By SERGEY KADINSKY
Forgotten New York correspondent
In 2014, the man who later ran to be our 46th president described the conditions of LaGuardia Airport as “third-world.” The insult inspired action by the state to reimagine the facility with a tangle of new approach ramps, more space for airplanes, and gleaming glass terminals that are advertising the new LGA to motorists on the Grand Central Parkway. The airport’s historic Marine Air Terminal is safe as a city landmark and Kevin Walsh has been there to document the art and architecture. He’s also noted its brief previous use as Glenn Curtiss Airport, and the neighborhood across the highway that puts up with the airplane noise.
Less noteworthy are the two American Airlines hangars next to the post-millennial terminals. They’ve been part of the airport from the very beginning when namesake Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia welcomed the first arriving flight in 1939. At the time, they were the largest hangars in the world.
Going through the Municipal Archives, there are a few photos of these hangars that have stories to tell. In this 1938 view looking north, we see Jackson’s Mill Creek in the foreground. The history of this waterway appears on my blog and in my book. With the construction of the airport, the creek was channeled into a boat basin separating the airport from the mainland. This basin was connected to Flushing Bay. In the 1960s it was filled in favor of expanding parking.
In 1941 there were six identical hangars at the airport, with a central terminal building in the middle. They had the same Art Deco style and architect as the Marine Air Terminal. Theo ld central terminal had a traffic circle in the front, curving ramps, and a rooftop observation deck to observe the airplanes. It was demolished in the 1960s in favor of a larger facility by modernist architect Wallace K. Harrison.
I enjoy telling the stories of parks that are no longer with us. From 1964 to 1976, the modernist Central Terminal Building included Fiorello Park, honoring the airport’s namesake. Its circular benches, paving, and light fixtures exemplified the Jet Age and resembled the style of the TWA terminal at JFK Airport, the Jetsons cartoon show, and the structures of the 1964 World’s Fair at nearby Flushing Meadows. The hangars are seen in the background, defiant amid the surrounding postwar modernism. The demand for additional parking resulted in the removal of this public space. Similarly at JFK Airport, the sizable chapels, reflecting pools, and outdoor sitting areas would also suffer demolition in the following decade.
In October 2020, one of the three remaining American Airlines hangars was demolished to make way for updated terminals. But the remaining two are being preserved for use as maintenance facilities.
In contrast to the Marine Air Terminal the hangars offer few decorative elements on their exterior, but this leafy light fixture is one rare example that shines in 2020. I haven’t yet visited the new terminal B used by American Airlines, but from the photos I’ve seen, it’s more than a waiting room. There is an indoor playground for the children, shopping opportunities, a falling fountain with lights, and plenty of public artworks that evoke the city’s culture.
One such work is Sarah Sze’s Shorter Than the Day, commissioned by the airport and the Public Art Fund, a mobile of nearly 1,200 photographs of the sky above New York. This artist also has a tile installation on the Second Avenue Subway. A full list of all the artworks at the new terminal can be found on the Public Art Fund site.
As the airport is located on a point of land sticking into the East river, separating Bowery Bay and Flushing Bay, perhaps there’s archeological significance to this place. In 2013, the Port Authority commissioned a study ahead of the airport’s reconstruction. For more historical images of this airport, I recommend Joshua Stoof’s book, published in 2008.
Sergey Kadinsky is the author of Hidden Waters of New York City: A History and Guide to 101 Forgotten Lakes, Ponds, Creeks, and Streams in the Five Boroughs (2016, Countryman Press) and the webmaster of Hidden Waters Blog.