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Stained glass mural sits unseen at old Ontario Airport

Late last year the family of local artist Mike Hill began talking about his legacy. They reached out to the COURIER with a number of ideas including a book that would document all of Mr. Hill’s works of art in and around Claremont. During these discussions one piece kept coming up, a window that has been hidden from sight for more than 20 years.

The artwork called “Space Sunset” spans 26 feet wide by 13 feet high. It is a translucent mural of stained glass, with sweeping lines and geometric shapes rendered in bright red, yellow, blue and black. It graces the western wall of the original Ontario International Airport terminal, and when the afternoon sun streams into the now vacant building the entire space is filled with color.

Back in 1978 the airport held a contest calling on artists to design a window for the terminal. In response, Mr. Hill prepared a mock-up of “Space Sunset” and submitted his design for consideration.

However, when time came to announce the winner, airport officials delivered the bad news—his design had not been selected. Then a short while later, they called back and explained that there had been a mistake, and that indeed, his window design had been chosen.

It was a big break for the young Mr. Hill, who had recently quit a good job as a department store manager to focus on his art. The commission paid $12,000 which, adjusted for inflation, is equivalent to $49,000 today.

He labored for three months, building one panel at a time in a tiny workshop adjacent to the now long-shuttered Village Theater in Claremont. On installation day, he conscripted the labor of his 16-year-old son James Hill. When they positioned the panels in place it was the first time anyone, including Mr. Hill, had seen the entire artwork.

But time marched on, and in 1998 Ontario Airport built a new terminal, shuttering the old one, and “Space Sunset,” from public view. Since then very few people have seen the window as the old building is now used only as a movie set or for special events.

This did not sit well with Mr. Hill’s family, including his friend Bobby Hill, who was also his wife for 36 years.

“It’s a treasure that Ontario and the Inland Empire are unaware of. Nobody in the world sees this most beautiful expression of art,” Ms. Hill said.

She was concerned that airport authorities would one day need the land where the old terminal sits and the window would be lost forever. With that in mind, the family organized a field trip of sorts so that some of Mr. Hill’s children and grandchildren could see the glass mural. They also invited the media with the hope that by spreading the word the window could find a new home where it would once again be viewed by the public.

Last Thursday, a small cadre of Hill friends and family ventured to ONT for a special tour of the long-lost window.

Asked what he thought of it after all these years Mr. Hill, who is now 78, simply said, “Terrific.”

Being aware that many travelers would dash through the building, never giving the window a second glace, he needed a hook to make them stop and look, even for just a moment.

“I wanted to get their attention with dramatic color, but make it so the average person could look at this and get the sense of a sunset,” Mr. Hill said.

He hadn’t seen it for 30 years until he got a preview in March. That was when the efforts for the family viewing got rolling.

Inspecting the window up close he exclaimed, “It’s held together pretty well.” He has made some repairs over the years, once for example, after a Marine broke one of the panes. In addition, there is a half-inch plate of glass on the outside to protect it from the elements.

The family has conceived a number of ideas to draw attention to the mural, including producing post cards of its image, contacting local officials and also searching online for alternate locations. Ms. Hill said she would also like to determine whether the piece could be included in a national registry of important works of art.

The airport has no plans to demolish the old terminal, according to Robbie Reyes, a community engagement representative. She also indicated that if that were to become necessary, they would proceed very cautiously because of the artwork at the site. For the time being, the perfectly preserved building—truly a time capsule from the 1960s—is in high demand as a set for movies and television shows.

However, Mr. Hill and his family would like a permanent home for the window where it can be enjoyed by the public.

“The community is richer because we have this treasure, but it’s sad that it’s not known and not seen,” Ms. Hill said.

—Steven Felschundneff

steven@claremont-courier.com