Time is of the essence. As I'm writing this, jackhammers and bulldozers are in place at JFK International Airport, beginning the preliminary demolition steps meant to destroy the "Rotunda" section of the old Pan Am Worldport.
This project is continuing, in spite of the very recent recognition by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which named the Worldport to its list of the "Eleven Most Endangered Historic Places" in America. Although this congressionally chartered nonprofit has a lot of influence when it comes to advocating for preservation, it lacks any regulatory authority.
Why do I, and many others, think this building should be saved? Even if you're not nostalgic about America's glamorous experience of aviation in the past century, I think that the preservation of this historic landmark is important. Here's why.
Our past, our shared past as Americans, is disappearing, which is why Grand Central Station was saved, and why it is such a tragedy that Penn Station was not. Every time we pave over an important part of our history, another fragment of our collective memory disappears.
So, on that note, let me take you back in history to a time when America was at its zenith, and Pan American World Airways was the brand second only to Coca-Cola in worldwide recognition.
It was 1960: enter the Jet Age! America and Pan Am (its flag-carrying airline) worked hand in hand to export our unique culture all over the globe. Our country and the airline were confident, brash, and exuberantly expansive, a reflection of each other. And no building was ever more symbolic of America's entry into, and dominance of, this new age of jets than the glamorous, flying-saucer shaped building that was built to house Pan Am's gleaming new 707's. First known as the "Pan Am Terminal," when additions were needed, it was called the "Pan Am Worldport."
For those of you who experienced this time and this place, I don't have to describe how exciting it all was. The building was round, and the airplanes -- brand new 707s -- were parked in a circle around the sparkling glass walls. A cantilevered roof, shaped like an umbrella, sheltered passengers from the weather as they boarded their airplanes. The atmosphere felt magical.
For many airline passengers immigrating to the United States, this famous building was the twentieth century's equivalent of the Statue of Liberty, as well as a transit point for world travelers. Inside the terminal, two dramatic curved staircases, led to an elegant restaurant and a viewing area including a sophisticated cocktail lounge, where one could sit and watch "the rich and famous", and travelers from all over the world. For thousands of Pan Am employees, this building was our second home.
I'll never forget the first time I walked through that awe-inspiring terminal in my brand-new Pan Am uniform in 1965. It was my training flight to Paris, and I was on my way to see the world -- the "Pan Am World" that was the legacy for all Pan Am employees and their families to enjoy. The air of sophistication and glamour was palpable, and I literally felt like I was walking on air. Who needed an airplane?
Over the years, this beautiful building, known as the "Rotunda," was no longer adequate for the changing needs of Pan Am, so a utilitarian concourse was added to the structure in 1971. After Pan Am's unfortunate demise in 1991, Delta Airlines took over the Worldport, and renamed it Terminal 3. This May, Delta vacated Terminal 3 to move to the renovated Terminal 4, with plans to demolish the entire Worldport, which comprises a 48 acre parcel. It will be paved over with asphalt to create a parking lot for airplanes.
Meanwhile, for the last two years, a dedicated group of people, including the children of Pan Am employees (known affectionately to the rest of us as "Pan Am Brats"), the children of the architects of the Worldport, former Pan Amers, preservationists, and loyal customers of Pan Am from around the world, are fighting to preserve only the "Rotunda" building. It stands at the front of the 48 acres of the Worldport, taking up only 4 acres of land. Delta has allowed this iconic building to fall into disrepair, but it could be repurposed as a retail and commercial space with dining facilities overlooking airplanes taking off and landing, a small hotel space, even an airline museum, or a combination of these.
However, Delta Airlines (the leaseholder) and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (the property owner) seem bound and determined to demolish forever this historically, culturally, and architecturally significant building. This is very short-term thinking. The jobs that this project would provide will go away as soon as the project is finished. A very interesting and well-planned preserved building could supply many jobs into the future.
I can't help being reminded of Joni Mitchell's famous 1970 song ("Big Yellow Taxi"), about paradise being paved over for a parking lot. If you're anything like me, I rarely dream big dreams looking at a parking lot.
The Save the Worldport Team has asked me to spread the word that a donation is being taken up for well-placed ads to preserve this magnificent historical building. Any help or ideas will be sincerely appreciated.
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