Phoenix history: Sky Harbor Airport once was home to an outdoor wedding chapel that once was meant to attract “aerial elopers”

Much like modern ski-in and ski-out resorts, Sky Harbor once was the home to several innovative fly-in concepts.

For several years it featured First National Bank’s fly-in center, the first in the country, which catered to businessmen and cattlemen with small private aircraft.

But years before that, there was a fly-in chapel.

No, people did not actually fly into the chapel. Rather, they would take a flight from anywhere and come to sunny Arizona. Of course, they would first need to make arrangements to have a minister or justice of the peace to conduct the service in case they needed to make a quick turnaround.

Idea conceived

But why was there such a place at the airport in the first place?

When the fly-in chapel was conceived in the late 1930s by the Phoenix Junior Chamber of Commerce, it was seen as a unique promotion to entice “aerial elopers.” At the time, there was a three-day waiting period to get a marriage license, which included having a blood test, in California, and Las Vegas was not yet perceived as the “quickie” wedding spot.

And so this publicity gimmick should have appealed to Hollywood celebrities. That was not the case, but still, it did attract some Californians of lesser-known status.

Donald Novis was an NBC broadcasting personality in California, and he arranged for KTAR to air his marriage in 1938, which included live music played by a Spanish orchestra.

But please note, this was not a chapel where guests came in and sat down.

Try to picture an archway constructed in an adobe Spanish Mission style. That’s actually all it was along with a pulpit, a bell in the “tower,” and a cross on top. So everyone stood and the wedding parties were generally very small.

Seldom used

Located near what was originally Terminal West (Terminal 1), the chapel served as the marriage site for approximately 46 couples during its short life, many of whom actually lived in the Valley.

Some of the names of the early couples were engraved in a copper plaque that was attached to the structure, and Don Novis and his brother’s names were there. But it is unclear where this plaque may be now.

One oddity is that the first couple married in this open-air site drove to the airport rather than flying.

As the airport grew, the seldom-used chapel was finally removed, although the bell was retained and placed on display.

For a long time the bell was the only visible reminder of this fly-in chapel. Recently it was removed by the Phoenix Airport Museum and is being stored.

Donna Reiner is the co-author of three books on Phoenix history.

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