The Marine Air Terminal at LaGuardia Airport: Where Planes Landed by Sea

Yankee Clipper landing at Marine Air Terminal circa 1940. Photo by Hans Groenhoff (Smithsonian Institution)

Did you know that the Marine Air Terminal at LaGuardia Airport is the oldest active airport terminal from the first generation of passenger air travel? The Art Deco terminal is a New York City Landmark and thus safe from destruction, unlike other more ill-fated terminals at JFK Airport.

The first flight departing from the Marine Air Terminal was a Yankee Clipper to Lisbon, Portugal. Clippers were quite luxurious, with two floors, dining rooms, and private compartments. As seaplanes, they would have to land on water and be pulled in by motorboats, which is why the Terminal is located so close to the Long Island Sound.

Eventually, the Clippers were commissioned for use in WWII, and by the end of the war, land planes were in use, making them obsolete. Today, the Marine Air Terminal is open to the public, serving mostly short, domestic flights. The Delta Shuttle operates air shuttles to Chicago, Boston, and Washington, D.C. A few commuter airlines also fly out of Marine Air.

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The Marine Air, called Terminal A within the airport’s internal system, has been involved in other aviation moments and records as well. When it was built in 1939, the Marine Air was the largest and most expensive terminal at the time, spreading over 558 acres and amounting to $40 million in costs. Designed in the Art Deco style, Terminal A at LaGuardia may not be as modern or glossy as TWA Flight Center or the former Pan-Am’s Worldport Terminal at JFK Airport, but its details are connected to its history. The flying fishlike figures going around the building’s roofline are supposed to resemble the Pan Am planes that the terminal once served.

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Inside the Terminal rotunda is a mural depicting the aviation history of mankind. “Flight,” as the mural was named, was designed by James Brooks and is the largest mural produced by the Great Depression’s Work Projects Administration (WPA) program (established by Franklin D. Roosevelt). Although the mural was painted over in the 1950’s when it was mistaken for communist propaganda, it was restored in 1980 to its original state. This was also the year that the Terminal was given landmark status.

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The Marine Air Terminal is a hidden gem amidst the relatively unimpressive LaGuardia Airport, a precursor to the Jet Age terminals at JFK Airport: TWA Flight CenterWorldport Terminal and I.M Pei’s Terminal 6. Whether landmarked or not, these terminals together comprise a significant portion of American aviation history.

Here are some additional photographs of the terminal:

Next, read about 7 of JFK Airport’s Demolished Jet Age Terminals. Get in touch with the author @YiinYangYale.

 LaGuardia Airport, Marine Air Terminal

2 Responses
  1. We all owe a debt to Geoffrey Arend, who single-handedly lobbied the Landmarks Commission to designate the Marine Air Terminal a landmark, and campaigned to have the murals restored. As Newsday reported (September 19, 1980, p. 17): “In 1976, Geoffrey Arend, editor and publisher of Air Cargo News, became obsessed with the restoration of the mural and the preservation of the art deco Marine Air Terminal building. Arend, who is 39 and has the folksy quality of a Jimmy Stewart, campaigned in his newspaper and built a photo display of “Flight” inside the terminal. He lobbied and became, in short, a pest. In February of 1979, DeWitt Wallace, the founder of The Readers Digest, and Laurance Rockefeller, the financier, were wandering throughout the terminal after missing a flight. They spotted Arend’s display, which was a subtle appeal for support. The two men put up half the $80,000 necessary to restore the mural. The Port Authority put up the second half.” The article notes that the mural’s painter, James Brooks, was present for the rededication.

    Arend also wrote and published an illustrated history of LaGuardia Airport (“Air World’s Great Airports: La Guardia – A Picture History Celebrating LaGuardia Airport’s 40th Anniversary – 1939-1979), and a companion volume on Newark Airport – they are both wonderful, but hard to find.

    In 1980, while on the staff of the Landmarks Commission, together with Nancy Goeschel – the research department staff person who wrote the official designation report on the Terminal – I met Arend, who took us on a tour of the Terminal. It’s people like Arend – single-minded, determined “pests” – who make preservation happen. You can read the Landmarks report here: http://neighborhoodpreservationcenter.org/db/bb_files/Marine-Air-Terminal–La-Guardia-Airport.pdf

    • Thank you for posting this, Anthony. I know my father appreciates it. Too often he has been left unmentioned in articles about the Marine Air Terminal and its history, and it was and still is a large part of his legacy and identity as a journalist and aviation historian.
      He asked me to write this, as an addition to this blog post:
      “The Flying Fish depicted as swirling around the outside of the MAT were not just a reference to the Flying Boats who found safe harbor at LaGuardia Airport, but were in fact representative of a common design feature of Art Deco Buildings. They are meant as a lyrical respite in the otherwise cold, angular lines of the architecture, serving much the same purpose as the gargoyles on the Chrysler Building. A touch of the living, and of magic, in the otherwise lifeless.”
      Also interesting to note that my uncle, Saleem Khan, created the pencil drawing of the MAT that accompanies this post. My father also wanted to let you know that those wonderful benches with the golden propellers were actually taken out to be trashed. My father noticed them, pulled them from the garbage, and brought them back into the terminal. Preservation is truly at its heart a ‘hands on’ effort!
      If you can find a copy, episode 15 of Season 7 of Modern Marvels, a History Channel show, features my father speaking about aviation history. It’s an interesting watch. He has worked tirelessly, and often without recognition, to save these landmark pieces of aviation history. He was successful with MAT, and Building One at Newark Airport, but was saddened at the recent loss of I.M. Pei’s Terminal Six at Kennedy Airport.
      Thanks again, Anthony.

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