I.M. Pei's JFK in Terminal Trouble

I.M. Pei’s Terminal 6 could soon be gone.
Courtesy Amiaga Studios

Preservationists have been trying for years to obtain a landmark designation for the 1970 I. M. Pei–designed Terminal 6 at JFK Airport, but they may have run out of time. On April 29, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey announced its intention to demolish the terminal, calling it “obsolete,” and arguing that maintaining it was not a prudent use of resources. “This came as quite a surprise to us, and a great disappointment,” said Pei Cobb Freed partner George Miller.

The building was one of the first to use glass mullions. (Click to zoom)
George Cserna

The terminal, which originally housed National Airlines and later JetBlue, is due to be razed, along with six cargo buildings and hangars, at a cost of $42.3 million, yielding estimated savings of $1.7 million each year thereafter. Although no precise date for the demolition has been set, the Port Authority predicts it will happen next year, after which time JetBlue will use the space to build an expansion for their growing international operations.

Terminal 6 sits next to another pedigreed building at JFK, the 1962 Eero Saarinen–designed Terminal 5, which the Port Authority agreed to preserve largely intact after heavy lobbying from the public and preservationists several years ago. However, without the landmark designation that Saarinen’s building enjoys, Terminal 6 will have a more difficult time obtaining a stay of execution. “The Saarinen building has historic status. The I. M. Pei building does not,” said Port Authority spokesperson Ron Marsico.

Pei Cobb Freed, along with preservationists like New York Tristate DOCOMOMO, disagree. They cite the terminal’s expansive, clear-span pavilion space, a style that set a precedent for later I. M. Pei buildings such as the Louvre Museum’s pyramid and the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston. Its all-glass facade was created with an unprecedented use of glass mullions in place of the typical metal ones, above which hangs a series of glass panels, one of the first suspended glazing systems built in the United States.

To add to the terminal’s airy feel, Pei’s team devised an innovative drainage system that feeds into the terminal’s exterior concrete columns, to avoid having to extend a vertical column of ductwork down from the ceiling. “The transparency of the glass and the uninterrupted ceiling are what give the building its character,” said Pei Cobb Freed partner Michael Flynn.

Inside the terminal.
George Cserna

The design is also notable for its approach to managing congestion, which in 1970 was just beginning to be a major pressure at airports. “We were designing just as there was this colossal expansion in the capacity of planes,” Flynn said. Rather than placing the arriving and departing passenger traffic in the same location at the front of the building as was the norm, Pei separated the main terminal from the airline gates with a raised walkway, creating space behind the building for arrivals and leaving the front of the building exclusively for departures. An innovative approach then, separation is now standard.

DOCOMOMO is now in talks with other local organizations to band together in support of Terminal 6, and is calling for public support for preservation or reuse. “It would be a total waste of energy and money and resources to demolish a building of this scale,” said DOCOMOMO-New York chair Nina Rappaport. JetBlue did respond to calls for comment.

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