Saturday, July 13, 2024

“World Famous” I-Bar’s Reputation About to Takeoff

Written by Andrea Kade, Coronado Times Staff Writer

Renovated I-Bar Interior

November is National Aviation History Month and The Coronado Times is taking a look at some of the places, planes, and people chronicling the island’s connection to aviation history. 

The first story focuses on “The World Famous” I-Bar located on Naval Air Station North Island. An aviator hangout, the I-Bar has become an iconic symbol in Naval aviation history, hosting weddings, retirements, and squadron functions throughout its longstanding tenancy. It is the birthplace of the Tailhook Association and also served as the inspiration for the upcoming sequel to Top Gun. In July 2019 an extensive renovation was completed. 

History of Bachelor Officers Quarters Building “I”

Bachelor Officers Quarters Building “I” was part of renowned Detroit architect Albert Kahn‘s 1918 master plan for United States Army Air Corps’ Rockwell Field. Its Spanish Revival facade was most likely influenced by supervising San Diego architects, Richard Requa and Frank Mead.

Metal insignia from Rockwell Field when operated by US Army Air Corps in 1918

Requa was the Master Architect for the California Pacific International Exposition held in 1935, and designed the Old Globe Theatre, the original Torrey Pines Lodge, and the D.E. Mann House and William A. Gunn houses in Coronado.

Building “I” was completed in 1933 by the Quartermaster General’s Office with the passage of the Emergency Rehabilitation Act of 1932. When NAS North Island acquired Rockwell Field in 1939, the “bar” in Building “I” was initially reserved for senior officers.

In 1956, the Tailhook Association held its founding meeting there–perhaps giving rise to bar’s reputation as being “World Famous.” From that moment, the bar slowly attracted more and more aviators until it became their exclusive hangout.

Pearl Harbor survivor and I-Bar bartender, the Walter Simmons, SDC (ret.)

The I-Bar was first refurbished in 1969 with “sailing ship” decor that is still in use today. Not long after this renovation, the late Walter Simmons, a Pearl Harbor survivor and bartender, began the tradition of hanging custom built model airplanes from the bar.

Inspiration for Top Gun II: Maverick 

According to Capt. Tim Slentz, Commanding Officer of Naval Base Coronado, the location team scouting for the upcoming sequel to Top Gun instantly fell in love with the I-Bar. But, the logistics of shooting inside the small, historic space proved impractical. Gaining approval through the US Navy and Pentagon, the production crew erected a temporary structure on NAS North Island’s Breakers Beach.

Affectionately called the “beach bar” by some, the exterior film set doesn’t retain the Spanish Revival architectural façade of the I-Bar. Instead, production designers opted for a Cape Cod shanty look, and named it “The Hard Deck,” according to Task and Purpose website. As any Navy pilot knows, the “hard deck” is the imaginary line meant to represent the ground when performing air-to-air combat maneuvers above 5,000 feet ground level. But the fictional Lt. “Maverick” Mitchell might have a different definition. I guess you’ll have to rewatch this clip from the original Top Gun for that flying lesson.

Having visited the set over a year ago, I marveled at the interior of the “beach bar” when I stepped through the door. I’m pretty sure my jaw dropped, and awestruck, I whispered, wow.

It was like the I-Bar found a fairy godmother and turned the pumpkin into a big ole “stage” coach–with an ocean view to boot!

Iconic I-Bar Decor that served as inspiration for the Top Gun: Maverick film set

While nothing can compare to the I-Bar’s distinctive character, the production crew did a commendable job capturing its essence and naval aviation history. Many of the “beach bar” props are reproductions of the colorful mantels, beer steins, patches, and pictures lining the I-Bar walls and ceilings, and some props used are “the real McCoy.”

A few Navy squadrons lent original pieces when filming took place–perhaps for authenticity, or maybe for a little piece of “Top Gun” cinematic glory.

Model of S-3B Viking, the retired aircraft’s booming sounds were once a staple over Coronado beaches

After production work stopped for the day, the crew often frequented the “real” I-Bar and their enthusiasm for having the opportunity to patronize such a historic venue electrified the atmosphere.

Patches from the Top Gun: Maverick Film Crews

And like many Navy squadrons, the Top Gun: Maverick production crew left their own mark on the I-Bar – custom patches pinned to a ceiling beam.

As for the fate of the “beach bar,” now dismantled and in studio storage, rumor has it that it may find a permanent home on the North Island base. Slentz admits there is a “ton of enthusiasm” surrounding the possibility of resurrecting the “beach bar,” but for now it’s only scuttlebutt.

The 2019 Refurbishment of The World Famous I-Bar

Not long after production wrapped, the I-Bar underwent an extensive renovation beginning in March and re-opening in July. This was the second time the bar had been redone since its first renovation in 1969.

A wayward future Aviatrix was caught at the old I-Bar, she was quickly whisked away to safety

Due to safety reasons regarding the structural integrity and excessive dry rot in the wood floors, the I-Bar received a $500,000 renovation to bring the historic building up to code by modernizing the plumbing and electrical lines. The interior layout and bar furniture also received updates.

But, controversy surrounded the upcoming renovation and Slentz described the anxiety some patrons had regarding the possible alterations to the iconic interior.

Original doors tagged with Navy squadron stickers were not changed in renovation

“It’s a nostalgic and memorable place. Many people are emotionally attached to the I-Bar and they were concerned about the potential change the renovation would have on the bar’s character.”

Not wanting to be known as “the CO who ruined the I-Bar,” Slentz meticulously oversaw every aspect of the renovation and consulted patrons, like Distinguished Flying Cross recipient and Coronado resident, Chuck Sweeney, on how to maintain the bar’s historical integrity.

To get ready for the renovation process, squadrons were responsible for taking down and storing their items that were on display. Photographs of the interior were taken so items could be placed back in their original positions.

Speakeasy Door

While the former layout of the establishment had the U-shaped bar top against the front wall entrance, the new custom-made bar by a local San Diego carpenter opens up the floor plan and allows for another side bar counter to be placed against the entrance wall.

Installed behind the bar back is a new “speakeasy door” that displays libations and enhances the “sailing ship” motif of the famous establishment. Located behind the door is a revamped employee and storage space with a new refrigeration system.

Expanded tap selection, featuring local breweries

The new keg system expanded the draft beer selection from three to six, which allows for a greater variety of brews on tap. Food and Beverage Director, Katie Joaquin, said they regularly feature local selections like Coronado Brewing Company‘s North Island IPA, Stone Brewery IPA, and Thorn Brewing’s Barrio Lager.

According to Slentz, the new granite countertops with swirls of gold and brown pays homage to the “brown boots and gold wings” of Naval Aviators. New barstools with the studded-leather seats were purchased and bag hooks placed underneath the countertop for convenience.

Recovered historic squadron placards above new sidebar counter

Adding to the aviator aesthetic, the most interesting new feature is a cross deck pendant wire that acts as a footrest for the relocated counter. The wire, used to catch airplanes landing on the carrier deck, came from the San Diego-based USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71).

Cross Deck Pendant Wire from the USS Theodore Roosevelt Nimitz-Class Aircraft Carrier

The I-Bar’s courtyard acquired more bar tabletops and stools, tavern lights, and newly rope-lit palm trees. An adjoining room was also brightened and refurbished to make the space more inviting for future events.

Overall, Slentz has only received positive reviews on the renovation. And while some things have changed at the “World Famous” I-Bar, one rule has stayed the same – never, ever put your phone on the bar (it may cost you, dearly).

Note: No photographs were taken inside the set of the upcoming Top Gun: Maverick film

Written by Andrea Kade, Coronado Times Staff Writer

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