Monday, December 4, 2023

The Lost East Side Airline Terminal - First Avenue and 37th Street


The Manhattan Post Card Publishing Co. produced this image of the newly-completed terminal in 1953.

At mid-century, the Airlines Terminal Building in Midtown, across from Grand Central Terminal, was obsolete.  Designed by John B. Peterkin in 1939, it had solved the problem of airports being remotely located from urban passengers.  Buses ferried fliers from the terminal to the New York Municipal Airport (later renamed LaGuardia Airport).  By now, however, the terminal building was overcrowded and the tangle of buses along with their suffocating exhaust had become intolerable.

The Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority brought Peterkin back in 1951 to design a larger facility blocks away near the East River.  The site that engulfed the block between 37th and 38th Streets on First Avenue was out of the way of Midtown businesses, yet still convenient for passengers. 

Ground was broken on July 25, 1951 and construction was completed two years later at a cost of $684,100 (around $74.8 million in 2023).  Peterkin's Modernist design smacked of the sleek ocean liners of the period--its long, low profile punctuated by regimented rows of windows.  The architect's minimalist treatment of the exterior relied on clean lines rather than the Art Deco ornamentation of his earlier building.  With its rounded corners and unbroken band of openings at the second floor, the East Side Airline Terminal was as much sculpture as architecture.

Refrigerating Engineering, March 1955

As the building neared completion on November 8, 1953, The New York Times promised, "passengers will find the last word in conveniences while the city will be relieved of bus traffic congestion."  The article said the new building would "accommodate about 7,000 passengers a day."

The building was leased to the Airlines' Terminal Corporation, a consortium of ten domestic airlines that held space inside.  It was dedicated at 6:00 on November 30, 1953.  The speakers were Mayor Vincent R. Impellitteri; Mayor-elect Robert F. Wagner Jr.; the chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, Robert Moses; and president of the Airlines' Terminal Corporation, Paul H. Brattain.

from the collection of the University of Wisconsin

As with the former terminal, here customers could buy their tickets, check their luggage, and board one of the 100 buses which made a total of 550 trips to the airport each day.  The bus garage was below ground, while on the roof was parking for 300 automobiles.  Inside, according to The New York Times, "The main portion of the building is the second-floor rotunda, a vast and pleasantly colored hall (bluish green and tomato red) filled with hard wooden waiting-room benches and lined by the check-in and ticket counters of the ten United States lines."

John B. Peterkin's interiors were as sleek and clean as his facade.  The columns were colored a deep "tomato red."  photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

The newspaper mentioned that the new location would shave minutes off passengers' trips.  The ride to LaGuardia was 25 minutes, down from half-an-hour; and the trip to Idlewild (today's JFK.) was 37 minutes, a savings of five minutes.

The estimate that the East Side Airline Terminal would serve 7,000 passengers daily fell far short.  Eight months after its opening, on July 18, 1954, The New York Times reported, "Nearly 10,000 travelers a day are processed by the airline offices in the First Avenue air depot."  The article said that the results of the first half year of operation "are gratifying to nearly everyone concerned."  It explained in part:

Instead of wandering the sidewalks around the old terminal building in search of the right bus for the right flight, passengers now are led by unerring loudspeakers to a specified slot on a sheltered ramp to board their buses.  The new building is spacious, air-conditioned, well-equipped with food and drink and a 300-car parking lot on the roof.  All this pleases the airline passengers.
The article concluded saying, "Over on Tenth Avenue at Forty-first Street, excavation has been completed for the West Side Airlines Terminal, which is scheduled to handle all departures and arrivals for Newark by September of 1955."  That terminal would substantially reduce the number of passengers utilizing the East Side Airlines Terminal.

Exactly two decades after the terminal opened, on May 8, 1973 The New York Times reported, "The consortium of 10 domestic airlines managing and operating the East Side Airlines Terminal has refused to renew its lease, raising the possibility that the facility will close when the contract expires next Oct. 31."  A spokesperson for the group said there had been "an annual operating deficit of $750,000 to $1-million for the last eight years."

The concept of urban airlines terminals was already outdated.  The West Side Airlines Terminal had closed a year before the article.  On October 17, 1973, the chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority announced that a three-month truce had been arranged with the tenants to keep the terminal open "while working on plans to continue its operation 'indefinitely.'"

A postcard ca 1955 depicted the new building with its rooftop parking lot relatively full.  

The terminal limped along.  The severe reduction in its use was evidenced in December 1977 when the parking lot on the roof was converted to tennis courts within pressurized air bubbles.  On January 16, 1978, The New York Times reported, "On the roof of the old East Side Airlines Terminal, near cabs and buses, this new facility is unquestionably the standard by which all other indoor tennis clubs in New York will now be judged."

Early in 1985, the inevitable finally came to pass.  The building was sold for $90.6 million on February 13 to developers "who plan to build a luxury apartment house on the site," reported the New York Times.  The price, equal to about $246 million in 2023, was believed to be the highest ever paid at auction for parcel of Manhattan real estate.  Peter L. Malkin, speaking for the joint venture buyer, said the terminal "would be torn down as early as next year and an apartment house of about 50 stories would be built."

Close inspection reveals portions of the terminal building in the base of the new apartment building.  photo by Rhododendrites.

In fact, architects Der Scutt and John Schimenti, incorporated much of the old structure into the 57-floor The Corinthian. has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

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