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Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Leonardo Slept Here

Back before the events of the world made it such a cauldron of suspicion and fear, I used to spend more time than most people would consider normal at New York's biggest airport.  Despite passing three other airports to get there, JFK had a unique appeal for me and my similar plane-geek friends.  Part of that is the international stew that passes through it (over 90 carriers call there, albeit many of them only a few flights a week).  But another aspect is its unique layout.  In the 1950s and 60s, the developers of the airport only constructed one terminal on their own, which served mainly the aforementioned overseas carriers who had a small presence.  The major players at the time (American, BOAC, Eastern, National, Pan Am, TWA, and United) were each allocated land to design and build their own facilities. Northwest Orient, Braniff and Northeast Airlines opting to share one building that later became home to Delta Air Lines.

Pan Am Worldport
Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc., photographer
in the Public Domain
Of particular architectural interest were the facilities operated by Pan Am and TWA.  The former, once known as the Worldport, is an oval capped by a four-acre cantilevered  roof which allowed passengers to enter and leave aircraft while sheltered from the weather. Expanded in 1970 to accommodate Boeing 747s, it was for a time the largest passenger terminal in the world.

The TWA Flight Center, designed by Eero Saarinen, still stuns visitors with its unique profile.  A thin-shell concrete structure which evokes a bird in flight.  Opened in 1963, it introduced travelers to such niceties as the Jetway boarding bridge, a central PA system, and an electronic flight display board.

By the early 1990s these buildings were all bursting at the seams and barely able to cope with the volume of traffic passing through them.  Piecemeal renovations occurred on each facility.  Used by Delta since Pan Am's demise, the Worldport is often compared unfavorably to terminals in the developing world. It is  slated to be demolished by 2014.  A consortium of airlines replaced the Eastern terminal with a state-of-the-art facility that can accommodate the superjumbo A380.  American built a giant new structure and leveled both its original building (which included destroying the world's largest stained-glass window) and that of United, whose presence at JFK has been reduced to just a handful of flights now operating out of the British Airways facility.  I.M. Pei's glass-curtained "Sundrome," which housed jetBlue until a few years ago, is also slated to come down to make room for that carrier's future expansion.

The main terminal has also been replaced, and will be expanded to accommodate Delta over the next few years, thus vacating the Worldport.

TWA Flight Center
TWA Flight Center by Eric Alix Rogers 2009

The TWA Flight Center is now on the National Register of Historic Places.  Its unique shape and the inability to alter it made it impractical for today's requirements.  When American Airlines consumed TWA in 2001, the terminal was closed.  

Since then jetBlue built a new facility partially surrounding it on the airside, which required demolition of the two gate satellites, but the two buildings are joined by the two original ovid walkways in which we see Leonardo DeCaprio, in character as master con artist Frank Abagnale, Jr. in Catch Me if You Can.

Airside of the TWA Flight Center
by Timothy Vogel (Vogelium on flickr.com)
Used by Creative Commons License
Since then, nobody has quite figured out what to do with this very cool, but not particularly useful building.  As we have learned the hard way, airports don't make the best museums.  Part of the attraction for us (besides the bar, natch) of this space was the view of the tarmac, which has since been obstructed by the construction of the new jetBlue terminal. 
The latest proposal is to construct a boutique-sized hotel (approximately 150 rooms) in the space between the old and new buildings.  I'm not sure how they plan to accomplish this without further compromising the setting of the Saarinen structure.  The airside is currently a gravel field, but at least that admits daylight into the cavernous waiting area.  Sticking another building in there would gobble up even more of the already-limited atmosphere.  A hotel on the airport property would be a good thing (the vaguely prisonlike Ramada Plaza out by the Belt Parkway closed several years ago) but I'm not sure wedging it into this  space is the best plan, and I'm not alone.


  1. Bon tardi! I love the look of your blog - clean and sleek. I always learn about travel and something special about faith from your posts. Thanks for following my blog as well. Cheers to you!

  2. Here are some more photos of JFK (then New York International or -- as it was more familiarly known -- Idlewild)