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Fight against destruction of TWA terminal begins

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A succession of architects and preservationists reacted with concern and even consternation last week to the Port Authority's concept of how Eero Saarinen’s TWA terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport might be saved.

Philip Johnson, 95, one of the world’s most famous living architects, in a prepared statement read by an associate called it “maddening.”

Most of those who spoke before the city Landmarks Preservation Commission Aug. 14 implored the Port Authority not to tamper with any part of the renowned structure in the process of preserving it.

Robert Davidson, chief architect of the Port Authority, narrated an exhaustive and informative slide show on ideas for saving the 1962 TWA Flight Center, a structure famed for its architectural wings spread as if for flight.

The Port Authority presentation showed passenger areas in the TWA terminal said to be too modest in size to accommodate the much greater number of people flying now compared with the early 1960s when the principal jet in use was the much smaller Boeing 707.

The effort to preserve the TWA terminal has been mounted as the Port Authority undertakes an ambitious $10.3 billion project to modernize Kennedy Airport.

Most of those who spoke at the hearing asked that the structure be kept as a functioning terminal rather than turned into a restaurant or conference center. The gate areas would be torn down under the Port Authority proposal.

The Port Authority plans would enclose one side of the TWA terminal with a large United Airlines terminal, demolish its satellite gates, strip the TWA building of its function as an airline terminal and defer plans to restore the building until a new tenant is found.

One of the most noteworthy features of the TWA Flight Center was that passengers could look through glass and see jetliners on the tarmac. That view would be blocked under the Port Authority plan.

“The best part of the building will be totally lost in this new scheme,” said Johnson, in remarks read by his associate, Hilary Lewis. The architect did not attend the hearing.

“You can’t remove the satellite gates. You can’t take away any of it. And you can’t destroy the observer’s view of the elevation,” read the statement by Johnson, who designed the New York State Theatre in Lincoln Center and, along with Mies van der Rohe, the Seagram Building in Manhattan.

“The more I think about it, the more maddening it gets. This building represents a new idea in 20th century architecture and yet we are willing to strangle it by enclosing it within another building. Imagine, tying a bird's wings up. If you’re going to strangle a building to death, you might as well tear it down.”

Frank Sanchis, director of the Municipal Art Society, agreed.

“The society calls upon the governors of New York and New Jersey and the Port Authority, as stewards of this building, to re-examine and revise the plan so as to better address Kennedy Airport's only designated landmark.”

“The best way to preserve Saarinen’s masterpiece is to preserve an aviation-related function,” Sanchis said

.

Architect Robert A.M. Stern, along with others, compared the TWA terminal to Manhattan’s original Pennsylvania Station, which was torn down despite protests about the same time the Saarinen terminal was built.

“The TWA terminal at Kennedy Airport is the Pennsylvania Station of the air age,” Stern said. “TWA is not threatened with destruction but with amputation.”

Saarinen, a Finnish-born architect, designed not only the TWA Flight Center but the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, the Dulles Airport terminal in Washington, D.C. and the CBS building in Manhattan.

Reach contributing writer Philip Newman by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 136.

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