Growth squeezes a landmark terminal at JFK

Preservation: The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is trying to fit an "icon of modernist architecture" into a $10 billion redevelopment.

April 22, 2001|By Randy Kennedy | Randy Kennedy,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - Ever since it was completed in 1962, the graceful, soaring Trans World Airlines Flight Center at Kennedy International Airport has been described as a monument to the jet age.

But the terminal - built by Eero Saarinen & Associates and designated a city landmark in 1994 - was actually designed before the introduction of large, commercial jets. And as air travel changed around it, the terminal quickly became a dazzling architectural relic.

Now, as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey tries to figure out how to fit the terminal into a $10 billion redevelopment of the airport, the agency has received approval from state officials to demolish large pieces of the complex: two satellite pods where passengers wait to enter jetways to their flights. One pod, to the east, was included in the terminal's designation as a city landmark; the other was added to the complex later and is not protected.

J. Winthrop Aldrich, deputy commissioner of the State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, said the state, in granting approval, was seeking a balance between two important needs.

"We're very conscious, certainly, of the importance of the building as an icon of modernist architecture, and we're also aware that Kennedy is bursting at the seams," said Aldrich, whose office has the authority under federal law to approve changes to the terminal. "And those two things have to be taken into consideration."

Officials with the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission said the commission had no legal authority to stop the demolition of any of the terminal, which in 1994 it called "among the chief works of one of the most highly regarded architectural firms of the modern era."

The Port Authority is required only to submit its final plans to the city commission, which can suggest changes.

Commission unhappy

Terri Rosen Deutsch, the chief of staff for the city's commission, said the commission remained unhappy with the Port Authority plan, which involves building a much larger terminal directly behind the TWA terminal and the destruction of the pods, especially the eastern one, which was part of the original design by Saarinen's firm.

"The commission has expressed its concern to the Port Authority during several informal meetings and has urged the port to find a solution that would accommodate air transportation needs and still be sensitive to the landmark," Deutsch said.

Port Authority officials responded that although they had tried diligently, they saw no practical way to save all of the terminal and build another one on the site to accommodate the growing demands of air travel.

"This is no longer a good terminal, and I think most people who have traveled through it would probably recognize this," said Ted D. Kleiner, the assistant director for capital programs in the Port Authority's aviation department.

He said the authority had made large concessions to the preservationist position. It had initially planned to demolish most of the two arching "umbilical" tubes that lead back to the two satellite pods.

But after strong objections from preservationists, the agency found a way to route new roadways under the tubes and salvage both of them. Under the plan, the tubes would lead into the new terminal, which is to be used by United Airlines.

Kleiner said that the old terminal, still used by TWA, would not necessarily remain active. Port officials have said it could be used as a restaurant or a museum. Kleiner said on Tuesday that he could not comment on such plans.

"I don't want to pre-empt any idea by suggesting any idea," he said.

Under federal law, the state's historic preservation agency is responsible for reviewing and approving changes to landmarks in which federal agencies or federal money are involved: in this case, the Federal Aviation Administration is involved in approving the Port Authority's redesign of the airport.

Wendy Gibson, a spokeswoman for the state preservation office, said she could not comment on the details of the port's plan, because a memorandum of understanding approving the changes has not yet been signed by all the required parties. The state has signed it, but the FAA and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, a federal group, have not.

"We're pleased with the terms of the memorandum of agreement," Gibson said, "although it has not been finalized."

But many preservation groups are not at all pleased with what they see as the desecration of a building designed primarily by Saarinen, who also designed the Dulles International Airport terminal in suburban Virginia and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.

An organic whole

Saarinen wrote that he intended the TWA terminal to function as an organic whole, "a fully designed environment, in which each part arises from another and everything belongs to the same form-world."

Among the disappointed groups is one called Docomomo, short for the Documentation and Conservation of Buildings, Sites and Neighborhoods of the Modern Movement.

Caroline Zaleski, director of advocacy for the group's New York region, said preservationists were angered not only by the plans, which could result in demolition within the next year, but also with the way the approval process has been carried out with little public notification.

"Many people worked hard to provide the building with landmark protections back in 1994," Zaleski said, "and the public will no doubt be outraged to find out that their government is even considering demolition of any of the TWA terminal components."

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