Terminal Condition: How New York’s Airports Crashed and Burned—Can They Soar Again?

Terminal 3 today has seen better days. (Matt Chaban)

It should come as good news, then, that within the next two years, JFK Terminal 3 will be gone. If only that were not such horrible news.

“It’s such a great idea, and so unique,” said John Morris Dixon, editor of the highly influential midcentury magazine Progressive Architecture, upon hearing Delta’s announced plans a year and a half ago. He wrote lovingly of the terminal’s opening, all of the Jet Age terminal‘s openings, half a century ago. “I don’t know if there’s another circular terminal like itt66.”

Walking through Terminal 3, the only thing more omnipresent than the dreariness is the posters, banners, infographics, videos, brochures, signs and the sides of shuttle buses all trumpeting a bright future just a hundred yards away. THE NEW DELTA T4 TERMINAL Coming May 2013 they cheer in bold Helvetica. Next to these are renderings of the new, expanded terminal, with more curbside check-in space, more security points, new restaurants and lounges, extra airport gates.

The message is clear. This terminal you are now in, it is not real. It is a nightmare, but one from which you will wake in 16 months.

“New York is by far the most competitive market in the world,” said Gail Grimmet, Delta’s senior vice president in charge of New York. “There is $14 billion in revenue at stake and we’re all competing for it. Last summer, there were 80 carriers flying out of JFK, so you’re up against a lot of competition.” An inferior, geriatric facility just will not cut it anymore.

What this means for Terminal 3 is total annihilation. It will not be replaced by another shiny aviation bauble. It will simply become extra taxi space and a new apron, the term for airplane parking. This is actually a good thing for fliers, since it will mean more room for planes to maneuver at the airport and faster turnarounds at the gate. One of the nation’s slowest airport might just speed up a bit.

But to do so will be at the cost of the last operational piece of Jet Age architecture at an airport that once defined it for the entire world. “Land is so critical at JFK, you really have to evaluate it and makes sure you’re getting the best use out of it,” Delta’s Ms. Grimmett said. Terminal 3 “really is an interesting building, but structurally, it’s outlived its usefulness.”

There is Eero Saarinen’s world-renowned TWA Terminal, of course, the one building the Port Authority deigned to preserve. But even then, the old Terminal 5 is hemmed in by JetBlue’s new and very nice T5–voted one of the top 10 by Frommer’s, it turns out. Probably the finest piece of aviation architecture ever built, the old alien beauty awaits some future use, perhaps a hotel wedged between terminals new and old. A request for proposals went out last year, with Donald Trump, Yotel and Andre Balazs among those interested. The Standard Queens sounds appealing, but who would really take the hour A-Train trip out to Jamaica for a party?

Well, they used to, actually, a few years ago, when the terminal had a short-lived stint as a cultural and event space, but at the terminal’s second ever party someone left the door to the tarmac open and a few drunk revelers found themselves out on the jet way. There was no incident, but the TSA was none too pleased. JetBlue, which is still responsible for the original terminal, decided it was simply better to forego parties than to take on the risk that came with them.

This is much the reason JetBlue tore down Terminal 6, I.M. Pei’s old Sundrome, the beautiful home of the long-gone National Airlines. Like all of the old JFK terminals, it was a statement piece, home to the world’s first freestanding glass curtain wall–look, ma, no mullions! When it was demolished last year, without any sort of plans for its replacement, a piece of architectural history was lost with it, and some in the preservation community were apoplectic. Neither the Port nor JetBlue cared. They had an airport to run.

Much the same thing happened at Terminal 8, continuously in operation by American Airlines from 1960 to 2008. The marquee feature was not some intergalactic shell or technologically advanced façade but a more simple, even baroque, flourish: the world’s largest stained glass window. Stretching some 317-feet, it featured billowy abstract design by Robert Sowers. When the terminal was demolished, pieces of the window were broken up and given to American staff as key chains. An architectural salvage outlet in the Village will sell you tiny red-white-and-blue panels for as little as $100. At least the two inside murals by Brazilian artist Carybe were saved, though not for New York. Originally installed as a symbol of American’s frequent flights to Latin America, two six-ton artworks were carted off to the hub in Miami.

The situation at LaGuardia, the nation’s first true airport, is little better. Built by the mayor whose name it bears through the sweat and craftsmanship of the WPA, the old Marine Terminal is home to a mural of its own Flight, the largest created by federal artists during the Depression. It was plastered over by the Port Authority decades ago and only recently restored after the campaigning of the editor of AirCargoNews.com. It is the only first-generation terminal still in use, and even then only as administrative offices.

And there is also the old control tower, with its hourglass shape and spiral of portholes, like somewhere Captain Nemo might live. Built by Robert Moses, it was one of so many World’s Fair landmarks that remade the city in the early ‘60s. Every single jet age terminal was, JFK included.

The tower was set to be replaced since the 1980s, and so it went into a tramatic state of decline. Even then, like all of these buildings, it retained a certain beauty. Until it was demolished last year, having finally been replaced by a simple beanpole of concrete next door, a cluster of black glass observation decks at its crown.

An entire generation of revolutionary architecture gone. These were the buildings American aviation used to project their power and dominance to the world, and through which a city defined air travel for generations. That is why the airlines spent so lavishly on these terminals, hiring the nation’s finest architects. It must be said that none are in business but American, the last of the legacy carriers to file for bankruptcy, though it will not be vanishing for good, like so many of JFK’s patrons.

“Romanticize them all you will, these buildings are functionally obsolete and there is really nothing you can do with them,” said Greg Lindsay, author of Aeropolis.

Terminal Condition: How New York’s Airports Crashed and Burned—Can They Soar Again?