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Can JFK’s Terminal 3 Be Saved?

May 19, 2013

One of the most iconic of the original airline terminals at John F Kennedy Airport is slated for demolition after it is vacated on May 24. But the group Save the Worldport continues its determined efforts to preserve this unique landmark of midcentury Modernism.

Completed in 1960 for Pan American World Airlines (aka Pan Am), the endangered structure exhibits a design bravura that celebrated the arrival of the jet age. It was designed by the team of Tippetts-Abbett-McCarthy-Stratton (primarily engineers) with associated architects Ives, Turano & Gardner. Dubbed the Worldport by Pan Am and now known simply as Terminal 3, it was among the most striking of nine airline terminals built at about the same time for New York’s prime long-haul airport.

Pan Am’s terminal is most notable for its vast elliptical canopy, four acres in roof area that cantilevers 110 feet out over the aircraft boarding area. At a time when enclosed jetways were coming into use, the Pan Am facility opted for simpler boarding bridges that took passengers outdoors but sheltered them under its vast overhang. That transitional concept was never replicated elsewhere.

Pan Am ceased operations in 1991, and the expanding Delta Airlines took over the terminal. By then the structure had been extended out toward the field, with an architecturally undistinguished wing far larger than the original portion, and the canopied structure had since been considerably altered to serve evolving patterns of use.

From the outset, Pan Am’s signature terminal was somewhat overshadowed by Eero Saarinen’s extraordinary terminal for TWA, the other U.S. carrier then flying glamorous overseas routes. That landmark structure has now been thoroughly restored for proposed operation by a hotel operator, but airport plans call for demolition of Terminal 3.

In 2010, Delta and the Port Authority of NY and NJ, which operates JFK, announced that the airline would occupy a new $1.2-billion wing of the adjacent Terminal 4, and the area now occupied by Terminal 3 would be needed for related aircraft movement and parking.

That’s when a few acquaintances interested mainly in air travel history organized Save the Worldport and began a determined effort to save the iconic structure. Their campaign has been conducted largely through social media, with some support from established preservation organizations. They have tried to persuade those responsible to preserve the original construction, not its clumsy extension. Since an enclosed pedestrian passage is already planned to link Terminal 4 to Terminal 2 (which accommodates additional Delta gates) they argued that the preserved “saucer” structure, at a knuckle in this passage, could be adapted for highly desirable amenities—retail, restaurants, an exceptional Delta Sky Club, etc. An online petition urging this has received over 2,700 signatures to date.

Investigating the possibility of a National Register listing, the group found that the New York State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) had issued a negative opinion back in 2001 in response to a Port Authority inquiry. Using freedom of information laws, the group was able to access SHPO’s determination that the structure was ineligible because substantial alterations had resulted in loss of original fabric, “feeling,” “association.”

This year, Save the Worldport has been challenging the reasoning behind that decision. It submitted a new nomination asking the state to overturn its 2001 decision on National Register eligibility, which was not successful, and it is now planning an appeal at the federal level. The group has presented statements at several of the Port Authority’s monthly public meetings and plans to do so on May 29. On May 15 some of its leaders took part in a telephone “debriefing” with state officials, regarding their position. Meanwhile, they’ve succeeded in drawing media attention to their campaign through their website, a number of sympathetic blogs, and some print media—even a segment on the CBS Evening News.

Anthony Stramaglia, one of Save the Worldport’s leaders, is hopeful that with continued efforts this notable structure can survive. He and his group have learned a lot about considerations behind planning decisions at JFK, including such significant factors here as construction funding and aircraft parking locations. They’ve become savvy, as well, about generating public attention and its potential impact. With support from DOCOMOMO US and New York/Tri-state and other interested organizations—and possible National Register endorsement at the federal level—they’re convinced that this landmark can be saved.
—John Morris Dixon

Get the latest news on Terminal 3 advocacy efforts here:

Pan Am Worldport, JFK International Airport (now T3), 1960. photo: c. 1960s, Christina Segler.
Pan Am Terminal, 1961 photo: John Proctor