Part of aviation architecture history may soon be lost if Delta’s expansion project at JFK airport goes forward as planned. Terminal 3, built in 1960 and designed by Ives, Turano & Gardner Associated Architects as the Pan Am Terminal, later renamed the Pan An Worldport, is expected to close this May to flights and by 2015 be demolished to make way for a parking area for the planes.
With its flying saucer shape supported by cables and steel posts in a cantilever system, the mid-century building still looks very retrofuture even though it’s undergone renovations, particularly at the beginning of the 1970s to accomodate the larger planes. It was originally enclosed by a 220-foot long “Zodiac Screen” sculpted by Milton Hebald (it was taken down during a renovation and is now stored by New York Port Authority in a hanger). When it was opened it was celebrated for its progressive design that allowed planes to pull up under the saucer’s overhang so that passengers wouldn’t have to walk through the rain or other unpleasant weather in boarding their flights (this being a more glamorous travel age, they were probably wearing quite nice clothes that shouldn’t get wet). Pan Am stopped use of the Worldport in 1991 and it was taken over by Delta Airlines, which continues to use the terminal although what was once innovative in the design is no longer practical. The $1.2 million expansion of Terminal 4 next door would completely level the Worldport.
Save The Pan Am Worldport, a group organized by Kalev Savi and Anthony Stramaglia, is advocating that the Worldport be saved, or at the very least its unique flying saucer be preserved as part of the new design. The group was started by Savi back in 2010 when the expansion plan with its demolition of the Worldport was announced, and Stramaglia, a self-professed aviation enthusiast and hobbyist, discovered the group in 2011 after visiting the TWA Flight Center designed by Eero Saarinen at JFK during Open House New York. The sweeping TWA terminal from 1962 has achieved the landmarking and wide recognition that the Worldport has not. (The masterplan for JFK had allowed for each airline to design its own terminal, resulting in some individual and unique architecture commissioned by each company.) Stramaglia saw that the Sundrome (aka JFK’s Terminal 6), another historic terminal designed by I.M. Pei was being torn down, and was interested in the fate of the Worldport. After looking into the matter, he found that the bulldozers were slated for its not so distant future.
He said that he and Savi are involved with trying to get the Worldport recognized by the New York State Historic Preservation Office and the National Register of Historic Places, which it’s not on due to it being disqualified. They found this out after contacting the New York State Historic Preservation Office and were told that when the building became eligible in 1988 it languished without action, for reasons unknown, until 2001, when the Port Authority commissioned a report. This was at a time when Delta was already looking to expand, and Stramaglia says that report appeared to be a “hatchet job” that was full of purposefully negative comments, such as its lack of “known architects,” that bumped the terminal off the eligibility list. Save the Pan Am Worldport is now completing a new nomination form to be sent to the State Historic Office, although without the owner of the building agreeing to have the property nominated and listed, they have no jurisdiction. Nevertheless, if it becomes eligible there would certainly be much more pressure to preserve the Worldport.
“It’s a beautiful example of midcentury modern, of that whole jet age look and feel,” Stramaglia said. “It has that round elliptical shape that you don’t now see at airports. […] The building is architecturally unique, and once it’s demolished you just won’t see it anymore.” It also has had a cultural reach, hosting the Beatles in 1964 and photo shoots for Vogue and LIFE. In the 1960s the Russian Prime Minister came on a trip to the UN and saw the Worldport, and loved it so much that a replica was built in Moscow at the Sheremetyevo airport that still stands. (Apparently the Chinese with Zaha Hadid were not the first to duplicate architecture.) The Moscow terminal was actually incorporated into a recent renovation project, rather than be torn down, which is ultimately Save the Pan Am Worldport’s goal at JFK.
JFK has already lost some of its stunning old aviation architecture along with the Sundrome and potentially the Worldport, including American Airline’s 900-pane stained glass window at Terminal 8. While the landmarked TWA Flight Center will almost certainly survive (possibly as a hotel), and there’s still Terminal 2, another of the old terminals (although uninspiring as what essentially looks like a grey box), the Worldport is one of those reminders of the historic beginnings of forward-thinking architecture for air travel. While it might not look like much when you are rushing to a flight, it is really worth taking a plunge into its history (Save the Pan Am Airport has an incredible collection of photos of the Worldport past and present on their Facebook page) to see it in its prime at the peak of a glamorous era for air travel.