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News October 2011

Terminal 6/National Air “Sundrome” demolition

October 17, 2011

Demolition of I.M. Pei’s 1969 Terminal 6 at JFK, also known as the “Sundrome,” is well under way. There’s been a flurry of news pieces in recent weeks covering this latest blow to Modernism. Perhaps the best coverage is by the longtime NY Times photojournalist David Dunlap, who through the camera lens captures the expiring breaths of this Modern temple of aviation. In his article he wryly notes the paradox of this loss with the debut of ABC’s new show “Pan Am” which celebrates the early jet age.

With its deep roof trusses supported by l6 massive cylindrical concrete columns, travelers on National Airlines flights (and in later years Pan Am and TWA flights) passed through a terminal flooded with daylight and were treated to expansive views of the airport and beyond thanks to the terminal’s almost all-glass exterior and zero interior loadbearing walls. Masterful engineering allowed for a truly transparent experience that is unbelievable in today’s world of cookie-cutter, nondescript domestic air terminals.

You may ask why a bigger stink wasn’t made to save this distinctive structure. From the time of the Section 106 hearings on Saarinen’s TWA terminal next door, preservation forces—the Municipal Art Society, DOCOMOMO NY/Tri-State, the NY SHPO and others—have raised the question of Terminal 6 with its owner, the Port Authority of NY/NJ. Henry Cobb, a partner at Pei Cobb Freed & Partners and an outspoken proponent of preserving Terminal 6, formally appealed to its current owner, JetBlue, to reconsider its plans. From the Port Authority there was either no answer, or an answer of “No.” Not up for discussion. The Port Authority has justified its demolition plans on various grounds: it could not afford to maintain the empty building while awaiting a new lessee; the site was needed for overflow parking of jets; and recently, the site is needed as part of the RFP offered private developers for the TWA Terminal 5 redevelopment project.

For those who may not know, the Port Authority is exempt from NYC Landmarks Law. Thus even if there was a designation it holds no weight and serves only as a wishful plea. Port Authority planners know the architectural and historical significance of Terminal 6 even sans designation. The building simply does not fit into their plans. The fate of Pei’s Sundrome was likely sealed at the time of the Section 106 hearings with the SHPO for TWA Terminal. By agreeing to save and restore Saarinen’s masterpiece the Port Authority—at least in its own thinking—bought a pass on Pei’s masterpiece of aviation architecture.

David Dunlap, The New York Times, “A Modern Masterpiece, No Longer Used, Will Soon Disappear at Kennedy Airport”
For additional background information and period photos, visit Pei Cobb Freed & Partners project web page.

Terminal 6 in its early days. Photo by George Cserna. Courtesy of the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University.