JFK International

Those whose journey included a visit to John F. Kennedy International airport in New York may or may not have noticed the faded beauty of Eero Saarinen’s dormant TWA terminal, this author’s favorite airport edifice and a must-see on anybody’s tour of commercial airflight landmarks. When I last wrote about the famous structure last year, TWA had vanished and the space was vacant, its fate being argued between preservationists and Port Authority bureaucrats. As these things tend to go, few were optimistic, and the demolition men were readying their wrecking balls, but this time there’s good news.

The 1962 building, the first major terminal in the world built expressly for use by jet airliners, is a modernist masterpiece and, until the dissolution of TWA, the perfect backdrop for revisiting a little Jet Age enchantment. Saarinen, a Finn whose other projects included the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and the sweepingly beautiful main terminal at Washington Dulles, described his TWA as “all one thing.” The lobby is a fluid, unified sculpture of a space, wildly futuristic yet firmly organic. It’s a kind of Gaudi inversion, a carved-out atrium reminiscent of the caves of Turkish Cappadocia, overhung by a pair of cantilevered ceilings that rise from a central spine like huge wings. As did the spidery “Theme Building” at LAX, conceived at the same time, it became an eccentric icon. Not necessarily because of any thumbprint novelty, but because it returned a sense of identity to the modern airport, a vitality that would lend itself in the years to come to a host of facilities around the globe.

In the mid-1990s I worked in that building, based there with the commuter affiliate of TWA. Sometimes I’d sit in the second-story restaurant looking down into the lobby, at the gangs of kids in sandals who knew nothing of the place, eyes locked on their copies of Details or Spin and waiting for final call to Ft. Lauderdale or Rome or Tel Aviv. Dishonored by then as “Terminal 4,” it was undersized and forlorn, plaintive and world-weary in that way only airports can be — greased and smeared by every nation and culture without ever having lifted its girders from the Jamaica Bay fill. Clutches of sparrows and starlings lived in the yellowed rafters and would swoop around grabbing up crumbs.

Surprisingly, and thanks to efforts of the city’s Municipal Arts Society, a tentative agreement has been reached that will leave the terminal not only standing, but rejuvenated as the showpiece property for Kennedy’s newest and hippest hometown airline, Jet Blue.

According to the plan, which awaits FAA approval, Jet Blue will use the building as an entrance hall and ticketing plaza. Flights will arrive and depart at an all-new secondary building to be built behind it, but Saarinen’s main space will be left intact as a central lobby, replete with the usual retail shops and restaurants. Boasts a November issue of the Manhattan User’s Guide, “Eero Saarinen’s TWA terminal at JFK will remain one of New York’s treasured architectural landmarks.”

I’ve seen no blueprints or mockups, but considering Jet Blue’s standards of style and efficiency, I imagine the results will be outstanding. Fitting, perhaps, that Jet Blue should be the new tenant. The ultrasleek carrier represents the newest twist to the air travel model, what more pleasantly ironic context for their experiment than Saarinen’s paragon of Jet Age vision?

(Sigh. My electronically submitted pilot application, along with about 7,000 others, sits in a huge virtual stack on a Jet Blue mainframe somewhere.)

Elsewhere at Kennedy, preservationists have also been busy over at Terminal 8, a.k.a. the American Airlines terminal. When completed in 1959, the tricolor stained-glass window along its façade was deemed world’s largest by record keepers at Guinness, and has remained so ever since. As part of a billion-dollar, seven-year project, American’s JFK facilities are being totally rebuilt, and authorities say the window will be kept.

And don’t forget, just across Queens at La Guardia you can savor the famous Marine Air Terminal (1939), formerly the property of Pan Am and now directly adjacent to the Delta Shuttle. From the sidewalk, facing the blue Delta Shuttle awning, look just to the left and you’ll see the Marine Air’s beautiful Art Deco entryway. (Taking a photograph of those polished silver doors one day, a Port Authority cop asked me what the hell I was doing and chased me away.) Notice also the flying fish, set in relief around the rooftop.

If you’re inside, face the Delta Shuttle ticket counter and look left; you’ll see a short passageway. Ten or fifteen steps carries you through a doorway and into aviation history. Inside the rotunda is a 360-degree mural and cutaway of an old Pan Am seaplane.

The mural, “Flight,” is a 1952 work by artist James Brooks. As it traces the history of aviation from mythical to (then) modern, Icarus to flying boat, you may notice the painting’s style is a less than shy nod at Socialist realism. At the height of ’50’s McCarthysim, in a controversy not unlike that of Diego Rivera’s infamous mural at Rockefeller Center, it was declared a gesture of socialist propaganda and covered over with gray paint! Not until 1977 was it restored.

I’m always lobbying for flyers to check this building out, but rarely do passengers wander through. Thus, if nothing else, its usually unoccupied wooden benches make for an almost church-like respite from the Shuttle’s crowds.


This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.