The suburb that never existed

SALLY HOWES
Last updated 15:44 18/07/2011

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From a distance it looks like a real suburb, but this is actually something right out of a classic Hollywood war movie.

Literally. It's a set. A huge set. This suburb sat over 12 metres in the air, atop a World War II airplane factory.

Fearful of Japanese bombing raids during World War II, plane manufacturer Boeing's critical Seattle factory, known as Plant 2, was hidden in spectacular theatrical style - beneath a fake suburb.

In 1942, Hollywood set designer and art director John Stewart Detlie was called in to work his magic on Plant 2's enormous - and very obvious - flat roof.

It cost a fortune to pull off this spectacular disappearing act. According to Boeing's Corporate Historian, Michael Lombardi, it cost $US1 million in 1942; he estimates that would be $15 million in today's money. There is no record of how long the project took to complete.

The factory was so huge that it needed a whole suburb for camouflage. At 14 hectares, the size of eight American football fields (according to Boeing), the building was largest in the world and had some of the longest single-span trusses of its time.

Just south of Seattle, this 12-square-block "suburb" was complete with houses, streets, footpaths, trees, lawns and shrubs nestled in gently rolling hills.

The camouflage efforts went as far as to signpost the fake streets, with fake names, the likes of Burlap Boulevard and Synthetic Street.

The picturesque neighbourhood was a clever combination of plywood, clapboard, chicken wire, burlap and many, many litres of paint.

The windows may have been painted on, and the houses may not have stood full-height, but they did a very convincing job from the air.

At closer quarters, the mesh trees were secured to the factory's roof with wire and the lush green lawns were made of very uncomfortable chicken wire.

Photos of ''residents'' going about their everyday lives were publicity shots to record the exceptional job done hiding the vital factory and were released to the public after the war.

Plant 2 produced some of the world's most significant aircraft and has been called "the building that won World War II".

He also said that "other aviation companies in California (North American and Lockheed Vega) were also camouflaged but not to the extent of Boeing and Douglas".

The plant was close to obsolete only 15 years after its construction, due to the lightning speed of aircraft development during the war.

In fact, before the war was over, planes had outgrown the 10-metre-high roof beams.

The tail of the B-52 prototype was more than 14 metres tall. As a temporary - and clearly not ideal - measure, Boeing put hinges on those early B-52s' vertical fins so they could be wheeled out of the factory.

In the more than 40 years since it was a hive of activity, the factory has been used for non-airplane manufacturing programs, research work, storage and as a museum.

Sadly, this historic building is now being demolished.

Most of the site was deserted years ago. After years of neglect, earthquakes and flood damage, some areas are now too dangerous to enter.

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The "suburb" was dismantled back in 1946. Today there is not even a remnant of the historic camouflage left on the site. It was "all disposed of, sold for scrap and to the public, nothing remains," said Lombardi.

While there are no figures on what it cost to dismantle the camouflage, Lombardi said that "the vast amounts of chicken wire were made available at no cost to Boeing employees".

"Boeing workers could have a thousand feet of surplus lumber delivered to their home for $US34."

So in an ironic twist, worthy of a film script, the building materials used in the fake suburb were almost certainly used to build real homes after the war.

The high-quality timber, used in the construction of the plant itself, is a rarity today and is in great demand.

The Duluth Timber company is deconstructing the old factory. They specialise in salvaging and selling timber building materials from what it calls the "industrial forest", the many abandoned buildings across North America.

Agreements made by Boeing with state and federal governments along with local Native American tribes will also see the factory's land returned to a natural wetland state.

Close to two hectares of intertidal wetlands and riverside habitat will be created, along with the restoration of nearly kilometres of shoreline of the Duwamish Waterway.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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