The allure of living on a tropical island has drawn many colorful figures to Key Biscayne over the years. Among them was aviation pioneer Grover Cleveland Loening, whose resort occupied 2.5 acres at the tip of Harbor Point. He lived on the Key from the mid-1950s until his death on February 29, 1976.
Born in 1888 in Bremen, Germany, to an American diplomat, Loening came of age at the start of the aviation industry. In 1910, he was the first person in the United States to earn an aeronautical degree from Columbia University, and like many of his peers, he was in love with the work of Wilbur and Orville Wright. By 1905, the Wright brothers had become international celebrities after Wilbur managed to hold his plane in the air over a field in Dayton, Ohio for almost 40 minutes, proving sustained flight was possible. and ushering in a new era in transportation.
Four years after that flight, as part of an international exhibition, the Wright Brothers were hired to fly over New York City in what has been called one of the greatest shows ever to be staged in the city. They shipped their plane from Dayton to a hangar on Governors Island, located at the foot of Manhattan in New York Harbor. Ships from all over the world were anchored there for the festivities, including the British liner RMS Lusitania. The whole city was in turmoil.
Loening’s mother, Hermine Rubino, had obtained a letter of introduction for her son to meet the Wright brothers. It was a day the young aeronautical engineering student would never forget. After making his way through the crowds on Governors Island, Loening broke through the security fence and approached the hangar where Wilbur was making final adjustments to the plane’s engine.
Nicely dressed in an elegant three-piece suit, Loening approached his idol and handed him the letter. Wilbur barely glanced at the paper before returning to his work. Not knowing what to do, Loening stood there awkwardly, until Wilbur looked up and said, “If you stand there, can you at least wipe that puddle of oil off the floor?” Grover found a rag and quickly got to work. When the rag became saturated, he took out his handkerchief to finish the job. He waited a few more minutes, but received no further acknowledgments from Wilbur and left the meeting disheartened.
Wilbur’s flight over the city was delayed by several days due to weather conditions. But on the morning of September 29, 1909, his plane finally took off. It circled over New York Harbor at an altitude of 200 feet, circling the Statue of Liberty to the sound of ships hissing and blowing horns below. Wilbur then turned around and walked up the Hudson River to Grant’s Tomb before returning to Governors Island.
As one reporter at the time described the sensational news of the flight, “a slight form of hysteria” set in the crowd when Wilbur’s plane landed. A million people had seen a plane in flight for the first time.
Despite the brevity of their initial meeting, Loening must have made a good impression on Wilbur because, a year later, he was offered a job with the brothers. “Orville liked airplanes but didn’t take the time to answer letters. I was able to help him with this part of the business and we had a lot of discussions about the design of the planes, ”Loening said.
The fateful meeting at the New York hangar, Loening would later say, was his first step towards a successful career in the aviation industry. He would become famous and fortune as a pilot, aircraft designer and aircraft manufacturer.
Loening reportedly first saw Key Biscayne on a fishing trip to Biscayne Bay in the early 1950s. He must have liked what he saw, as he bought 2.5 acres of prime land. order at the tip of Harbor Point. There he designed and built a house called “Southgrove”. Loening was no architect, however, and he seemed to favor function over form. The “house” consisted of several squat buildings with flat roofs. According to former Key resident Arden Schumann, “The interior of his house was not luxurious at all. I remember he had many awards and various airplane parts on display.
In the mid-1960s, when President Richard Nixon established his Winter White House just down the street from Southgate, Loening initially gave the Secret Service permission to land the Presidential helicopter on his property. But he grew tired of security and canceled the deal after a friend, who was invited to dinner, was denied access to the area. A helipad was then built next to the Winter White House.
After Loening’s death in 1976, the house was opened to the public for a weekend before most of the content – including his personal papers and awards – was shipped to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.
There have been many advancements in aviation technology, but pilots and designers still rely today on the basic lessons learned by Wilbur, Orville and our hometown aviation pioneer, Grover Loening.