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Museum of Flight

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1987, Ibsen Nelsen and Associates. 9404 E. Marginal Way S.
  • (Photograph by Robert R. Franklin)
  • (Photograph by Robert R. Franklin)
  • (Photograph by Robert R. Franklin)

Paying homage to the rich legacy of aviation established in the Puget Sound region by the Boeing Company, this soaring, light-filled building celebrates flight—perhaps the most significant contribution to the economic and technological advancement of the region since World War II. Begun in a converted, relocated 1909 wooden boathouse that originally served as the first Boeing manufacturing plant at the Port of Seattle, the Museum of Flight is today predominantly associated with the adjacent enormous, 7-story, space-frame structure designed by Ibsen Nelsen and Associates, from which are hung several out-of-service aircraft documenting the history of aviation. The building is part of a complex at Boeing Field south of downtown Seattle along the Duwamish Waterway and just west of I-5.

Nelsen’s design of what has since been named the T.A. Wilson “Great Gallery” (honoring Wilson, the late CEO and chairman of the board for the Boeing Company), is a massive, nearly 100,000-square-foot, 3-million-cubic-square-foot, clear-span, glass-and-steel structure intended to permit several full-scale aircraft to be suspended from its roof truss. There is also extensive floor space for the display of planes—from the earliest wooden aircraft to jet-age fighters and spacecraft manufactured by Boeing. Nelsen’s extensive use of glazing with a structural steel system, engineered by Jack Christiansen, creates a spectacular play of light and shadow that helps bring the aircraft to life. The space provides a final resting stop for many planes, several of which may have begun their lives in Boeing Plant 2, which was once to the north and west at Boeing Field but was dismantled in the early 2010s.

The museum’s vast, open interior in many ways recalls the factory settings for aircraft production at Boeing Field: first in the 2-story 1909 converted boathouse and then in the much larger Boeing Plant 2. That plant played a substantial role in wartime aircraft production for the allied forces. In 1940, the Boeing Corporation received a contract from the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) to produce B-17 flying “fortresses.” Over the next five years, the plant became a powerhouse of production, churning out a total of nearly 7,000 B-17 bombers (more than half of the total produced in the United States). Production rates increased markedly due to wartime demands. In 1942, B-17s were being produced at a rate of 60 per month, and by 1944, production had accelerated to more than five times that rate. Given its importance to America’s wartime efforts, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers even built an entirely artificial neighborhood—replete with houses, streets, and landscaping of burlap and chicken wire—atop Boeing Plant 2 to make it indiscernible from the air from nearby suburban neighborhoods. Overall, the plant provided jobs to thousands of locals, attracted a highly specialized and innovative workforce, and, together with new facilities in nearby Renton, helped transform the economy of the Puget Sound.

The need to celebrate aircraft production in the region was publicly apparent by the late 1960s, when one of two surviving 1929 Boeing 80A-1 planes was discovered in a landfill in Anchorage, Alaska, and visitors flocked to a 10,000-square-foot rented space in the Seattle Center to see it. The popularity of that exhibit inspired the Boeing Company to search for more expansive accommodations to showcase its collection of flying machines to the public, some of which were enormous planes weighing several tons. The company identified the boathouse (later nicknamed the “Red Barn”) as the museum’s first setting; by the late 1960s, the boathouse had long ceased to be a place of manufacturing and stood empty along the Duwamish Waterway. In the mid-1970s, Boeing chose to move the boathouse to a site slightly to the south and east near the King County airport terminal, and selected local architect Ibsen Nelsen to renovate it for an aviation museum. The renovation was complete by 1983.

At that time, Nelsen was best known for his work in historic preservation and for a handful of modernist residences around the Puget Sound. For Nelsen, the restoration of the boathouse for aircraft display fit within a personal trajectory that brought historic preservation and a concern for the earth’s resources to the forefront. Indeed, prior to receiving the Boeing commission Nelsen had contributed to the preservation of Seattle’s built environment and maintained a belief that planners and developers must remain conscious both of the city’s built heritage and its natural environment. Nelsen served on the Seattle Design Commission and as the first president of the Seattle Municipal Arts Commission, and helped prevent a proposed urban renewal project from destroying Pike Place Market in the 1970s. While on the Design Commission, he advocated for public art and greenery in commercial developments—small transformations that nonetheless helped accentuate the importance of “nature” in urban design. Along with architects Fred Bassetti, George Bartholick, and Victor Steinbrueck, Nelsen crafted a design legacy based on preservation efforts, not necessarily on new construction.

Yet Boeing’s rapidly growing historic aircraft collection, the museum’s popularity, and smallish size increasingly made the Red Barn inadequate for a museum. In the mid-1980s, Boeing asked Nelsen to offer designs for a much larger new building that had little to do with historic preservation—save for the preservation of aircraft. The new commission for the T.A. Wilson Great Gallery at Boeing Field, then, would seem something of an anomaly in Nelsen’s career, but he did design a stunning space—one that, according to Bassetti in a 2001 interview, “superbly serves its purpose and the vision of flight in which Seattle plays a big part.” Furthermore, with the design vaguely recalling the vast, open spaces of the Boeing 2 plant, Nelsen did offer a form of memory. The Red Barn was preserved, as well, and continues to serve as additional space for the museum. Several other spaces and galleries have joined Nelsen’s “Great Gallery” since 1987, including the J. Elroy McCaw Personal Courage Wing (1997) and the Charles Simonyi Space Gallery (2004). Decommissioned aircraft, including a British Concorde and Air Force One, are also collected for display in outdoor areas around the museum to the west, east, and south.

The transformation of an area that was once a crucial part of the region’s industrial and economic might into one of consumption and tourism is hardly complete. Boeing Field still includes several factories, hangars, and offices for the Boeing Company, and the nearby King County International Airport, which served as Seattle’s principal international airport from 1928 to the 1940s, still includes active runways and provides some passenger and cargo service. The Boeing Military Flight Center and the Raisbeck Aviation High School also surround the museum site to the south and north, respectively. As early as the 1940s, however, the majority of Boeing’s manufacturing operations in the Puget Sound had begun moving to Renton, southeast of Seattle on the tip of Lake Washington. A production facility constructed to manufacture 747s in the city of Everett to the north was completed in 1968. The Everett Production Facility, which now builds 777s, currently features the largest building in the world at 472 million cubic feet.


Lombardi, Mike, “Sentimental Journey: Habitat Restoration Slated for Old Plant 2 Site,” Boeing Frontiers(August 2010): 10-13.

Roberts, Gregory. “Architect Ibsen Nelsen, Who Loved Seattle, Dies.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 5, 2001.

Vinluan, Frank, and Sheila Farr. “Architect Who Created Museum of Flight Dies.” Seattle Times, July 11, 2001.

Woodbridge, Sally B., and Roger Montgomery, A Guide to Architecture in Washington State: An Environmental Perspective.Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1980.

Writing Credits

Eric Reiter
J. Philip Gruen
Robert R. Franklin



  • 1983

    Design and construction

What's Nearby


Eric Reiter, "Museum of Flight", [Seattle, Washington], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—,

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