick says.
Fredericksburg’s Charm – Now and Then
Rosemary Estenson is the first to tell you that despite all the frustrations, she knew how much the project meant to her husband—being able to transition from his skills working as an engineer on America’s space programs to a real estate entrepreneur. On top of that, she and Dick found themselves on a variety of boards and committees in the small town and it was clear the small town of Fredericksburg had captured their hearts. And for good reason.
Fredericksburg, often cited as the crown jewel of the Texas Hill Country, was settled by German immigrants beginning in May of 1846. Many had purchased “immigration packages” which gave them one-way transportation to Texas from Germany, plus a military escort from the seaport (this was still Comanche territory) to their new acreage.
Settlers grew crops as a means of support, and often made the long buggy ride into Fredericksburg on Saturday to shop, take care of business and maybe attend a social event in the evening.
Because it was often too far for these farmers to commute, their immigration packages often included a small piece of land on Fredericksburg’s main street (now U.S. Highway 290) where they built small residences in which they could overnight and attend church the next day. These petite houses were often made of indigenous limestone, and many still line the streets of Fredericksburg, giving the town its singular look and feel.
To make sure the settlers got along well with the original inhabitants of the area, the Fredericksburg town fathers saw the value of putting together an agreement with the Native Americans almost immediately. In 1847, the Germans signed a treaty with the Comanche Nation, a treaty so honest and forthright for both sides that it is still in effect in 2011. That instrument of peace and trust begat prosperity, and over time, a narrow dirt wagon trail widened to become the main street of one of America’s most extraordinary towns.
Fredericksburg now boasts more than 30 wineries, some of which have begun counting coup against their counterparts in Napa Valley, Calif. There are dozens of high-end art galleries and boutiques that regularly attract shoppers from nearby Austin and San Antonio as well as from Houston and Dallas. Good restaurants are surprisingly abundant.
The world’s largest working wildflower seed farm is just down the road from Fredericksburg, as is the LBJ Ranch (now a national park) and the tiny town of Luckenbach, the alleged roost for Waylon, Willie and the boys. International visitors come from around the world to join Americans to tour the National Museum of the Pacific War. Originally named after hometown hero Adm. Chester William Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet in World War II, the museum has a remarkable collection of artifacts that tell the story of the war in the Pacific Theater.
For example, visitors can see and touch a 78-foot-long, 46-ton Japanese mini-sub that took part in the attack on Pearl Harbor. There is also a majestically preserved Japanese N1K Kyofu Strong Wind Floatplane (Rex), the only one on display anywhere in the world (there’s another “Rex” in Pensacola, but it’s in mothballs and not assembled.)
Some folks will tell you that one of the best reasons to visit the Texas Hill Country is its world-famous peaches. In May the “cling peaches” usually ripen (those are peaches whose flesh clings to the pit). June is usually when the “semi-freestones” get soft (peaches where the meat doesn’t stick to the fruit quite as much), and July is generally when you get “freestones,” peaches whose flesh separates from the pit. (You can follow the ripening process via the Internet at texaspeaches.com) All varieties have their fans, and many will argue vehemently that these Texican peaches are the very best grown anywhere in the world.
“You’ll see people in town standing on the sidewalk but holding their mouths over the street just to have a place to drip the peach juice!” Dick Estenson says. “That’s one of the things that makes Fredericksburg so magical.”
“We have a lot of seasons here. There’s not only spring and summer and fall, but there’s also wildflower season, pecan and grape harvest, peach season and so forth,” Rosemary adds with a twinkle in her eye.
The smiles on their faces leave no doubt that the Estensons are deeply satisfied with their choice to move to the Texas Hill Country. In addition to the Hangar Hotel, they also own and operate the Fredericksburg Brewing Co. on Main Street, and now a second resort called the Fredericksburg Herb Farm, which is a destination spa.
A 5,000-square-foot spa building, 14 replicas of the early Sunday House Cottages of Fredericksburg available for lodging, a gourmet restaurant, a retail shop featuring farm formulated products and several herb gardens adorn the farm.
Hangar Hotel’s Amenities
Not surprisingly, the success of the Hangar Hotel has caused it to continue growing. The Estensons added a huge conference center which can handle 750 people, plus a Pacific Showroom that’s big enough to display a gaggle of airplanes—or anything else that requires the space of two gymnasiums combined.
One of the most popular attractions is the 1940s-styled Airport Diner where you can get malts and shakes and hand-breaded onion rings “just like it was yesterday.” The nod to military ops of World War II often brings visitors from today’s active duty military.
“And any soldier that comes to our diner in uniform does not pay a dime for a meal,” Rosemary Estenson says.
But how well has the Hangar Hotel attracted the core group for which is was created, i.e. aviators? Well here’s a hint. One pilot we know is planning a big get-together, and he’s selected the Hangar Hotel as the best place in the country to gather with all his friends.
And this pilot has enjoyed a huge number of aviation-endowed friends throughout his long aviation career—friends like Chuck Yeager, Yuri Gagarin, Charles Lindbergh, Neil Armstrong, Orville Wright, Jacqueline Cochran and Eddie Rickenbacker.
This year, Dick and Rosemary Estenson will be on hand as Bob Hoover celebrates his 90th birthday at the Hangar Hotel.
President Lyndon Johnson and wife Lady Bird attended church in Fredericksburg and a stream of international diplomats were given tours of the town by the president himself.
The Japanese Rex at the National Museum of the Pacific War is evidence of how strongly the Imperial air force believed in amphibious attack aircraft. In 1942, a special amphibious aircraft launched from the deck of a Japanese submarine dropped incendiary bombs on the coast of Oregon.
On September 20, 1865, Fredericksburg resident Jacob Brodbeck is said to have made the first powered airplane flight, nearly 40 years earlier than the Wright Brothers. Unfortunately, firm documentation of the flight no longer exists, but there is enough information to conclude that Brodbeck surely worked on building “air ships.” Descendants of Brodbeck were recognized by Air Force historians for Brodbeck’s contribution to manned, heavier-than-air flight.
155 Airport Road
Fredericksburg, TX 78624
Phone (830) 997-9990
Gillespie County Airport (T82)
Runway 14/32, paved
5,001 x 75 feet
RNAV approaches to both runways
Phone (830) 997-7502