Monday, October 16, 2023

The Lost Airlines Terminal Building - 80 East 42nd Street


photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

At the end of the 1930s, airplanes were overtaking railroads as the preferred method of travel.  But unlike train terminals, airports were necessarily built away from city centers.  The situation caused inconvenience for urban residents.  In 1939, as the New York Municipal Airport (later named LaGuardia Airport) neared completion in Queens, the Bethlehem Engineering Company addressed the problem by breaking ground for the Airlines Terminal Building.

Designed by architect John B. Peterkin, the long, low-rise structure sat on the site of the Belmont Hotel at the southwest corner of 42nd Street and Park Avenue, across from Grand Central Terminal.  Five stories tall and faced in limestone, Peterkin's sleek Art Deco design included a double-height concave entrance with a colorful, stainless steel world map over the doors executed by Otto Bach.  Sculptor Rene Chambellan created a carved frieze of stylized vines that ran along the roofline, and two massive stone eagles that guarded either side of the rooftop flagpole.  

In the background of this 1941 photograph by Wurts Bros can be seen the Murray Hill Hotelfrom the collection of the New York Public Library.

Inside, passengers would purchase tickets at five different airline counters before boarding a fleet of buses to the airport.  Also in the building would be airline offices, a 600-seat newsreel theater, a restaurant, cafeteria, and stores.  It was the Airline News Theater that briefly held up construction in 1940.

On September 29, The New York Times reported, "Two pigeons, guarding their nest containing two eggs in the partly completed Airlines Terminal building at Park Avenue and Forty-second Street, delayed yesterday the installation of electrical wiring because workmen were too soft-hearted to disturb the nest."  A representative of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals tried for four hours to capture the birds.  Unsuccessful, he finally removed the nest and eggs to the society's headquarters and work resumed.

The Airlines Terminal Building was dedicated with a dinner on January 8, 1941, and officially opened for business on January 26.  Mayor Fiorello La Guardia commented to Peterkin, "You've done a fine job," and syndicated columnist Walter Winchell gave a single-line review, "The new airlines terminal building--architectural poetry."

On January 5, 1941, The New York Times described the interiors saying, "gay decorations and modern mechanisms give it an Arabian nights atmosphere."  The article noted,

At the head of the escalator the traveler or sightseer will gaze south through a great oval salon.  The ceiling is an elongated dome, sky blue and richly beautiful.  One-eighth of an acre of stainless steel colored with pure gold makes up the first thirty perpendicular feet of wall all around the rotunda below the azure dome.  Giant figures of a symbolic man and bird in flight (in aluminum) dominate the upper wall ends.

The circular information booth sprouted a four-faced clock "at the intersection of right-angled wings of light-transmitting plastic, eleven feet high."  The writer said, "They are the largest sheets of this magic material ever produced.  Edges of the wings are feathered to emit the inner light."

The circular information desk with its illuminated wings sat at the top of an escalator.  The clock had not yet been installed when this photo was taken.  The New York Times, January 5, 1941

On July 25, 1941, The Coast Advertiser reported, "The new Airlines Terminal Building in New York City is the only one of its type in the world.  More than a million persons will depart from this unusual air terminal in 1941.  It is the only depot in the world that has transportation lines that extend to all major cities of the world."

The clock is in place in this early postcard view.

The long expansive roof caught the eye of aviation pioneer and inventor of the helicopter, Igor Ivan Sikorsky.  In 1943 New York PM Daily journalist John Hennessey Walker reported that he envisioned "air buses" that could transport up to 15 passengers.  "Ships of that type might be useful for ferrying passengers between such local points as La Guardia Field and the roof of the Airlines Terminal Building."  (His vision never came to pass.)

United Airlines provided complimentary postcards with an aerial perspective of the new building.

Pedestrians along 42nd Street were horrified on April 1, 1946 when someone looked up to see a seemingly lifeless body hanging from the flagpole 120 feet above the pavement.  The Sun explained that 54-year-old steeplejack Daniel Rivenburgh had been painting the pole, "when one of the three ropes supporting him snapped."  Rivenburgh's head hit the pole and he lost consciousness.  "He was left dangling with only the support of his bos'n's chair which caught under his arms and a rope tied to his left foot," said the article."

Otto Bach's two-story, stainless steel entrance was brilliantly colorful. photo by Wurts Bros, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

A crowed estimated in the thousands gathered on the streets below and watched breathlessly as 27-year-old Arthur Costello "shinnied up the pole, revived Rivenburgh, and lowered him slowly to the roof."  The steeplejack had hung unconscious for 20 minutes before being rescued.  The Sun noted, "Rivenburgh has a metal plate in his skull as the result of [a] previous fall from a flag pole."

In 1952, Churchill's Terminal Restaurant, Inc. renewed its ground floor lease.  The rent was $32,500 per year (about $358,000 in 2023).  At the time, the Airlines Terminal Building was overcrowded and the congestion of buses with their choking exhaust had become a nuisance.  A year earlier, inn 1951, plans for an East Side Airlines Terminal Building had been announced.

An advertising postcard published during World War II depicted the interiors of Churchill's.

That facility opened on November 30, 1953.  All airlines operations other than reservation services were moved to the new location.  Two years later, the Airlines News Theatre was remodeled into a Horn & Hardart automat.

from the collection of the New York Public Library

In the 1960s, stores were cut into the ground floor facade, and a decade later the once gleaming limestone was covered with grime.  Finally, on August 2, 1978, The New York Times opened an article saying, "The Airlines Terminal Building, once a thriving ticket and terminal headquarters for leading world airlines at 80 East 42d Street, will be demolished beginning later this week, Philip Morris, Inc. announced yesterday."  In its place, said the article, the firm "is planning to build an office building of approximately 25 stories."

photo by John 832

Designed by Ulrich Franzen & Associates, the Philip Morris Building survives on the site.

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  1. I used to go to the Automat there with my mother, on those times when she visited her relative, a lawyer whose office was in the next-door Lincoln Building (which had a large replica of the seated Lincoln figure from Washington DC's Lincoln Memorial in its lobby). My memories of the Automat date from that period, in the late 1950s. Thanks for this wonderful post, which stirs many memories for me! I'm forwarding it to various and sundrey around the world.

    1. Great anecdote! Thanks for sharing the memories.