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Bringing Luxury to International Travel

By Meredith Hindley

In the spring of 1940, the Marine Air Terminal opened at New York’s LaGuardia Airport. The two-story building was designed by Delano & Aldrich, who had forged a reputation for decadent Beaux Arts buildings. The terminal, however, was pure Art Deco, from the circular core that served as the waiting area to the flying fish jumping across its exterior terracotta frieze and the metal fretwork on its doors. In the waiting area, white marble floors and black marble paneling signaled luxury, while small touches, like a propeller design inlaid on the ends of the benches, nodded to the terminal’s purpose. A sweeping mural depicting the history of flight by James Brooks, created under the Works Progress Administration, gave passengers a taste of what was to come. Men and women had harnessed the heavens, and the trip they were about to take was the latest innovation in that quest.  


The terminal was home to Pan American Airways Clipper service to Europe. Its northern route to Southampton, England, via Newfoundland and Ireland took about 27 hours; the southern route, to Marseille via the Azores and Lisbon, around 44 hours. The trip cut the Atlantic crossing from a week by ship to less than two days by air. After clearing passport

2. Marine Air Terminal. NOTE FLYING FISH FREIZE ALONG TOP OF BUILDING. - New York Municipa

Marine Air Terminal in New York City. Photo: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Historic American Engineering Record, HAER NY,41-JAHT,1-1

control, passengers exited the terminal and proceeded along a long wooden dock to board one of Pan Am’s Boeing 314 flying boats. Instead of concrete, the Clipper used the waters of Bowery Bay as its runway. The flying boat’s sleek silver exterior, thick two-story fuselage, and curved form are emblematic of the Art Deco aesthetic, but its form was actually a product of technical and logistical necessity. 

Pan Am’s passenger flights to Europe culminated a decade-long pursuit by Juan Trippe, the company’s founder. After building a business delivering mail and goods to far-flung destinations on flying boats, Trippe turned his attention to passenger travel, which necessitated a level of luxury not required by a mail sack. Trippe embraced Art Deco for Pan Am’s terminals and the flying boats’ interiors. To make the Clipper passenger routes profitable, he needed to sell technological innovation cloaked in glamor, and Art Deco’s sleek lines, rich finishes, and devotion to metals such as steel and aluminum offered the perfect aesthetic.


The first Clippers in 1931 were the brainchild of Trippe and Igor Sikorsky, an aeronautical engineer who had escaped revolutionary Russia. After building an empire in Latin America by using amphibious planes to carry mail and goods to areas lacking runaways, Trippe began to dream about carrying passengers along those routes. He wanted to do for air travel what Cunard had done for sea travel: create a luxurious experience where the journey was as important as the destination. “He had been fascinated then, and was fascinated still, by the Cunard mystique, by the romance of shipboard life, and his ambition now became to run Pan American as a kind of nautical airline,” writes Robert Daley in An American Saga: Juan Trippe and His Pan Am Empire. 

Trippe teamed up with Sikorsky to create the Sikorsky S-40, a four-engine seaplane with lavish interiors and attention to comfort that could carry 38 passengers and maintain a cruising speed of 100 miles per hour. Harking back to nineteenth century ships, Trippe dubbed his new fleet “Clipper” and infused the aesthetic with both nautical and Art Deco sensibilities. The cabin featured walls paneled in polished mahogany, which also dampened the sound and vibrations from the engines, and the furnishings were sleek and streamlined. On November 19, 1931, the first Clipper flight with paying passengers left Miami for Panama, with a stopover in Cuba. At the controls was Charles Lindbergh, who had been integral to testing the S-40. Soon Clippers were flying from Miami to Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro, with stops in between. 

Recognizing that the journey needed an aura of luxury from the start, Pan Am turned to Delano & Aldrich to design a terminal for its Miami operations. The two-story white stucco building, which opened in 1934, featured black-framed windows and a frieze of rising suns and winged globes below the cornice. Elaborate Art Deco doors beckoned visitors to the main lobby, which featured a three-and-a-half-ton globe. Murals depicting historical aspects of flight decorated the walls and ceiling. An outer promenade provided the perfect spot for watching the Clippers arrive and depart from Biscayne Bay.


Always ambitious, Trippe next turned to conquering the Pacific Ocean. Unlike routes to Latin America, with numerous stopovers, the Pacific was vast. Pan Am needed a plane that could fly at least 2,400 miles, the distance from San Francisco to Honolulu. After that, the plane could island-hop to Hong Kong, Macao, and Singapore. This time the winning design came from the Baltimore-based Glenn L. Martin Company, forerunner of Lockheed Martin. With four Pratt & Whitney engines, the Martin M-130 could travel 3,200 miles in one shot, achieving a cruising speed of 157 miles per hour. 


The inauguration of Pan Am’s China Clipper passenger service in 1936 turned a journey that took at least two weeks by ship into an eight-day trip by air. From Hawaii, the Clipper stopped at Midway, Wake Island, and Guam before arriving in Manila. For the long flight, the cabin was fitted with lounges, sleeping berths, and dining tables. Four-course meals were prepared at stopover locations and served hot on the plane. A steward roamed the cabin with coffee and tea—but no alcohol—and gum for smokers, abiding by a no smoking rule. 


Passengers originally departed from an artificial harbor on Alameda Island in San Francisco Bay. In 1940, Pan Am and the China Clipper inaugurated their new home on Treasure Island, created with infill from the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition. Pan Am again turned to Art Deco to set the tone for the Treasure Island terminal. The two-story semicircular structure, made of reinforced concrete to withstand earthquakes, provided architectural drama. Its eleven narrow two-story windows in the center echoed the portico of a Greek temple, and matching reliefs by Jacques Schnier depicted a man holding an airplane. 

1. Clipper Interior.jpg

S-40 cabin with walnut paneling, carpeted floor, and blue lights above, c. 1931. Photo: The Pan Am Historical Foundation, Zavada Collection

3. Miami Sikorsky_S-40_approaching_Miami_Pan_Am_Terminal_c1934, U.S. Historic American Bui

Pan American Airways System Terminal Building in Miami with approaching S-40, c. 1934. Photo: Library of Congress Prints and Photo- graphs Division, HABS FLA,13-MIAM,2--7

4. Treasure Island, First scheduled Pan American Airways flight from Treasure Island.jpg

Pan American Airways Boeing 314 California Clipper at Treasure Island in San Francisco, c. 1939. Photo: SFO Museum Louis A. Turpen Aviation Museum and Library, 2000.069.003

Even as Pan Am conquered the Pacific, Trippe eyed Europe for a route between New York and Portugal or England. The Europeans, with their own aeronautical ambitions, had no intention of allowing Pan Am to monopolize the routes, but Trippe persisted. In 1937, Pan Am teamed with Britain’s Imperial Airways to offer a route from New York to Bermuda and conducted test flights for its New York-to-Europe itinerary while awaiting delivery of its newest plane: the Boeing 314, which offered more cargo and passenger space, and increased profits.


On June 28, 1939, the Dixie Clipper’s first passenger trip left Pan Am’s terminal in Port Washington on Long Island’s Manhasset Bay. Twenty-two hours later, it landed in Lisbon. After a stopover there, the Dixie Clipper continued another six hours more to Marseille. In July, the northern route to Southampton began service. 


With the beginning of World War II in September 1939, Pan Am’s Clipper service became an escape route for refugees and Americans trying to return to the United States. The northern route, with a stopover in Ireland, was quickly shut down. The Marseille-Lisbon flight continued to operate, providing a means of escape for refugees with money and diplomats shuttling back and forth. In Asia, Japan’s territorial gains forced Pan Am to withdraw from China and curtail other routes. When the United States entered the war, Pan Am’s Clippers joined the Army Transport Command, ferrying soldiers and diplomats around the world. In January 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his staff traveled to the Casablanca Conference by Clipper. Treasure Island became an armed forces training and education center with more than four million American military personnel passing through on their way overseas. 


The war ended the Clipper’s heyday. Wartime technological innovation led to the development of the Douglas DC-4 and the Lockheed L-049 Constellation, which could travel long distances and land on the ground rather than water. After the war, Pan Am lost its monopoly on the Clipper routes that had made its rise possible. 


The Clippers may no longer fly, but the terminals remain. The Marine Air Terminal at LaGuardia still hosts flights by Jet Blue and Spirit Airlines. Preservation and restoration efforts ensure that it continues to shine as an example of Art Deco design. The Florida Dinner Key terminal, abandoned after the war, became Miami’s city hall in 1954, but its grand doors were replaced by bland aluminum, and glass and acoustic tiles covered the murals and ceiling. Its massive globe was moved to the Miami Science Museum. The Treasure Island terminal operated as part of a U.S. Navy base until it closed in 1997; discussions about its redevelopment continue. All three former Clipper terminals are on either state or national registers of historic places. 

5. Clipper cutaway drawing of the Boeing 314 reveals the clipper's various cabins and comp

Cutaway drawing of the Boeing 314 Clipper showing the various interior cabins and compartments. Photo: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, 9A08072

About the Author:

Meredith Hindley, Ph.D., is a historian and author of Destination Casablanca: Exile, Espionage, and the Battle for North Africa in World War II. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, and TIME. Hindley lives in Washington, DC, in an Art Deco building. 

Article originally published in the Art Deco New York journal, Vol. 6, Issue 1, Winter 2021. View a digital version of the full journal here.

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