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Doom for a JFK Terminal?

August 22, 2010

On August 11, the Port Authority and Delta Airlines announced an agreement that calls for the demolition of Delta’s present international terminal, known as Terminal 3, at John F Kennedy Airport. Built in 1960 as the Pan American terminal, the original part of Terminal 3 was an exuberant expression of Modern structural engineering and dawn-of-the-jet-age optimism. As if to set Pan Am apart, as a prestigious and strictly international carrier, the structure was given a unique form, with an elliptical glazed concourse set under a saucer-like canopy that spans almost 500 feet on its longer axis.

Unfortunately, the terminal was functionally obsolete almost as soon as it opened. While other terminals were including the newly invented enclosed jet way for passenger access to planes, Pan Am incorporated a less advanced means of access—over exterior bridges sheltered by the long cantilevers of the canopy. Boarding passengers may have gotten more of a sense of jet travel adventure, but they were exposed to the heat, cold, winds, and noises of an airport.

In 1971 the terminal was expanded to accommodate 747s and renamed the “Pan Am Worldport.” A large, clumsy extension was built on the field side, with a warren of low-ceilinged spaces lacking any sense of adventure. After Pan Am ceased operations in 1991, Delta took over the terminal for its international flights. Many users of the terminal today never even see the relatively expansive interior under the great canopy. The Delta-Port Authority agreement would demolish the entire complex to make room for taxiways and aircraft parking positions associated with expansion of the main international terminal next door.

Efforts to preserve this terminal face formidable obstacles. The most architecturally distinguished of JFK’s original terminals, the TWA Flight Center by Eero Saarinen, has been preserved—actually only its central, iconic part—but no uses have yet been established for it. Also threatened right now is the elegant Terminal 6, completed in 1970 for National Airlines by I.M. Pei & Partners, which still functions adequately and seems a higher-priority preservation subject at JFK.

The Delta international terminal lacks the cachet of a Saarinen or Pei connection, having been designed by the engineering firm Tippetts-Abbet-McCarthy-Stratton in association with the relatively obscure New York architects Ives, Turano & Gardner. Its doom seems virtually sealed by the announcement of its demolition as a fait accompli, at New York’s City Hall, with Mayor Bloomberg (who actually has no say at all about developments at JFK) giving the deal his blessing.

On August 11 the Architect’s Newspaper published a detailed article on the Delta-Port Authority plan. In addition to a stunning historical photo, renderings of the proposed new terminal and a site plan, the article includes quotes by DOCOMOMO New York/Tri-State board members Nina Rappaport and John Morris Dixon. And to set the record straight, the latter called the terminal “doomed” not “damned.”

Since the proposed new JFK plan shows a long enclosed walkway connecting Delta’s domestic operations (in Terminal 2) with their international gates (in the expanded Terminal 4), it seems quite possible to retain the iconic original core of Terminal 3 as a setting for amenities such as restaurants and convenience retail—and maybe a cocktail lounge with early-jet-age atmosphere. It appears this could be done with minimal adjustment to the proposed taxiway and aircraft parking layout. It would require Port Authority and Delta’s recognition of the heritage embodied in this structure.

Additional background:
Fun history at BrandLandUSA:

Milton Hebald “Zodiac Screen”
Originally the Pan Am Worldport featured a massive 24 x 220 foot screen between the access road and the terminal building. Along with the “Pan American” sign, the screen displayed 12 large bronze sculptures depicting the signs of the zodiac by Milton Hebald. Removed in the early 1990s by Delta, the bronzes are reportedly in deep storage in a JFK hanger.
Milton Hebald Zodiac Screen

If you have access to Design Issues see Winter 2005, Vol. 21, No. 1 for “The Pan Am Terminal at Idlewild/Kennedy Airport and the Transition from Jet Age to Space Age” by
Thomas Leslie. (It’s subscriber access only)

Vintage postcard, courtesy Garland Pollard,