A Flying Leap into the Future:
New York's Marine Air Terminal
By Anthony W. Robins
“This is a materialistic, scientific and practical age that Jules Verne could not picture with his wildest imagination. Radio, the spanning of the continent with the telephone, the talkies, television, the airplane and dirigible, mass production, newest machinery and what not, cannot be expressed in an Italian Renaissance or other styles of the past.” – Harry Allen Jacobs1
The geometric forms of the Marina Air Terminal as seen from the street. Photo: Meghan Weatherby
Though Jacobs, a New York City architect, wrote those words in 1930, some New York firms remained firmly in the grip of the “styles of the past” for another decade. The partnership of Delano & Aldrich turned modernistic only in 1939. Tasked with designing a building type barely a decade old, the firm produced the original Art Deco core of New York City’s LaGuardia Airport. Most of those buildings have long since disappeared, but one survives, the Marine Air Terminal.
During the decade following Charles “Lucky Lindy” Lindbergh’s 1927 solo flight from New York to Paris, the nation avidly followed the development of air travel, first for mail, then for passengers. New York welcomed half a dozen early aviators––from Amelia Earhart to Douglas “Wrong Way” Corrigan––with ticker-tape parades. Following a determined campaign by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, himself a World War I bomber pilot and aviation enthusiast, the New York City Municipal Airport (soon renamed for the Mayor) quickly became the region’s most important. LaGuardia wangled federal funds for its construction, making it the last and largest project of the Works Progress Administration.
Tucked away in an obscure corner of today’s far larger airport, the Marine Air Terminal might seem like an afterthought. It opened only in 1940, some months after the rest of the original complex. But as first conceived, it housed one half of LaGuardia’s air service. Long vanished buildings handled local airplanes––called landplanes––that took off and landed on the tarmac. The Marine Air Terminal dealt with the much larger seaplanes––enormous so-called flying boats, planes with pontoons––that took off and landed on Bowery Bay (hence the terminal’s location at the water’s edge). And while in recent years the Terminal has housed only local shuttles, it began its career as the New York terminus for the world’s first transatlantic passenger airline service, provided by Pan American Airways’ Yankee Clippers.
Officials turned to seaplanes because they could accommodate emergency water landings, as well as land at shipping ports where no airport yet existed. But more than just providing a speedy means of travel, the Yankee Clippers offered travelers a taste of the luxury found in railroads and ocean liners, including dining rooms and double-decker sleeping bunks. A year after the service began, Clare Boothe (Luce) wrote in Life magazine: “Fifty years from now people will look back upon a Pan American Clipper flight of today as the most romantic voyage of history.”2
The Clipper’s maiden voyage from the Marine Air Terminal on March 31, 1940, earned front-page coverage from The New York Times:
“Pictured as the forerunner of a great substratosphere fleet of the future that will fly to Europe on daily twelve-hour schedules, a forty-one-ton clipper plane took off yesterday on the first regular commercial flight from New York City to Europe as a throng of thousands gathered at La Guardia Field to witness the official dedication of the new $7,500,000 seaplane base. With an official blessing from President Roosevelt… the international air marine terminal at the… municipal airport in Queens was formally opened, bringing New York City within twenty-six flying hours of Europe.”3
Buff and black brick around horizontally organized windows and the glazed terra-cotta band depicting flying fish, which suggests seaplanes. Photo: Lynn Farrell
Two weeks later, Lucky Lindy himself came on an inspection tour of the terminal, in his capacity as a director of Pan Am.
Delano & Aldrich enjoyed impeccable architectural credentials. Both William A. Delano and Chester H. Aldrich had studied at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris. Forming their partnership in 1903, Delano and Aldrich spent the better part of four decades producing traditional designs––neo-Renaissance or neo-Federal––for wealthy families. Their extensive portfolio included Upper East Side town houses, private clubs, the Rockefeller estate at Pocantico Hills, and––perhaps presciently––a house for Lucky Lindy in Hopewell, New Jersey. In the later 1930s, Aldrich took a leave of absence to serve as director of the American Academy in Rome, where American architects studied the glories of classical antiquity. Delano instead joined the Board of Design for the futuristic 1939 New York World’s Fair, and took on the project for the new airport.
Delano turned out a handsome terminal in what might be called Seaplane Moderne. On opening day, it earned praise in the press as “strikingly modernistic.” (4) Unlike his firm’s more traditional productions, the Terminal’s design depends on pure geometric forms: a massive rectangular entrance leading to a grand rotunda. More Moderne than strictly Art Deco in spirit, the building has windows organized horizontally rather than vertically. Instead of elaborate classical carvings, it relies on the contrast of simple materials––buff and black brick playing off against a band of stainless steel. Only at the roofline did Delano permit a purely decorative flight of fancy, a sky-blue, glazed terra-cotta band with a ring of golden flying fish suggesting seaplanes––a typically Deco reference to the building’s function. Similarly, grille work over the Terminal’s doorways takes the form of globes with wings.
The Terminal’s two-story tall rotunda––which New York’s Landmarks Commission calls “among the most noteworthy Art Deco interiors in New York City” ––has handsome, dark green marble walls. Flying boat imagery includes more of the stainless winged globes found on the exterior, and continues with stainless steel propeller blades in the end panels of the wooden benches. But those cannot compare to the rotunda’s chief glory: James Brooks’s Flight––a 12-foot-high, 237-feet-long mural completely ringing the space.
As the last and largest of the nation’s WPA murals, Flight depicts the history of humanity’s quest for the skies, from Greek mythology to the 1930s. Panels range from Icarus and Daedalus to the Wright brothers, culminating in the final scene of a Yankee Clipper landing on the bay.
The grand rotunda and a portion of James Brooks's restored mural, Flight. Photo: Meghan Weatherby
Over the years, seaplanes fell out of fashion, and the Terminal found other uses. In the 1950s and 60s, charter flights to the Terminal brought dignitaries on official visits, from Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy to the moon-shot astronauts of 1968. The building gradually deteriorated; the harshest blow came in a 1950s renovation that painted over Brooks’s mural––apparently because local officials detected references to socialism in its symbolism. By 1973, The Wall Street Journal could describe the terminal as “just an obscure part” of the airport. “The marble has lost its polish, and the rotunda is painted yecch blue. The mural is gone.”5
In 1976, Geoffrey Arend, publisher of Air Cargo News and an admirer of the Terminal, mounted a photo exhibit in the Terminal hoping to attract attention. As described in Newsday, “DeWitt Wallace, the founder of Reader’s Digest, and Laurance Rockefeller, the financier, were wandering through the terminal after missing a flight. They spotted Arend’s display,” and eventually put up half the money needed to restore Brooks’s mural.6 Brooks attended the dedication of his restored murals in 1980, the same year the Terminal became a city landmark. In 1995, the Port Authority commissioned the restoration of the entire terminal from the firm of Beyer Blinder Belle.
Today the Marine Air Terminal serves as a temporary home for Jet Blue. It remains an out-of-the-way oddity at LaGuardia. But Deco lovers will find it worthwhile to search it out––if not for a transatlantic seaplane odyssey, then for a trip back in time to the glory days of early aviation and Art Deco splendor.
About the Author:
Anthony W. Robins, ADSNY’s Vice President, is a historian and writer specializing in New York architecture. A twenty-year veteran of New York’s Landmarks Commission, he now teaches at NYU and Columbia and consults on historic preservation projects. A popular leader of walking tours, he is best known for Art Deco, a passion reflected in his most recent book, Art Deco New York: A Guide to Gotham’s Jazz Age Architecture.
Article originally published in the Art Deco New York journal, Vol. 3, Issue 2, Winter 2018. View a digital version of the full journal here.