Pratt & Whitney’s celebrated turbine test laboratory in East Hartford — the cradle for the development of its first jet engines in the 1950s and a long line that would follow — took more than two years to build atop the banks of the Connecticut River.
Now, it is taking that long to demolish.
Once, the Andrew Willgoos Turbine Laboratory sprawled out over nearly 60 acres and was the largest, privately-owned turbine research facility in the world. Through the 1970s, it was the primary test facility for Pratt’s jet engines; and even though it couldn’t handle larger engines such as those that equipped the Boeing 777 airliner in the mid-1980s, it remained in use until about seven years ago.
Demolition has been underway for two years, but is now nearing completion. Pratt is finalizing the sale of about 4.5 acres of the site, off High Street, to neighboring Goodwin College for a magnet high school. The remaining 55 acres backing up to the river are expected to be sold as well.
On a visit to the site a few days ago, I spoke with Jeff Bridgman, who manages Pratt facilities in East Hartford and Middletown, as we looked past the rubble of a half dozen buildings already razed to the main test building. All that remains there is the precast concrete columns looking like massive cinder blocks that appear to defy efforts of heavy-duty pounding equipment chipping away at them.
Bridgman said the columns are nearly five feet thick in some places.
“They had to handle the vibration of the engines,” Bridgman told me. “They are tough to knock down.”
Pratt didn’t have an estimate for demolition costs, but it could easily run well into the millions of dollars. The razing of the site stretched out because asbestos first needed to be removed. Much of the concrete rubble is being recycled on the site, filling in foundations sunk deep into the ground.
In the past decade, this stretch of riverfront has changed dramatically, as Goodwin College has expanded its campus. Where once there was an oil tank “farm,” the college’s main academic building stands. Construction has begun on one magnet high school and there are plans for another.
But in the late 1940s, this was Pratt country, where a decade earlier it built its massive headquarters and manufacturing plant on Main Street. It also was the end of the World War II, an era when Pratt prospered with military contracts for its piston-driven engines but it also faced a new daunting reality. Pratt would have to get in the jet engine business to survive.
In his 2008 book, “Dependable Engines: The Story of Pratt & Whitney,” former Pratt spokesman Mark P. Sullivan tells the story of how Pratt executives approached Frederick Rentschler, founder and president of parent company United Aircraft, and the board of directors about building a new, multimillion dollar test lab. The lab, they argued, would be essential to developing jet engines.
“It was one of those ‘bet the company’ moves that are so famous in aviation,” Sullivan writes. One Pratt executive many years later recalls:
“The laboratory was going to cost $15 million. That doesn’t sound like much today but it was a lot of money back then. I think the total fixed assets of the corporation was maybe around $10 million, and the thought of a $15 million addition to those assets was a pretty tough lump for the directors to go for.”
Construction began in 1947 and the new facility was opened in mid-1950. From the outside, the complex appeared as tall, windowless concrete cubes, rarely open to the public. But inside, Pratt engineers tested engines and components in simulated atmospheres from sea level to an altitude of 100,000 feet, according to Sullivan. The power to run the altitude test cells incredibly came from the boiler and engines of a surplus Navy destroyer escort.
Pratt chose to name the facility after Willgoos, who was the chief engineer of Pratt from the time it was organized on Capitol Avenue in Hartford in 1925. Willgoos was instrumental in the development of the Pratt’s famous line of Wasp engines. During World War II, nearly 364,000 “Twin Wasp” engines were produced by Pratt & its licensees, according to Sullivan.
Willgoos didn’t live to see the test lab that would bear his name. He died in 1949 shoveling snow in his driveway so he could come into work, Sullivan wrote.
The lab was expanded several times in the 1950s, eventually encompassing 25 test cells. The growth did not come without incident, however. In 1959, during the construction of one addition, an explosion killed a Pratt worker, according to accounts in both The Courant and The Hartford Times.
Today, Pratt does much of its engine testing in Middletown where it built a lab to accommodate larger engines and West Palm Beach, Fla.
“We simply outgrew it here,” Bridgman told me.
Did you work at the Willgoos lab or have any memories of the once-celebrated facility? Please share your stories below.