The allure of living on a tropical island has attracted many colorful characters to Key Biscayne over the years. Among them was early aviation pioneer Grover Cleveland Loening, whose compound occupied 2.5 acres at the tip of Harbor Point. He lived on the key from the mid-1950’s until his passing on Feb. 29, 1976.
Born in 1888 in Bremen, Germany, to an American diplomat, Loening came of age during the aviation industry’s infancy. In 1910, he was the first person in the US to receive a degree in Aeronautics, from Columbia University, and, like many of his peers, he was enamored of the work of Wilbur and Orville Wright. In 1905, the Wright Brothers had become international celebrities after Wilbur successfully kept his plane aloft over a field in Dayton, Ohio, for nearly 40 minutes, proving that sustained flight was possible and launching 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 spectacles ever 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 around the world were anchored there for the festivities, including the British ocean liner the RMS Lusitania. The whole city was abuzz.
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 crowd on Governors Island, Loening passed through the security gate and approached the hangar where Wilbur was making final adjustments to the plane’s engine.
Handsomely attired in a dapper three-piece suit, Loening approached his idol and held out the letter. Wilbur barely glanced at the paper before returning to his work. Not sure what to do, Loening stood there awkwardly, until Wilbur looked up and said, “If you are going to stand there, can you at least wipe up that puddle of oil on the floor?” Grover found a rag and quickly got to work. When the rag became saturated, he pulled out his handkerchief to finish the job. He waited a few more minutes, but received no further acknowledgment from Wilbur and left the meeting feeling discouraged.
Wilbur’s flight over the city was delayed for several days due to weather. But on the morning of Sept. 29, 1909, his plane finally took off. He flew over New York Harbor at an altitude of 200 feet, circling the Statue of Liberty to the sound of ships tooting their whistles and blowing their horns below. Wilbur then turned and flew up the Hudson River to Grant’s Tomb before returning to Governors Island.
As a reporter at the time described the sensational news of the flight, “a mild form of hysteria” settled onto the crowd as Wilbur’s plane landed. A million people had just seen an airplane in flight for the first time.
Despite the brevity of their initial meeting, Loening must have made a positive impression on Wilbur for, one year later, he was offered a job with the brothers. “Orville loved airplanes but didn’t take time to answer letters. I was able to assist him with that part of the business and we had many discussions about airplane design,” Loening said.
The fateful meeting at the hangar in New York, Loening would later recount, was his first step toward a successful career in the aviation industry. He would go on to achieve fame and fortune as a pilot, aviation designer, and airplane manufacturer.
Loening reportedly first set eyes on Key Biscayne during a fishing trip on Biscayne Bay in the early 1950’s. He must have liked what he saw, for he purchased 2.5 acres of prime real estate at the tip of Harbor Point. He designed and built a house there named “Southgrove.” Loening was no architect, however, and he seemed to favor function over form. The “house” consisted of several squat, flat-roofed buildings. According to former Key resident Arden Schumann, “The interior of his house was not at all fancy. I recall he had many awards and various pieces of aircraft displayed.
In the mid-1960’s, 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 the security and cancelled the agreement after a friend, who was invited for dinner, was denied access to the area. A helipad was subsequently constructed next to the Winter White House.
After Loening died in 1976, the home was opened to the public for a weekend before most of the contents — including his personal papers and awards — were shipped to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
There have been many advancements in aviation technology, but pilots and designers today still rely on the basic lessons learned by Wilbur, Orville and our hometown aviation pioneer, Grover Loening.