Remembering The Golden Age of the American Airport


At this point, modern air travel is so unpleasant, so inconveniencing, so downright annoying that talking about it almost seems pointless, like shouting into a jet engine. If there is one positive to be extracted from all of our collective airline agony, it’s that it forces us to reflect upon a time when air travel was not only enjoyable, but dare I say, sexy. Shows like Mad Men, and movies like Catch Me if You Can play into our rosy-eyed curiosity with mid-century air travel, portraying well-heeled passengers, sociable stewardesses, and those beautiful modernist concourses. Airports of today are drab reminders of just how far you are from home, but in the early decades of air travel these buildings were sleek, shiny shrines to the future. The terminals that serviced America’s larger cities at this time were designed to not only help carry passengers from point A to point B, but also to reflect the progressive spirit of commercial air travel, which had really only taken off (no pun intended) in 1958 with the advent of the Boeing 707. So buckle up, make sure your seat backs and tray tables are in their full upright position, and travel back in time with us to the golden age of the American airport.


Main Terminal at Washington Dulles International Airport, VA

Designed: 1958

Opened: 1962

Architect: Eero Saarinen

Style: Neofuturism

Fact: Saarinen proclaimed that the airport was “the best thing I have ever done.”


TWA Flight Center at John F. Kennedy International Airport, NY

Designed: 1955

Opened: 1962

Architect: Eero Saarinen

Style: Neofuturism

Fact: The once-bustling terminal has sat idle for over a decade.


The Marine Air Terminal at LaGuardia Airport, NY

Designed: 1937

Opened: 1940

Architect: William Delano

Style: Art Deco

Fact: The Marine Air Terminal remains the only “first generation” terminal still in use today.


The Theme Building at Los Angeles International, CA

Designed: 1959


Architect: Pereira & Luckman Architects

Style: Googie

Fact: The top of the structure originally featured a rotating restaurant giving diners a 360 view of the airport.


The Field Terminal at McCarran Airport, NV

Designed: 1959

Opened: 1963

Architect: Welton Becket and Associates and John Replogle

Style: Mid-century Modern

Fact: Welton Becket also designed the Capitol Records Building, the Santa Monica Convention Center, and The Beverly Hilton Hotel.


Long Beach Airport, CA

Designed: Early 1940’s

Opened: 1942

Architect: Horace Austin and Kenneth Wing

Style: Streamline Moderne

Fact: This terminal is still in operation today and was made a cultural landmark in 1990

1980s Worldport from above blk&wht

Pan Am Worldport at John F. Kennedy International Airport, NY

Designed: Late 1950’s

Opened: 1960

Architect: Ives, Turano & Gardner Associated Architects and Walther Prokosch of Tippets-Abbett-McCarthy-Stratton

Style: Futuristic Modernism

Fact: With Pan Am long since bankrupt, the Worldport was unfortunately demolished just last year.

Comments on “Remembering The Golden Age of the American Airport

    Francois Gaboury on September 26, 2014 11:16 AM:

    Beautiful buildings. Air travel today is similar to what bus travel was 20-years ago (and still is), no leg room, no fun and no service. Who knows, maybe space travel will be fun for a time.

    wp on September 26, 2014 1:22 PM:

    Can ACL do a series on this? I want to see photos (with context) of upscale in-flight lounges, bars, and common areas….

    Great piece!

    Anyone who likes airport period pieces should check out the miniseries Carlos.

    Ray Hull on September 26, 2014 3:46 PM:

    I had to search McCarran Airport to confirm that it was LASVegas. Too bad you can’t appreciate that architectural simplicity when you land or transfer there. It is a hideous menagerie of slot machines, pushy passengers and crowded areas. And to top it off, even if one is just changing planes there, you get hit with a Gate Tax of about $15, for the pleasure of enduring that chaos. It’s everything LasVegas is and worse.

    Matt Dougan on September 26, 2014 3:47 PM:

    I find it fascinating that Saarineans first name Eero is so close to Aero so it seems fitting he would design for airports. Waaay cool stuff! Today air travel is indeed boring and tiresome, I certainly hope the future civilian space travel is an improvement. Thanks for the cool post.

    Yale Hollander on September 26, 2014 4:36 PM:

    For your consideration: Lambert St. Louis International Airport. A photo of the main terminal building from what appears to be the late 60s appears here:

    While my humble city has been reduced to a blip on the national aviation horizon, save for its service as a sub-hub of no-frills Southwest Airlines, there was a time in the not so distant past when the airport was literally roaring with life.

    Crowned by a majestic, mid-century modern, Minoru Yamasaki central terminal building atop its west concourses, Lambert served as the world headquarters and principal hub of TWA up until the airline’s demise in the early 2000’s.

    I flew TWA out of Lambert many, many times from the early 70’s until the bitter end. I was raised to dress for travel and that’s something I never really outgrew even after the tyranny of the tracksuit (and worse) took its deathgrip on the skies in the early 90s. By that time, I was a law student flying between St. Louis and my temporary home in Oklahoma City a few times a year. I always flew TWA and was almost always afforded a better seat (First Class was almost never full on those short-hop flights — the cost really wasn’t justified if you couldn’t expense it away; also, I tended to take early morning flights) by dressing well and asking politely.

    Anyway, the main terminal is an architectural masterpiece that was eventually dwarfed by the long, squat tentacles that became the B, C and D concourses which were built to accommodate TWA’s rapidly expanding jet and jumbojet fleet in the mid 70s, as well as the formidable fleet of DC-9s operated by hometown Ozark Air Lines (a terrific “businessman’s airline”) back when that term wasn’t considered sexist. Those concourses were nothing to look at on the outside, but inside they were pretty successful at dressing up industrial minimalism as best they could. Lots of plush carpeting in jewel tones of scarlet, indigo and magenta. A true testament to the 70s.

    Steven on September 26, 2014 4:41 PM:

    These are undoubtedly beautiful buildings, but it’s also worth keeping in mind that flying today is cheaper, faster and safer than it’s ever been. Americans from all walks of life, not just the wealthy would could afford to fly during the “golden age,” get to travel to places that would have impossible for them decades ago.

    We should admire the impressive architecture of terminals and feel a healthy amount of nostalgia for people traveling in their Sunday best. But I don’t think any of us want to live a time where it would cost $2,000 (in inflation-adjusted dollars) to fly JFK-LAX (without on-board internet as well).

    Emma Howard on September 27, 2014 10:48 AM:

    As a teenager in summer of 1968: First time I landed at Honolulu International Airport: Free chilled pineapple juice dispensed from a non-stop pouring fountain. Greeted by a hula dancer who stood next to me for a tourist photograph.
    The fragrance of plumeria flowers still in the air for passengers though!

    BlueTrain on September 29, 2014 8:36 AM:

    I still travel out of Dulles airport (I can almost see the control tower from my office window). It is still the best airport I’ve ever been through and still looks exactly the same.

    Now, as far as the air travel itself goes, it all depends on the airline.

    Henry on September 29, 2014 8:33 PM:

    To Steven, I must disagree with your “cheaper, faster” comment. As a student I could fly from Boston to New York for $19, and if I was willing to wait an hour,could fly to D.C. for something similar. $40 Boston to D.C. use whatever inflation adjustment you want and I think you’ll find it was cheaper then. Respectfully,HLP

    Skenflin McGinty on September 30, 2014 12:42 PM:


    You left out the most important piece of information for an inflation adjustment. Were you a student in 2012 or 1953?

    Wilmington NC on September 30, 2014 8:32 PM:

    When I was a little boy in the late 60’s our family flew frequently between LAX and IAD (Dulles). At that time, Dulles was very under-utilized. The simplicity and elegance of the design made an impression on me; I was lucky that my “home town” airport was an amazing piece of 20th century architecture. Traveling that route was great—either using LAX in its more original incarnation (underground passageways to the gate areas) and the logical and efficient use of both doorways on the DC-8’s—a jetway aft for us (tourist class); jetway forward for first class. I’ve always thought that the original Saarinen plan was sublime in its desire to reduce the walking distance for the traveler—curb-ticketing-gate-mobile lounge-aircraft—if I recall correctly he and his team determined that a traveler would therefore walk no more than 800 feet from car to jet. Finally, to end my boring tale, I can still hear in my mind’s ear the distinct voice of the male PA announcer whose “modern/jet-age” voice echoed through that vast and elegant space.

    The Style Weaver on October 6, 2014 9:28 PM:

    There was a glamour to it all, that is missing from travel today. I love seeing in movies and shows how people traveled from the 40’s through the late 60’s when people dressed up to fly and the service was impeccable. It’s just not the same today with the hustle and bustle of it all, wish we’d all slow down and enjoy every bit of the journey not just the destination.

Comments are closed.