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In memoriam: Abba Tor, engineer of Saarinen’s TWA Flight Center

March 25, 2017

Abba Tor was the go-to civil engineer for structurally ambitious projects by major architects of the Modern movement. These include Louis Kahn’s Yale Center for British Art in New Haven and FDR Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island, and Eero Saarinen’s John Deere Headquarters in Moline, IL, Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, and, most famously, TWA Terminal at JFK Airport. It was Tor who broke the news to Saarinen that the expansive ceiling could not be poured as one solid, continuous piece of concrete, because the material’s routine expansion and contraction would cause cracks. He advised the solution of creating four pieces, with joints and separations. These separations became the distinctive, three-foot wide skylights that bring dramatic light to the space. 

Born in Warsaw, Poland in 1923, Tor immigrated with his family to Palestine in 1934. He earned his civil engineering degree at Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, where he met his wife, Nomi Blumenthal, then an architecture student. He first came to the U.S. in 1952 as part of the Israel Defense Forces to work for the National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology). After earning a master’s degree from Columbia University, he took a job with the engineering firm Ammann & Whitney, and it was during this time he worked on the TWA Terminal. In 1962, he founded Pfisterer, Tor & Associates with Henry Pfisterer, who had worked on the Morse & Ezra Stiles Colleges at Yale University and the North Christian Church in Columbus, Indiana. Tor went back to Israel for a short period in the mid 1960s, where he built Carmiel, the country’s first prefabricated housing community. After returning to the U.S. for good in 1967, he settled in Westchester, NY, and continued to work, teach, and travel.

Abba Tor, Who Engineered T.W.A. Terminal at Kennedy Airport, Dies at 93,” New York Times, February 17, 2017. 

Abba Tor (1923-2017), the Engineer of the Almost Impossible,” The Architect’s Newspaper, February 27, 2017. 

Photo courtesy Shuli Tor
TWA Terminal at JFK Airport ©Tod Seelie for Gothamist