Portal of the Folded Wings Shrine to Aviation

Portal of the Folded Wings — Los Angeles Explorers Guild

Portal of the Folded Wings

Shrine to Aviation

At the entrance to a cemetery in Burbank, a you’ll find an homage to the pioneers of aviation inside an ornate, domed archway.

The Portal of the Folded Wings is a 72-foot-tall domed marble monument built in a combination of the Spanish Revival and California Churrigueresque styles. Elaborate mosaics and numerous intricately carved figures decorate its exterior. It serves as the entrance to the Pierce Brothers Valhalla Memorial Park on the Burbank side. It also serves as a monument to the pioneers of aviation.

The Portal of the Folded Wings Shrine to Aviation in Burbank at the Valhalla Memorial Park. Photo from the author’s collection.

Originally called the Valhalla Memorial Rotunda, the Portal of the Folded Wings was built in 1924. The elaborate structure was designed by architect Kenneth MacDonald Jr. (who also designed Spring Arcade in Downtown Los Angeles and the Villa de Leon in Malibu) working in conjunction with sculptor Federico Girogi.

It was initially intended to be the entrance to Valhalla Memorial Park, and it served this function for a few decades. In its early days, visitors to the park would drive right through its arches to enter the cemetery.

The original entrance to the Valhalla memorial Park. Cars were a bit narrower back in the 1920s. Photo from the author’s collection.

However, United Airport (now officially named Bob Hope Airport but also officially known as Hollywood Burbank Airport because no one really cares about Bob Hope) opened nearby and the sound of airplanes flying overhead resulted in the cemetary closing this entrance in favor of a less noisy one across the park in North Hollywood.

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Then in 1937 James Gillette, an employee of the cemetery and a fan of all things aviation, thought the impressive structure would make for the perfect shine to aviation, primarily because of its proximity to what was then Union Air Terminal (it was renamed from Union Airport in 1934) and the old Lockheed Aircraft plant.

Fot more than twenty years, Gillette worked tirelessly to convince the powers that be to transform the ornate rotunda into his idealized homage to the history of aviation. He eventually succeeded.

On December 17, 1953, on the 50th anniversary of the inaugural flight of Orville and Wilbur Wright’s Wright Flyer at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the Memorial Rotunda was renamed the Portal of the Folded Wings, and dedicated to “The Honored Dead of Aviation.” It was rededicated on May 27, 1996 after the completion of restoration efforts in the aftermath of damage suffered during the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

Because humans love round numbers it was re-dedicated again on December 17, 2003, the 100th anniversary of the first powered flight. Maybe we will all meet up at the Portal for the the next dedication in another thirty years.

Inside the Portal of the Folded Wings

The floor is inlaid with numerous rectangular bronze markers covering the ashes of various individuals who have made contributions and advancements to the history of flight. Some of the aviation pioneers interred at the Portal of the Folded Wings include:

  • W.B. (Bert) Kiner, who built Amelia Earhart’s first plane and invented the compound folding wing
  • Charles E. Taylor, assisted the Wright Brothers in building their first engine and flying machine
  • James Floyd Smith, the inventor of the free-type manually operated parachute
  • Hilda Florentia Smith, the first woman to fly out of the bean patch that became Los Angeles International Airport
  • James E. Allard, an experimental mechanic at Lockheed Skunkworks where he helped develop the SR-71 Blackbird, among others
  • Roy Knabenshue (father of aerial transportation who built the first passenger dirigible in the U.S. and America’s first dirigible pilot).

The interior walls of the Portal also feature cenotaphs to pilot Amelia Earhart and Arctic explorer Richard Byrd, and Billy Mitchell, father of the Air Force.

Above the floor of the Rotunda, a domed ceiling, decorated with a stars-in-the-sky themed mural.

The domed ceiling of the Portal of the Folded Wings. Photo from the author’s collection.

In addition to the grave markers and cenotaphs, the portal contains four small (10 feet by 10 feet) rooms off the central chamber, one in each corner. These rooms hold various relics of the early aviation age or history of the Portal, and each one has its own theme. The Pioneer Room honors the aviation pioneers buried beneath the dome. The Restoration Room details the restoration efforts that took place in 1995-1996. The Burbank Aviation Museum (a look at the history of Burbank Airport and the nearby Lockheed plant. The remaining room has been called a “paper display” room that shows off a selection of documents, photos, and even model airplanes.

One of the rooms includes a stairway to the top of the dome so the lightbulb for the red warning light atop the sturcture (required by the FAA) can be changed.

All the rooms are usually closed and locked, but the Burbank Aviation Museum is open the first Sunday of every month, from 1:00 P.M. to 3:00 P.M.

In the Flight Path

As a fitting tribute to these pioneers of aviation, planes taking off from and flying into Bob Hope Airport travel directly over the Portal of the Folded Wings many times each day.

An airplane taking off from Burbank Hollywood Airport soaring right over the Portal of the Folded Wings. Photo from the author’s collection.

Some fly so close to the top of the dome (necessitating a red warning light at the apex of the dome as noted above), you may wonder if any planes have ever hit the dome. And in fact, one did.

The Portal of the Folded Wings immediately after a small pane crashed into it. Notice the wreckage of the plane in the foreground. Photo via the Los Angeles Public Library, Los Angeles Herald Examiner Photo Collection.

On July 18, 1969, a Navajo-Piper (registration N9150Y) twin-engine plane took off from Burbank-Hollywood Airport (as it was called then), bound for Fresno. It carried cargo near its maximum weight. During the initial liftoff phase of its flight, it suffered engine failure (carbon buildup on the sparkplugs of engine number one).

The plane crashed right into the dome of the Portal of the Folded Wings, damaging it severely. The pilot and co-pilot were killed while the other passenger lived but was severly injured. Repairs to the dome cost $70,000.

Memorial to Fallen Astronauts

In 2007, as a tribute to the two crews who lost their lives in the Space Shuttle Challenger (1986) and Columbia (2003) disasters, the cemetery added a 21-foot-long replica of the Space Shuttle to the park just outside the Portal of the Folded Wings.

Space Shuttle Memorial at Valhalla Memorial park. This shows the Columbia side. The Challenger crew is honored on the opposite side. Photo from the author’s collection.

One side of the model is named “Columbia” and the other is titled “Challenger.” A bronze plaque featuring the members of each mission’s crew sits on the ground just under the Shuttle’s nose cone.

Another Shuttle Memorial in Los Angeles …

From Neglected Monument to National Treasure

The Portal of the Folded Wings went through a long period of neglect. Once the the repairs were made after the dome was hit by the plane in 1969, it fell into a period of neglect and was mostly ignored by all but the most passionate aviation enthusiasts. But after it was damaged by the Northridge earthquake in 1994, the Portal of the Folded Wings (and, in fact, the entirety of Valhalla Memorial Park) was painstakingly restored to historic accuracy.

After this increased awareness, the Portal of the Folded Wings was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1998.

Portal of the Folded Wings

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Tom Fassbender is a writer of things with a strong adventurous streak. When not exploring Los Angeles, he’s been known to enjoy a cup of coffee or two. You can find him at Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.


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