North Base hangar history includes Navy service, basketball and movie production

Published: October 4, 2010
Modified: October 4, 2010 at 10:22 am

— Jack Kasulis paces off a square on the tiled floor. "This area is where the hole was," he says.


At this spot in the early 1990s, crews with heavy equipment chopped through the concrete floor and dug a hole the size of a two-car garage to create a set to film part of the movie "Twister." That was just one of the many chapters in the life of Building 1005.

This cavernous structure on the University of Oklahoma's North Base, built in 1942 as a military hangar, has been home for everything from an art student to birds of prey. But mostly it has served as an athletic facility, said Kasulis, an associate professor of marketing at OU and a member of the Norman Optimist Club. The club has leased the hangar since the early 1970s to host kids' activities such as wrestling, track, Special Olympics, table tennis tournaments, carnivals and other events, but mostly basketball.

The Navy built the 310-by-140-foot hangar in the days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Erected around 20 massive "triple-hinged" glue-laminated wood arches anchored in thick concrete, the hangar was a centerpiece of a Naval Air Station here. The station sprang up quickly after the Navy, hearing OU had just completed Max Westheimer Field for a new university flight training program, leased the North Base site.

Rarely used for aircraft, the hangar became such a popular spot for indoor drills and athletics for sailors that a commander ordered its floor covered with finished oak. After the war, when the military no longer needed the base, the hangar, along with other North Base buildings, became the property of OU.

Unfortunately, OU crews had to bulldoze the oak floor after pipes burst during a freeze. "It flooded the place and just buckled all the floors," said Sherrill Howery, a charter member of the Optimists.

In the early 1970s, the Optimist Club leased the building for its growing basketball program for kids. Club members laid new tile for all five basketball courts, and the games have been going ever since.

Inside, air conditioning consists of the breeze that blows through when the giant doors on either end are rolled open. The building has natural gas furnaces, but numerous holes and no insulation make it difficult to heat. Viewed through a thermal imaging device that detects heat loss, said Bud Wilson, Optimist member and a retired structural engineer, "This sucker looks like a plume."

Orange spots dot the floor where someone once used spray paint to mark roof leaks. The building has had numerous upgrades, including roofing and electrical, but Optimists hope to add siding and do much more to preserve and improve it.

In the quiet of the night, the old hangar creaks and groans, Howery said. A caretaker was inside one night when an electrical storm lit overhead steel pipes with a blue "St. Elmo's fire," Wilson said. "He could hardly wait to get out."

Offices on either side of the building at one time were used by the OU Art Department. One student brought in a couch, saying he wanted to nap occasionally while working there. Then he brought in a TV. And a hot plate. "OU finally kicked the guy out because they found out his mail was being delivered there," Kasulis said.

Animals take refuge inside, too. Caretakers regularly chase out skunks and possums, and stray cats show up occasionally. "I'd grab one and throw him in here at night," Howery said, you know, to clear out the mice. And starlings slip through all the holes to nest inside. This attracted a "resident hawk."

"He used to roost right up there," Howery said, pointing to a spot high overhead.

But these days, Building 1005 is mostly about kids, at least 65,000 of them. That's how many from Norman alone have played basketball or other sports — sometimes at the rate of 48 games a day, by one count almost 2,500 games in one year — in the building.

"You definitely don't find a structure like that anymore," Optimist board member Dirk Marley said.


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