Wright-Patt’s Arnold House: A front porch view of aviation evolution

  • Published
  • By Brian Dietrick
  • 88th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio – Can you imagine sitting on your front porch on a nice day, sipping a lemonade or sweet tea and witnessing the birth of aviation? That’s exactly what the residents of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base’s oldest building used to do on a regular basis during the early 1900s.

Arnold House’s history has been traced to the early 1840s. It was in 1841 that Henry E. Hebble, a house and bridge builder by trade, came to Greene County from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He settled in what later became known as Bath Township, and constructed this home for his family. Early illustrations show the Hebble home was stylish for its day, being almost a perfect cube in shape. It featured a flat roof, solid foundation and had one of the earliest central heating systems.

In 1904 and 1905, residents of the home would sit in their yard overlooking Huffman Prairie and watch flight pioneers Wilbur and Orville Wright practice their banks and turns as they mastered the art of controlled, powered flight.

From 1910 to 1916, the Wright brothers opened a pilot training school on Huffman Prairie. One of their star pupils happened to be 2nd Lt. Henry “Hap” Arnold, a man that would later go on to be known as “the father of the Air Force” and namesake of the house.

During the years the flight school operated, students could enroll for $250, just shy of $8,000 in today’s value. A bonus for the students was they wouldn’t be held responsible for any damage to the aircraft in the event of a mishap. They would arrive at Simms Station, a stop on the Dayton-Springfield-Urbana interurban line, and learn aviation from the two men who invented it.

In May 1917, the land was leased by the U.S. government as part of Wilbur Wright Field, a U.S. Army Signal Corps Aviation School for World War I pilots. In 1923, the Dayton Air Service Committee purchased the home and its property as part of the approximately 4,500 acres of land to be donated by citizens of Dayton for the establishment of the new Wright Field. On Aug. 9, 1924, deeds to the new Wright Field land were presented to the U.S. War Department and the house became property of the U.S. Army Air Service.

In June 1929, Arnold returned to the area as commander of Fairfield Air Depot, located at the northeast corner of Wright Field. He and his wife, Eleanor, established their home in the former Hebble house, along with their four children. Orville Wright was an occasional dinner guest and they would routinely sit on the front porch and watch the flying operations that were being carried out. The Arnold children would get exceptionally excited when Orville was a guest because they would have “real chicken,” rather than the usual “rabbit chicken.” The Arnolds resided there until 1931, when he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and reassigned as commander of March Field, California.

“Hap learned from Orville specifically, and then when he came back and became the base commander, he would have Orville over for dinner here at the Arnold house,” said Steve Byington, 88th Civil Engineer Group Cultural Resources manager and Arnold House curator. “Orville and Hap stayed friends basically throughout their lives. When the Wright Memorial was dedicated in 1940, Orville and Hap Arnold were together for the moment.”

In July 1931, the home became part of Patterson Field when the portion of Wright Field, east of Huffman Dam, was renamed in honor of 1st Lt. Frank Stuart Patterson. Patterson was a test pilot for the U.S. Army Air Service who perished during a test flight at Wilbur Wright Field June 19, 1918.

From 1931 to 1937, the home was host to such notable families as Lt. Col. Augustine Warner Robins and Lt. Col. Oliver P. Echols. From 1937 until 1946, the house served as base squadron headquarters and was the scene of many World War II enlistments. In 1946, it was converted for use as officer housing and was home to a succession of Air Force families until August 1980.

No longer being used as housing, base leadership considered tearing it down. During that time, the Air Force Logistics Command, which merged with the Air Force Systems Command to become what is now known as the Air Force Materiel Command, had a requirement that every base have an installation-focused heritage center. Wright-Patt was in a predicament because the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force was in close proximity but didn’t focus solely on the base.

According to Kevin Rusnak, Air Force Life Cycle Management Center chief historian, the initial idea was to restore it to its original farmhouse configuration. In the end, base officials chose to keep it in the style of when Arnold and his family lived there because it was cheaper than dismantling the porch and other additions made to the original cube.

Restoration efforts on the Arnold House began in 1984 for its conversion to use as the installation’s heritage center. A formal dedication ceremony was held on May 16, 1986. Arnold's two sons, retired Air Force colonels Bruce and David Arnold, and many other notable Air Force members attended the event. The first floor has been maintained in a way that would resemble what the house looked like when Arnold and his family lived there. The upstairs rooms were converted into office spaces that were occupied by various admin, protocol and history offices.

In 2008, the hosts of the “Ghost Hunters” television show toured and stayed overnight at the house to see if they could find any truth in the claims that the house was haunted. The hosts claimed that they witnessed spikes in their electromagnetic field detection tools and heard odd sounds on the second floor. One host placed a push-button flashlight on the floor and asked an entity to turn it on to show something is there. A few moments later, the flashlight flickered and then stayed on until the host grabbed it to turn it off.

The heritage center closed its doors in 2014 and all organizational offices relocated. It has been vacant ever since but has been the site of multiple promotion and retirement ceremonies.

“One of my goals is to bring it back to a functioning cultural heritage center,” Byington said. “Wright-Patterson has a great deal of base-specific inventory, including artifacts and documents that we don’t want to get lost. There is a lot of history here that people might not know about and we want to provide a resource center to help preserve and tell that story for years to come.”

While the house is a continuous project, much of it remains unchanged. It continues to stand as a reminder of those who came before, and how hard work, though done almost a century ago, lives on to serve those to come.