December 22, 2009
by Linda G. Miller

Event: Preserving 20th-Century Modernism
Location: Museum of the City of New York, 12.02.09
Speakers: Belmont Freeman, FAIA — Founder, Belmont Freeman Architects; Nina Rappaport — Chair, DOCOMOMO/New York-Tristate & Editor, Constructs; Frank Sanchis — Senior Vice President, Municipal Art Society; Theodore Prudon, FAIA — President, DOCOMOMO/US
Moderator: Andrew S. Dolkart — Urban Architectural Historian, Author, Guide to New York City Landmarks (Wiley & Sons, 1998)
Organizer: Museum of the City of New York

TWA

TWA Terminal, New York International (now John F. Kennedy International) Airport, New York, circa 1962.

Photography by Balthazar Korab, ©Balthazar Korab Ltd., courtesy Museum of the City of New York

“If you had the option,” asks Frank Sanchis, senior vice president of the Municipal Art Society, “wouldn’t you rather travel in and out of Grand Central Terminal, rather than Penn Station?” Sanchis, who passionately advocates for the preservation and re-use of the TWA Terminal for air travel, made his point. “Today,” he continued, airports are like bus stations.” There was no travel experience like flying in or out of the TWA Terminal at JFK.

Eero Saarinen’s TWA Terminal, a NYC designated landmark, could be called a poster child for the preservation of Modern masterpieces, and its situation is one of the most difficult to remedy. Jet Blue’s new Terminal 5 stands behind it and the iconic flight tubes join the two. Since the demise of TWA, the terminal suffered from benign neglect, until the Port Authority hired Beyer Blinder Belle Architects and Planners to make costly renovations, including repairs to the roof and drainage systems, removal of accretions, and asbestos abatement of the enormous ceilings over the lower and upper lobbies. It will also include restoration of the original flooring, seating areas, the flight information board, and information desk. The Port Authority says it “is expected to begin a process that ultimately will provide a vibrant new life for the structure by adapting it to new airport-related uses, which are yet to be determined.”

Saarinen, and the current exhibition “Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future” at the Museum of the City of New York, is a perfect springboard to discuss preservation. He worked during an era when architecture was key to the identity of corporations. Due to corporate mergers and a down economy, Saarinen’s Bell Labs in Holmdel, NJ, is not the only modernist white elephant in an empty space. It is, however, high on the list for preservation and adaptive re-use for DoCoMoMo NY/Tri-State. The organization gathered a group of 38 design professionals and architects from NYC to Philadelphia to address the problems that surround the sustainable re-use of Saarinen’s buildings. Ideas such as re-use for healthcare, mixed-use, and education were presented to the building’s current owner, Somerset Development. Unable to secure the necessary approvals from the township, the development company sponsored its own community event to present its own mixed-use proposal to the public.

The panel was asked if adaptive re-use is the answer? Sanchis firmly believes that “it’s best use is its original use,” and that what you want to change a building into and the intensity of the design of the original are both factors. Theo Prudon, FAIA, feels that “9/11 changed the terminology,” especially in terms of the TWA Terminal. He feels adaptive re-use is a 1970s term and “continued re-use” is more appropriate today.

Linda G. Miller is a NYC-based freelance writer and publicist, and a contributing editor to e-Oculus and OCULUS.

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