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After a museum is destroyed, a historic World War II factory is getting a second life

After a museum is destroyed, a historic World War II factory is getting a second life

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In 2004, a fire tore through the Yankee Air Museum in southeast Michigan, damaging or destroying thousands of historical aviation artifacts and eight priceless historical aircraft. The museum was left without a permanent facility, relegated to a small 40,000-square-foot space at Willow Run Airport and forced to start over from scratch.

Today, the museum's luck is turning around. It has acquired a 144,000-square-foot chunk of the former Willow Run Bomber Plant, a WWII-era facility that produced 8,685 B-24 Liberator bombers — one every 55 minutes — to fuel the allied war machine. "After going to the verge of losing almost everything, we've come back to attain a national historic structure and move a whole museum into it," says Kevin Walsh, executive director of the Yankee Air Museum.

The workplace of Rosie the Riveter

Working off a fundraising campaign and $2 million grant from the GM Foundation to kickstart the acquisition of the property, the museum will be the third-largest in the Detroit area when it opens. It'll focus not only on the story of veterans and as a showcase for historical artifacts, but will act as a center of inspiration to get kids interested in STEM careers.

The new building is an exhibit in itself, though. The Willow Run plant was the workplace of Rose Will Monroe, the iconic "Rosie the Riveter" who became one of the most enduring images of World War II. Built and operated by Ford as car manufacturers paused normal business to support the war effort, the factory produced thousands of B-24s, though only four airframes from the plant remain in existence as most were torn up for scrap. One of the museum's long-term goals is to obtain a B-24 of any kind.

"No one thought we should keep [the bombers] for posterity," says Walsh. "They wanted everything gone."

Yankee Air Museum

The next steps are to install heat and utilities in the building (the original utilities were ripped out when the rest of the plant was disassembled) and begin renovations and construction of the exhibits. As with any museum, fundraising is key.

"We have the funding we required to get the building, get through this year and start into infrastructure," says Walsh. "But we're still very much in the fundraising stage. We need a commitment from folks all around the country to support the project and build a national-level museum."

"We're still very much in the fundraising stage."

GM is helping to promote the fundraising campaign, seizing on the marketing opportunity by using Chevy pickups to tow three aircraft into the new museum building. The company has a personal attachment to the Willow Run plant, too: It was a GM transmission assembly facility for decades after the war.

Because of high renovation costs, taking the historic building and turning it into a museum won't save any money compared to building a new facility, but to Walsh, it's worth the effort. The museum has pieces of the quality control department where planes were inspected, then where the planes were fueled, and finally the end of the building where they rolled out onto the tarmac and off to the front lines.

The museum will need to raise another $12 million to hit its goals, but Walsh feels that's an attainable figure and that the museum is on-track for a 2018 opening. In the meantime, some irreplaceable aircraft finally have a little protection from the elements.