Newark Liberty International Airport to lose an important piece of its Modern heritage
April 21, 2018
In New Jersey, the Modern era of jet travel commenced in August 1973 with the opening of Newark Airport’s Terminal A. Its construction was part of a $500 million renewal project that would enable Newark to serve as a gateway to the metropolitan region and earn it the name of “Newark International Airport.” The master plan, prepared by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, called for the construction of three terminals (A, B, and C) to be started simultaneously but completed in phases. A New York Times article of August 6, 1973 heralded the opening, noting that “from the air…there is an impressive view of the three new terminals, which look like modernistic crowns.”
Newark Airport, the first major airport in the metropolitan region, was established in 1928, when commercial aviation was still in its infancy. By the middle of the 20th century, its 1934–1935 Art Deco Administration Building (now relocated and restored) had become functionally obsolete and incapable of supporting the ever-increasing passenger volume. The Port Authority’s master plan for a new, larger complex was simple but elegant, consisting of three triple-deck, glass‐front terminals, each 800 feet in length, arranged in a gentle arc along an airport roadway.
The architectural critic Herbert Muschamp, reflecting on proposed changes to Kennedy International Airport in August 2001, cited Newark’s master plan as a positive model and praised its “unified vocabulary.” Each of the three terminals, despite their phased construction, presents a similar, consistent appearance that is defined by a tent-like roof of concrete planes supported on faceted concrete columns. Large glazed expanses in the ticketing area welcome the afternoon light from the west.
In March, it was announced that Grimshaw Architects would be designing a new 33-gate “Terminal One” to replace Terminal A. Construction is expected to begin shortly with completion targeted for 2022, according to Grimshaw’s website. The design of Terminal One is intended to reference the “modular concrete structures” of the existing terminals, albeit with more contemporary materials that will allow for even greater light and openness.
The modernist complex of Terminals A, B, and C at Newark Liberty International Airport, as it is now known, is not listed on the New Jersey or National Register of Historic Places (several of the older buildings are designated, however). The NJ State Historic Preservation Office reviewed the Port Authority’s plans to replace Terminal A under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act in 2012 and again in 2016 and determined that no historic properties would be affected.
While the current project calls for demolishing only one of the nearly identical terminals, a similar demise for the remaining two terminals cannot be far off. Even if spared, the destruction of Terminal A does irreparable damage to the integrity of the complex. Across the country clearly significant examples of midcentury transportation design and planning that have not quite reached TWA Terminal notoriety lack designation and in many cases even the broad support needed to initiate a designation effort when a new project threatens their existence. The pattern of events that transpired in Newark, culminating with a done deal for demolition, are yet another stark reminder of the work ahead to safeguard these buildings.