When Flying Was Fun – JFK Airport in the 1960s

Hidden gems lurk in a family photo archive, waiting to be found by those of us obsessed with each image and the stories behind the images.

My grandfather loved architecture, particularly mid-century modern architecture by Finnish architects. As a second-generation Finnish-American, he felt proud of the work by the Saarinens, especially Eero Saarinen.

Saarinen designed the St. Louis Arch, Washington Dulles Airport outside Washington, D. C. and the TWA Flight Terminal at JFK Airport.

In the mid 1950s, commercial jet aviation came to prominence, and with it, all the glamour we so dearly loved in shows like Mad Men. Airline companies wanted to reflect the money and sophistication of jet travel through their respective terminals at America’s airport, John F. Kennedy International Airport, known at that time simply as Idlewild Airport.

My grandfather captured some of that glamour during a visit to the airport in 1963. He had grown up in the Bronx, returning often to visit a beloved maternal aunt and her family. At the time of his visit, Pan Am, American and TWA had financed the construction of architecturally unique buildings designed by nationally and internationally known architects.

Photographing these buildings at the time probably seemed like nothing special. But by the 1980s, the size of jet planes began to eclipse each terminal’s ability to safely maneuver the planes to their respective jetways. By the 2011, only the TWA terminal had withstood demolition. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey began converting the terminal into a hotel, which opened in 2019.

The Pan Am Worldport Terminal, 1963,
Fabyan Watrous holding Robin Allen, Debbie Allen with Aunt Nelma Wein

The Pan Am terminal was designed by the architecture firms of Tippetts-Abbett-McCarthy-Stratton, and Ives, Turano & Gardner. The four-acre overhanging roof doubled as a canopy for passengers who originally walked outdoors from the terminal to board planes.

JFK’s Terminal No. 8 – “The Cathedral”

Unveiled in 1960, “the 317-foot by 23-foot translucent mosaic panel facade was designed by Robert Sowers, who is considered by some to be the most iconic stained glass artist of the Modern Age. The piece was composed of over 30,000 flash glass tiles in vibrant red, sapphire, and white. Sowers was one of the first artists to prominently feature stained glass in commercial architecture.”

Debbie and Robin Allen inside Saarinen’s TWA Flight Center

By 1955, TWA, being among New York’s major airlines, undertook to build its own terminal at what was then commonly called Idlewild Airport.

Eero Saarinen and his Detroit-based firm were commissioned in 1955 to design the TWA Flight Center. Forecasting heavy patronage for the terminal, Saarinen designed it to speed up processes. It also served to define and convey TWA’s brand identity with its bird-shaped, emblematic structure and a harmoniously coordinated interior featuring references to TWA’s corporate identity.

Robin and Debbie Allen on the footbridge, TWA Flight Center, 1963

Forecasting heavy patronage for the terminal, Saarinen designed it to speed up processes. It also served to define and convey TWA’s brand identity with its bird-shaped, emblematic structure and a harmoniously coordinated interior featuring references to TWA’s corporate identity.

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