The crown jewel of John F. Kennedy Airport’s architecture is undeniably the landmarked TWA Flight Center, but other Modernist buildings at the airport have not been preserved or will soon be lost. While the public is undeniably drawn by a personal connection to these locations, or the history that has taken place within their walls, the criteria for preservation requires more.

On our behind-the-scenes visit of the TWA Flight Center in 2012, we dubbed it “a cathedral to aviation.” The Eero Saarinen-designed terminal was saved from the wrecking ball in part through the efforts of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The organization later highlighted the terminal as one of the 24 most inspiring preservation stories in the 24 years of its 11 Most Endangered Places List.

The I.M. Pei-designed Terminal 6 at JFK was not nearly as fortunate. Designed as an exercise in restraint with an aim towards transparency, the architect sought to “create an environment for travelers that was serene, generous, clear, spacious, simple and dignified,” according to Henry N. Cobb, from Pei Cobb Freed & Partners in New York. From its conception, it was never meant to compete with the audaciousness of the TWA Flight Center. This design decision would ultimately lead, in part, to its demolition in 2011.

Most recently, Worldport Terminal has risen to the spotlight after it landed on the 2013 11 Most Endangered Places List. Delta vacated the space for a new extension in Terminal 4 at the end of May. By mid June, Delta was about to commence initial demolition activities and most of the removable interior structures were gone.

Delta wants to use the space as aircraft parking. Preservationists are calling for its reuse, citing its iconic saucer shape architecture and its historic moments (the first home of the Boeing 707 and where The Beatles departed from America in 1964). The preservationists are joined by travelers and New York residents, who recall the former Pan-Am terminal as a symbol of the Jet Age.

Photo by Jon Proctor via Wikimedia Commons

It may seem odd that airline companies themselves, which disappear faster than the architecture they build, can make decisions about historic places. This is not always the case, but at JFK Airport, the Port Authority controls the TWA Flight Center, but Delta is in charge of Worldport.

As companies merge and change hands, the branding necessity of a once-iconic building loses its pertinence. Maintaining these historic buildings, when they sit empty, is a huge expense for the airlines and the Port Authority–$600,000 per year for the I.M. Pei building, at least a million for the TWA Flight Center.

The TWA Flight Center. More photos here.

Looking at the criteria for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, it’s clear that Worldport isn’t a slam dunk for any of the specifications.

First, a listing can be recognized for its “significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history.” This criteria is vague enough that Worldport could go either way. Second, the listing can be recognized for being “associated with the lives of persons significant in our past.” Worldport lacks an internationally acclaimed architect (though, this did not help I.M. Pei’s Terminal 6) and its association with The Beatles is probably not enough. Related is the third criteria–“Properties that are architecturally significant.” Designed by Ives, Turano & Gardner Associated Architects and Walther Prokosch–Worldport’s architects don’t have the same cachet as Eero Saarinen.

Another reason for the lack of institutional support around Worldport relates to the extensive modification of interior spaces by the airlines. One question on the review checklist for National Register Nominations is “Have alterations (if any) been adequately described?  Has the evaluation of their impact on the integrity been made?” By all accounts, this terminal never really worked very well, as Paul Goldberger astutely noted in his recent piece in Vanity Fair. Changes were made within a few years after the building was finished to improve functionality.

In the on-going battle between development and preservation at JFK Airport, Modernist architecture is losing out. While progress has been made in the adaptive reuse of TWA Flight Center into a hotel, it seems unlikely that Worldport will be saved. Will there ever be another movement towards iconic architecture in airports? Maybe when form can become compatible with airport functionality again, or when we realize that efficient, generic architecture does not a world-class city make.

Get in touch with the author @untappedmich.

6 thoughts on “Preservation of Modernist Architecture at JFK Airport in NYC, What’s At Stake for Worldport/Pan-Am?

  1. With respect to the above article, “What’s At Stake for World Port”, I’d like to reiterate what thousands of other preservationists, aviation aficionados, historians, students of architecture, members of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, former airline employees, and members of the public say……”SAVE THE WORLD PORT”! That leads us to the why. Why, because of it’s unique style of modernism. Because of it’s futuristic design of architecture, that was to pave the way for the first commercial Boeing 707 to depart from her gate. Why, because of her one of a kind, cantilevered umbrella roof, that her jets were enabled to pull right up to the terminal safeguarding her passengers and employees from the outside elements. Why, because World Port, symbolizes the beginning of the JET AGE and what was to come for all airlines. he beautifully sculpted bronze figurines representing the signs of the zodiac were removed as all the flags of the free world along it’s upper and lower decks. Such a wonderful sight as you approached World Port, with her shiny glass and metal portals, reaching out like an oversized saucer from a foreign land. Somehow all that magic left, as the bronze sculptures, the flags and the world’s premier carrier, the one and only Pan American World Airways. What remains is an empty shell of it’s former self. The right thing to do of course, is to save, restore, refit, and preserve her for generations to come. There are not many standing examples of modernism in our architectural digest in America. Hundreds could find employment here with grand shopping arcades, a boutique spa hotel, WiFi, and Computer lounges, trendy restaurants, banks, and such. Not so much for poured asphalt. The cry continues….SAVE THE WORLD PORT, it would be such ashame to pave once was ‘paradise” to put up that parking lot!

    1. Spent many hours at the Worldport especially atop the Parking Garage which gave a view of the airlines including the Concorde. After PanAm 103, they wired-up the roof and the building deteriorated. Watched it demolished; broke my heart. Nothing is sacred these days.

  2. Thank you for this article and for giving exposure to our cause of saving the Worldport. There are may very significant historical, architectural, cultural, profit and job-generating, and operational reasons for preserving and repurposing Worldport (Terminal 3). For more information, readers can go to

    We at Save the Worldport, do not believe that the alterations done to the original structure should be a reason to invalidate our applications for historical preservation. Those interior alterations are such that can be easily removed, and should be. We are proposing that the entire addition added in the 1970s to accommodate 747s be demolished and that Worldport can be fully restored to its original open, sleek, and beautiful design.

    Insofar as the architects not having as much cache as Eero Saarinen, maybe that’s true to a point, but that is not in itself a reason to deny historical reservation either. Not that much is publicly known about my father, Emanuel Turano, FAIA. I have attempted to get that information to the public.

    My father was part of the mainstream of mid-century modern architecture. He was mentored at Harvard Graduate School of Design by Walter Gropius (Bauhaus and International Movements). He was association in various ways Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Phillp Johnson, and Saarinen. Dad was on the design team at Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill of Lever House a premier jewel of mid-century modern architecture. He influenced major changes of building standards in the realm of public housing in the 1960-70s. Most of his project were of innovative public design in nature. He was a Fulbright Fellow, and taught at Pratt and Columbia University. He received an honorary PhD from Cooper Union and many awards over his more than 50-year career.

    More specific to Worldport, there were three awards given: “Design Citation of Excellence” from the New York State Association of Architecture, A “Design Citation of Excellence” from the Queens Chamber of Commerce, and most notably, an “Architectural Award of Excellence” from the American Institute of Steel Construction for the iconic, cantilevered “flying saucer” roof.

    Port Authority had asked us to come up with a plan and a private investor to help fund our proposal. We did that, but both Port Authority and Delta refuse to take our investor’s calls. We are trying to raise money right now to keep fighting. Here’s where you can contribute:

  3. As much as one would like to save these grand structures, airport buildings are in a tough position. More so now than ever, were the efficiency of airport operations is so finely tuned and demanded of. Airport real estate is scrutinized to the square foot. And as wonderful as they look in photographs, these buildings take a beating, get tired and worn down. We can all wax nostalgic.

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