Rife with clutter and systematically packed with overflow, the Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration and Storage Facility in Suitland almost fits the description of a typical storage facility.
With spacecraft, engines, propellers, models and other flight-related objects jammed into 19 buildings, the Garber Facility isn't exactly your average attic. Huge planes and enormous, dismantled aircraft parts have dangled from the ceilings and lined the warehouses of the complex since it opened in 1977 to store National Air and Space Museum leftovers.
On March 31, daily public tours of Garber's nuts-and-bolts displays will end so employees can devote all of their time to preparing to move the Smithsonian Institution's voluminous collection out of cramped storage and into a state-of-the-art, spacious facility, the new Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, due to open in December in the Dulles corridor.
The facility has given about 20,000 visitors a year a behind-the-scenes look primarily at planes and their hardware. Most of the Smithsonian's space objects are displayed at the Air and Space Museum.
"Even though the Air and Space Museum is three blocks long, you couldn't put a B-29 there," said Peter Golkin, the museum's public affairs specialist. "Only 10 percent of our collection is downtown, so these huge aircraft probably make up the most sweeping collection in the world."
Named after Paul Edward Garber, instrumental in collecting more than half of the Smithsonian-owned aircraft, the facility is a working repair shop where fuselages and engines are often moved around and restored, depending on upcoming exhibits downtown or necessary preservation work.
Because it is not a museum, complete with walking paths and a good heating and air-conditioning system for visitors, only five of the 19 metallic, no-frills buildings on site have been part of the traditional three-hour tour.
As workers have begun packing for the move, only one building serving as a main exhibit hall and a large restoration shop are part of the tour, which hasn't gotten any shorter.
Guides tell stories as they denote some of the 100 viewable artifacts, including a Ford trimotor model, the nose cone from the Apollo 4 spacecraft, a Hollywood model of the mother ship from the movie "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and all sorts of specialized planes and models.
Marking the history of flight, the planes include the Martin J.V. K-III Kitten, a post-World War I fighter that failed as a practical aircraft but demonstrates one man's attempts to solve rudimentary plane design problems.
Also there are a Grumman F6F-3 Hellcat, one of World War II's most potent fighter aircraft, and the Caudron G4, one of the world's first strategic bombers and among the first Allied aircraft armed with a machine gun.
"You want to humanize the planes, to make a shiny piece of aluminum sitting on the floor come alive," said Scott Willey, a retired Air Force colonel and a docent at Garber for 20 years. He tells war stories about the planes to visitors, but the most popular part of the tour, he said, is the restoration building.
"The shop is something you don't see anywhere else," Willey said. "You don't see this raw stuff downtown. People get to witness how the pretty stuff downtown was done by thousands of man-hours, not smoke and mirrors."
"On weekdays, live bodies are sanding, grinding, cutting, polishing, doing stuff to these things so they don't disappear on us. They willingly tell groups about what they're doing. It's hard to pry yourself away."
The Garber facility is at 3904 Old Silver Hill Rd., Suitland. Free tours can be scheduled every day of the week. Because of their depth, they are not recommended for those under 16. Advance reservations are necessary and can be made by calling 202-357-1400. The center closes to the public on March 31.