As the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey continues a multibillion-dollar redevelopment and modernization of each of its three principal metropolitan airports to meet the needs of air travel in the 21st century, the price of progress marks the end of an era and the beginning of a new one.
While familiar architectural markers disappear to make space for creative airport terminal design and infrastructure, their visible departure is a bittersweet reality. Aged structures that have borne witness to a town or city’s cultural history help to give people a sense of place and a connection to the past. A historic building represents something notable, or celebrated, to people who live in a town, or to those visiting, not only for their aesthetics but for their architectural legacy.
The PANYNJ has committed to preserving and maintaining three such historic landmarks – the original Newark Metropolitan Airport Administration Building at Newark International Airport, the Marine Air Terminal at LaGuardia Airport, and the Trans World Airlines Flight Center at JFK International Airport.
In 1966, Congress enacted the National Historic Preservation Act that works to save historic buildings, explaining, “Preservation of this irreplaceable heritage is in the public interest so that its vital legacy of cultural, educational, aesthetic, inspirational, economic, and energy benefits will be maintained and enriched for future generations of Americans.” 1 [i]
The National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) is the official list of the Nation’s historic places worthy of preservation. Authorized by the National Historic Preservation Act, the National Park Service’s Register of Historic Places is part of a national program to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect America’s historic and archeological resources. 2
Newark Liberty International Airport
Administration Building 1
National Historic Landmark – 1979, NRHP # 80002485 – Dec. 12, 1980
Newark Metropolitan Airport was the first major commercial airport in operation in the United States. Development began in 1928 and in the first years of its existence, one-third of the world’s air traffic ran down its runways.
With an innovative legacy that spans nine decades, Administration Building 1 (formerly named Building 51) was at the center of Newark Airport were many firsts took place. The building, originally dedicated in 1935 by Amelia Earhart, served as the first passenger terminal in the nation. It housed the first air traffic control tower and the first weather bureau. Newark was also the first to have a paved runway and runway lighting.
In late 1934, a permanent administration building was planned, with work progressing through the Federal Civil Works Administration at a cost of $700,000. Designed by architect John Homlish in the popular 1930s Art Deco style, his design incorporated large areas of glass and steel and contained a decorative interior that relied largely on geometric motifs interspersed with references to the theme of flight. The main entrance consisted of a two-story, three-bay central entrance block with two wings angled back for the airfield elevation. The facade was constructed and faced with horizontal bands of smooth poured concrete, alternating with windows and orange spandrels made of red brick. Upon the terrazzo-floored lobby, plaster wings embellished the capitals of squared columns. The walls of ground floor public areas were faceted with highly polished marble and the stair rails in polished aluminum. The theme of flight was repeated above the boarding area door with stylized aluminum birds applied to decorative aluminum grillwork. Original ceiling fixtures were made of fluted Milk Glass.
The main central concourse provided access to interior corridors on either end which led to three small waiting areas. Passenger access doors led to the field from the concourse and from each of the six waiting rooms. The ground floor contained loading rooms where mail was prepared for air transport. This section was divided into office and mail destination stations. The main floor also contained space for commercial airline ticket counters, the airport physician, and the State Aviation Commission.
The central concourse on the second floor was lined by several offices in one wing and bedrooms in the other. The airport manager’s office, a lounge, and a space originally intended as a restaurant were on one side of the lobby, decorated with a 10-panel 1,530 square foot abstract mural painted by artist Arshile Gorky. Two open-air terraces occupied the other side overlooking the airfield. On top of the building were a 20 x 10-foot central air traffic control tower and a semi-circular aluminum and glass room reached by a spiral stairway from the second floor.
Up until 1939 Newark was the world’s busiest airport, until the opening of LaGuardia (Municipal) Airport at North Beach. In 1942 the War Department took over Newark Metropolitan for military use and when World War II ended the airport was returned to the city. In 1948 the Port Authority assumed administration and began its major expansion program and land acquisition. Viewed as too small for continued operations, the Administration Building was replaced and fell into disuse.
In 1999 the architectural firm Beyer Blinder Belle was contracted to lead an adaptive reuse effort to avoid the destruction of the historic structure. A runway extension project that placed the building within a restricted safety zone forced the Port Authority to move the building, creating an opportunity for the Port Authority to restore the entire structure, expand it, and adapt it for reuse. In 2000-2001, Administration Building 1 was separated into three sections, lifted by hydraulic jacks, placed atop dollies, and moved about three-quarters of a mile to its present location at the airport where it houses the Port Authority Police Department, airport administration offices, an operations center, and aircraft rescue and firefighting equipment. 3
Though nearly ‘hidden in plain sight’, it is a sterling example of preserved Art Deco architecture.
LaGuardia Airport – Marine Air Terminal
National Historic Landmark – 1980, NRHP # 82003397 – July 9, 1982
By the early 1930s, commercial airports were developing under the Federal government’s use of private contractors for postal transport. At the time, New York City did not have a municipal airport. By 1934, elected Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia initiated plans for a new airport, which was sponsored and funded by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Days after the approval of President Roosevelt in 1937, Mayor LaGuardia presided over groundbreaking ceremonies and construction proceeded. With some four miles of runway, the $40,000,000 airport on over 500 acres, which opened on December 2, 1949, was the largest and most expensive in the world.
The Marine Air Terminal at LaGuardia was designed in the Art Deco style by architects Delano & Aldrich. As described in the 1980 Landmarks Preservation Commission Report – the terminal’s visual impact relies on the sharp geometry, symmetry, and precision of its design with a strong emphasis on the entrance and ease of circulation that exhibits a clear relationship between the exterior and interior. Ornament is highly expressive of the terminal’s function. The facade of the building is faced in brick detailing which was originally buff-colored with black brick detailing. Stainless steel offers a gleaming, sleek appearance on both the exterior and interior.
The terminal is constructed of a two-story circular core with an attic, from which a rectangular entrance pavilion and two symmetrical one-story wings project. The main part of the building is tiered in a ‘wedding cake’ configuration. The first and second stories have windows that encircle the building, framed by dark brick, and separated by a faceted brick panel. Above a simple projecting stainless steel cornice on the first story is a smooth parapet wall behind the roof-top observation deck and promenade. On the tier of the second story is a frieze of flying fish which adds a polychromatic tone to an otherwise subdued color scheme. These golden fish fly through the air against a background of a wave-patterned sea executed in two shades of blue. The attic on the third floor is sheathed in stainless steel panels, as is the original control tower at the rear of this tier.
The entrance pavilion is composed of a three-story rectangular center section. At the center is a bank of four stainless steel doors with grilles in the form of two stylized winged globes. The core housed airport-related waiting rooms, a mailroom, health, customs inspection, and detention offices. 4
On the circular interior wall is the restored mural, ‘Flight,’ by artist James Brooks. This epic mural measuring 237 feet long by 12 feet high depicts the history of humanity’s quest for the skies, from Greek mythology to the 1930s. Panels range from Icarus and Daedalus to the Wright brothers, culminating in the final scene of a Yankee Clipper landing on the bay.
Contracted by the Port Authority, architectural firm Bleyer Blinder Belle conducted a major multi-phase restoration of the Marine Air Terminal which was completed in 2005. Phase 1 included reconstruction of the front entrance portal; repair and replacement of the extensive Tennessee Pink Marble flooring and walls; the addition of a removed historic staircase; and the introduction of new period storefronts within the historic rotunda. Phase II involved an extensive exterior restoration of the building, including reconstruction of the building parapets and roofing; restoration of the curved brick facades with their decorative “flying-fish” terra cotta frieze; and replacement of the building’s windows. 5
While uses for the terminal have changed, few alterations have been made to the exterior of the building, a type unique to the 20th Century. Today, the Marine Air Terminal is the only active airport terminal dating from ‘The Golden Age of the Flying Boat’ when trans-Atlantic passenger flights were made aboard Pan American ‘Clipper Ships.’
The Trans World Airlines Flight Center –
John F. Kennedy International Airport
National Historic Landmark – 1994, NRHP # 05000994 – Sept. 7, 2005
The development of JFK International Airport (formerly named New York International, or ‘Idlewild’) began in 1941 when Mayor LaGuardia announced plans for an additional, larger airport to be constructed on a vast area of marshland on the south shore of Long Island. LaGuardia was convinced that demands for domestic and transatlantic passenger traffic and air freight service would grow significantly after the war. The land purchased for the airport included the Idlewild Golf Course, a summer hotel, and the Jamaica Sea -Airport. The Port of NY Authority (now Port Authority of NY and NJ) oversaw the airport’s planning, and its construction began in 1942. The new facility consisted of a large central complex designed around a 160-acre plaza surrounded by seven airline terminals. Each of the terminals was independently designed and linked by taxiways, roads, and parking lots.
Trans World Airlines (TWA) was the sixth international airline to sign an agreement with the Port of New York Authority in 1949 for use of the Idlewild facility. In 1961 TWA’s then-president, Ralph S. Damon commissioned the architectural firm, Eero Saarinen & Associates, to design the Trans World Airline terminal which is attributed to the vision of the terminal as ‘’a building that starts your flight with your first glimpse of it.”
Finnish-born architect Eero Saarinen was at the leading edge of the modern architecture movement and sought an ‘expressive architecture’, stating ‘’each building should be as distinctive as each person should.” He envisioned a structure that embodied the spirit of flight and rejected the strict linear forms of the international style that dominated corporate American architecture. He used bold curvilinear forms to convey a sense of movement. He took advantage of the terminal site assigned to TWA by capitalizing on its high visibility at the far end of a curving road. It was determined that the building would relate to the tight, wedge-shaped site with the main terminal and walkways extending at angles. The terminal’s exterior shell was constructed of four interlocking vaults resting on Y-Shaped buttresses. The shell encloses an interior that integrates structural, circulation, functional, and decorative elements to create complex patterns that flow through a light-filled space.
As described by the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1994, ‘The exterior of the TWA terminal is composed of remarkable few elements, and its simplicity is furthered by the two building materials: concrete buttresses and roof, and green-tinted glass walls. The wing-like roof of the central portion rises above low wings that extend on the east and west and follow the curve of the airport service road. Extending from the main terminal are two raised walkways that connect with gate structures on the aircraft ramp; the two-story eastern gate structure has a pair of remote gate lounges (the western gate structure, built later, is not included in this designation). The exterior concrete areas of the terminal are painted in a range of cream shades.
For the concrete form, steel-pipe scaffolding was erected on a grid, with each vertical placed to support the underside of the form at the proper elevation. Specialists designed concrete mixes to meet the unusual conditions of the building; a fairly standard concrete was used for the piers and then blended with a lightweight mix for the roof shells. The pouring of the concrete structure, which is one monolithic form without control joints above the ground, was a carefully orchestrated event. Nearly a year later, the one-quarter-inch thick tinted glass window walls were installed. The curved walls of the flat-roofed side wings rise from a low curb and extend as a roof overhanging the sidewalk. The original door openings are framed by rib-like projections. The piers on the ramp side of the terminal, through which the concrete tube walkway extend, frame a large oval window above a concrete bulkhead. The letters ‘’TWA” are mounted on the edge of the roof.
On the east wing, two of the openings have been converted to floor-to-ceiling windows, and glazed vestibules project from the other two openings. On the west wing, the five openings have two projecting vestibules, two pairs of recessed glazed doors, and a pair of flush glazed doors. The enclosed concrete walkways, painted white, are tubes with an oval cross-section, modeled on the exterior with curved forms near the main terminal ends. The three main sections of the east gate structure have concrete ground stories and fully-glazed second stories. The main structure is star-shaped with rectangular projections onto which jetways are attached; it is extended by two glass-enclosed walkways, supported by a solid base and battered piers, to remote triangular gate lounges.’ 6
Saarinen was adamant that architecture had to be of its own time, and he sought to interpret his era in a dynamic, expressive manner. His approach to design allowed him the freedom to explore flowing, irregular forms. Although he did not live to see the terminal’s completion, Saarinen’s design expressed his intention ‘to interpret the sensation of flying’ and ‘be experienced as a place of movement and transition.’
When TWA ended its 75-year existence as an independent airline in 2001, the TWA Flight Center’s scale and function were unable to adequately meet the demand of 21st-century air travel. TWA flew its last flight on December 1, 2001, and the terminal at JFK officially closed in January 2002. With the help of the Port Authority oversight and the Redevelopment Advisory Committee (RAC), which includes organizations that rallied in support of the Center’s landmark status, the RAC provided detailed input in its review of the building’s preservation and reuse project.
In 2002, the Port Authority again contracted the architectural firm, Beyer Blinder Belle, to stabilize the TWA Flight Center, and with Morse Development and MCR, formulate a strategy for its restoration and redevelopment. Based upon extensive research, interviews with surviving members of Saarinen and Associates’ original design team, and the analysis of archival materials, the central objectives of the project included the removal of inappropriate exterior additions; repair of failing concrete, and restoration of the historic landside entrance and predominant public areas of the terminal, main entrance, lower and upper lobbies and flight tubes, Beyer Blinder and Belle restored the exterior of the building and completed the primary interior spaces, addressing important life safety issues such as smoke evacuation and detection. Other notable examples included the restoration of the dramatically-shaped information desk and ‘futuristic’ flight information ‘Solari Board’ at the center of the lower lobby; reconstruction of the recessed seating/viewing area in the upper lobby, and the rehabilitation of the terminal’s ‘signature’ east and west, red-carpeted flight tubes that formerly led to the departure-arrival lounge and gates.
The restoration of the TWA Flight Center was completed in 2002, and today it stands as one of the great 20th-century architectural landmarks. Nearly two decades since its restoration the TWA Hotel opened on May 15, 2019, with Saarinen’s masterwork as the centerpiece of the property…a true, enduring testament to the Jet Age and the Golden Age of Air Travel.
With each of their own unique and extraordinary designs and history, the Newark Metropolitan Airport Administration Building 1, the Marine Air Terminal at LaGuardia, and the Trans World Airlines Flight Center are architectural treasures that remain present – as a testament to the commitment and oversight of the Port Authority, alongside the resolute support and local stewardship of their community partners and committed preservationists.
1 National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers
2 National Register of Historic Places
3 Beyer Blinder Belle
4 Landmarks Preservation Committee Report – MAT
5 Beyer Blinder Belle
6 Landmarks Preservation Committee Report – TWA Flight Center