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Remembering the Old Enlisted Barracks of Randolph Field

JBSA Randolph

JBSA Randolph

JBSA Randolph

JBSA Randolph

JBSA Randolph

JBSA Randolph

JBSA Randolph

JBSA Randolph

JBSA Randolph --

May is a month of commemoration and memorialization in the United States. Americans first celebrate service members on Armed Forces Day and honor those military personnel who gave their lives in service of the nation on Memorial Day. In normal times, one might visit The Tomb of the Unknown, or the cemetery that overlooks Omaha Beach in France, or stand humbled amid the seemingly endless cascade of names of the fallen etched into the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.[1]

Part of the act of memorialization is about paying homage to those who died, but it’s also about binding disparate people more tightly together in what some scholars call an “imagined community”—a collective set of ideas, experiences, traditions, and histories shared by a people—a nation.[2]

Beyond war memorials, the National Park Service (NPS) also designates certain landmarks or places as significant to American history. Such acts help to remind Americans that the past is always present. Mission ConcepcĂ­on, the Menger Hotel, the Majestic Theater, La Villita, or the Spanish Governor’s Palace are among a few of such sites one can visit locally.

There’s another place close to San Antonio identified by NPS as a National Historic Landmark. In 2001, the NPS created the Randolph Field Historic District because of its role in early aviation history, its unique design, and the fact many of its buildings remained unchanged from their original 1930s era construction. According to the NPS, of the 398 buildings they evaluated for the National Register of Historic Places, only about 56 did not “contribute” to the project. In NPS terminology, “contributing” means the structure has not significantly changed since its original construction.[3]

For the uninitiated, walking onto Randolph for the first time might feel a bit like taking a step back in time. Most of the buildings share a similar design aesthetic called Spanish Colonial Revival. This popular early 20th century architectural trend affected a style reminiscent of the era of Spanish conquistadors. The most iconic of all the buildings in this vein is Randolph’s main chapel, which remains virtually untouched since 1934.

Perhaps less well known is the fact that several buildings on AFPC’s campus trace their lineage to the earliest days of the Army Air Corps. Buildings 499, 492, and 663 once served as barracks for enlisted personnel; however, due to extensive renovation over the course of the 20th century, only Building 663 still contributes to the historic district designation.

During their time as barracks, each building housed at least 250-300 personnel. The first floor consisted of the squadron’s administration section, a reception area, a chow hall, kitchen, and rooms for unmarried junior enlisted personnel. Unmarried noncommissioned officers lived on the second floor. One contemporary observer described the barracks as “clean and neat” with comfortable recreation rooms with their “club-like appointments.”[4]

Adjacent to the barracks was a swimming pool for enlisted personnel. The earliest records list it as an “auxiliary water storage tank,” likely to disabuse Congress of the impression that the Army Air Corps was constructing a “country club.” Such ingenuity undoubtedly took the edge off San Antonio’s hot and humid summers before the advent of air conditioning.[5]

As we collectively begin to envision a “new normal” for the AFPC campus, it is good to pause for a moment and reflect on where we’ve been. The value we, as a society, place on landmarks comes not from the mere fact something is “old,” but usually because people left their imprint on those places in some way.

Randolph has a storied lineage not simply due to its age, but because of the thousands of maintainers, aviators, instructors, support staff, personnelists, and countless others who passed through its front gate over the years. These women and men have and continue to work for the nation’s defense and in so doing make history each day.

 


[1] The historian published a previous version of this article in the May 2021 edition of Around AFPC.

[2] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism, Verso Press, 1983.

[3] U.S. Department of the Interior, “Historic and Architectural Resources of Randolph Air Force Base, Bexar County, Texas,” National Register of Historic Places, 1995.

[4] Lt Col Michael P. Hoffman, Images of America: Randolph Field, Arcadia Publishing, 2014.

[5] Lt Col Michael P. Hoffman, Images of America: Randolph Field, Arcadia Publishing, 2014.

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