News
08.11.2010
JFK Burns Out On Jet Age Terminals
SOM will expand Terminal 4 for Delta, tearing down the iconic if unloved midcentury Terminal 3
SOM is designing an expanded Terminal 4 at JFK, which will include nine new gates for Delta Airlines.
Courtesy Delta

JFK airport is entering a new jet age—one without many of the iconic terminals that defined the previous one and established the cool, hyper-modern look of flying for generations of travelers. To that end, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey announced an agreement today with Delta Airlines for a $1.2 billion expansion of Terminal 4 that will lead to the subsequent demolition of Terminal 3, the former Pan Am Worldport.

Designed by Tippetts-Abbett-McCarthy-Stratton, the 1960 Terminal 3 is famous for its flying saucer–like shape and rooftop parking, and for receiving the Beatles for their historic arrival in America, though a 1972 expansion has marred its original character and led to numerous complaints about it being the worst of JFK’s eight terminals. The Port Authority and Delta insist the building is beyond repair, arguing that its replacement with taxiways and plane parking will improve efficiency at JFK, by some measures the most congested airport in the world.

The original Terminal 3 was considered revolutionary when it opened, but it soon became outmoded due to larger planes and a later expansion that destroyed much of its charm.

“There are always people who want to preserve our heritage and I sympathize with that,” Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said at a City Hall press conference, where the new plans were unveiled today. “But you can’t preserve everything. You have to strike the right balance and make room for new airports, new parks, new development.”

Even if there were room for Terminal 3, Delta CEO Richard Anderson said the Worldport would not be worth keeping. “The terminal is fully depreciated,” he said. “It’s not an asset you can recover at this point. We put a lot of money into it to keep it going, and we will for three more years, but we can’t put anything more into it.”

Top to Bottom: Terminals 2, 3, and 4 today.

When the project is finished, Terminal 4's Concourse B will expand by 9 gates, a connector will extend to Terminal 2, and Terminal 3 will be replaced by plane parking and taxiways.

Terminal 3 will not be demolished until 2013, when the expansion of Terminal 4 is due to be completed. That project is being designed by SOM, who designed the rest of Terminal 4, and will include nine new gates for Delta, for a total of 25, 16 of which will be used by Delta for its international flights. A connection will be built with Terminal 2, which will continue to serve Delta’s domestic passengers, and security and baggage handling facilities will be expanded to accommodate the additional passengers. Otherwise the terminal will look much as it did when it opened in 2001.

Port Authority executive director Chris Ward said there will be no interruption in service due to the project, nor would the expanded terminal cause additional delays at the busy airport. “If anything, it will improve it, providing Delta with a more efficient operation,” Ward said. This is because the elimination of Terminal 3 will allow for double taxiways for both Terminal 2 and 4, and parking for planes so they may move between the gates, runway, and hangar more readily.

A new connector between Delta's Terminal 2 and the expanded Terminal 4.

The announcement has still given preservationists some pause. “Perhaps the Port Authority should have some preservation plan of action,” said Nina Rappaport, chair of Docomomo-New York/Tristate. “And not just for airports but all their properties. Because transportation involves so much modern technology and architecture, perhaps they need to look more closely at preservation.” As for the Port Authority and Delta’s contention that it would be a hindrance, financially and functionally, to keep even part of the building, she replied: “It just takes foresight.”

Rappaport said her larger concern remains the preservation of I.M. Pei’s Terminal 6, which is slated for demolition next year to make way for another expansion of JetBlue’s facilities. Susan Baer, who was named the Port Authority’s director of aviation last fall, said that neither has been deemed worthy of retaining. “In the environmental review, all our experts said that Terminal 6 could come down but that we should save Saarinen, the significant one,” Baer said. She added that the $20 million renovation of Terminal 5 is nearly complete, though a Port Authority spokesperson said an opening date has not yet been set.

Security facilities will be expanded to cope with more passengers as well as new measures implimented since the terminal opened in 2001.

John Morris Dixon, the former editor of Progressive Architecture, said he remembers Pan Am’s Terminal 3 fondly, from when he wrote about it for the magazine when it first opened. “You had this great statement, this canopy, with the planes nuzzling in beneath it,” he said. “But it was outdated almost immediately” due to the trend toward ever larger planes. He agrees that the 1972 addition has made the terminal “miserable,” akin to what Robert Moses did to Penn Station, and noted that mounting a case for its salvation will be difficult.

“It’s such a great idea, and so unique,” Dixon said. “I don’t know if there’s another circular terminal like it. But I just think it’s damned anyway. I don’t know if any amount of preservation lobbying would make a difference, and I don’t know what the argument would be. What are they going to do with another structure there with no assigned use? They’ve already got that with TWA.”

Matt Chaban