Written by Henry M. Holden
Hardly more than a decade after Charles Lindbergh’s historic 1927 solo flight from New York to Paris, the world’s first Transatlantic passenger flights were regularly departing LaGuardia Airport’s Marine Terminal. Designed in the Art Deco style, the terminal is a “modern” example of travel prior to World War II.
The Airmail Act of 1925 created a revolution in mail transport and led to what would be called “The Golden Age of Aviation.” By the early 1930s, commercial airlines and airports were being developed, the result of the Federal government’s use of commercial airliners and private contractors for mail transport.
The history of the Marine Terminal coincides with that of commercial aviation in United States. Fiorello LaGuardia (1882-1947) had been an enthusiastic advocate of aviation from its earliest days. While in private law practice, he had as a client, Giuseppe Bellanco, a pioneering aviator and flight instructor. LaGuardia took flying lessons in 1913, in Minneola, Long Island.
When the United States entered World War I, although LaGuardia had been recently elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, he enlisted as a lieutenant in the aviation section of the Signal Corps. He served in the Eighth Aviation Instruction Center in Fogia, Italy. He also flew as a pilot/bombardier with the Fifth Squadron on the Italian-Austrian Front, reaching the rank of Major.
LaGuardia was an early proponent of military of aviation, and also recognized the potential of commercial passenger airlines. The airport, which became his namesake is a tribute to this aspect of the career of one of New York’s most colorful and inspirational political leaders.
In the fall of 1933, now New York City’s mayor, LaGuardia was flying home from a vacation in Florida. On the final leg of his journey from Pittsburgh to New York, his TWA DC-2 landed at the only commercial airport to serve New York City; Newark Airport, in New Jersey. Insisting his ticket said New York, LaGuardia refused to get off the plane. LaGuardia demanded to be flown to New York City’s Floyd Bennett Field, in Brooklyn, which then had no scheduled airline service. TWA relented, and the plane flew on to Brooklyn. LaGuardia had dramatically made his point. One of the world’s great cities needed an airport closer to Manhattan than the commercially unsuccessful Floyd Bennett Field. Incredibly, New York City, an epicenter of global business, and culture, was not served by any airline.
Floyd Bennett Field was difficult to get to, and from, due to the distance, approximately 15 miles from New York City on the poorly kept, mostly dirt roads. Floyd Bennett Field led some planners to look at a parcel of land called North Beach, in Queens County, closer to mid-town Manhattan.
North Beach Airport
In 1929, North Beach was home to a private airport, built by aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss. The Depression had forced the closing of the airport.
Mayor LaGuardia realized the need for an airport for one of the world’s great cities. LaGuardia campaigned relentlessly for a new airport, and North Beach seemed ideal. The airport was small, about 100 acres, but only five miles from Manhattan, on a main highway, and had unobstructed water approaches, critical for the flying boats of the era.
Plans for the airport, which was to be federally sponsored and funded through the Works Progress Administration (WPA), were approved by President Roosevelt on September 3, 1937. Just six days later, the Mayor presided over groundbreaking ceremonies and construction began.
Construction begins quickly
Construction at North Beach proceeded rapidly. First came the land-filling of a portion of Bowery Bay, the Rikers Island channel, and Flushing Bay, which more than doubled the acreage of the original site. Initially some 5,000 men were employed, but when building construction began the work force gradually increased to 23,000 workers by 1939. A 558-acre airport with almost four miles of runways and taxi strips emerged. Not only was LaGuardia the largest airport in the world at the time, it was also the costliest at $40,000,000, the greatest single undertaking of the WPA in those days.
The original buildings included the landplane administration building, six hangers, office buildings, and a seaplane hangar at the Marine Air Terminal.
The airport officially opened on October 15, 1939 with a crowd estimated to be more than 325,000 just as the World’s Fair was opening a short drive away. It had a circular rotunda, restaurants, customs facilities, and a control tower. Today, only the Marine Air Terminal remains of the original buildings.
Among the 150 airplanes which took part in the festivities were three that circled overhead as the mayor made his address, skywriting “Name it LaGuardia.” This inaugurated a campaign to rechristened it, and on November 2, the City Council officially agreed upon New York City Municipal Airport LaGuardia Field.
By 1940, LaGuardia eclipsed Newark Airport. In March 1940, the Marine Air terminal was dedicated. At the ceremony two new Pan-American Boeing 314 clipper ships were on display. The clipper ships represented both the culmination of the development of seaplanes, and also the inauguration of a new era commercial flying.
The clipper ships caused a genuine sensation and were described in the New York Herald Tribune as “breathtaking” in size. Clare Booth Luce in a Life Magazine article made a prediction, “Fifty years from now, people will look back on the Clipper flights of today as the most romantic voyage of history.”
The accommodations aboard these planes were indeed luxurious by today’s standards. The two deck interior featured dining rooms, private compartments, and sleeping sections.
But this glamorous era was brought to an abrupt end by World War II. The clippers were pressed into war service and functioned as passenger planes on government missions and cargo carriers.
The Marine Air Terminal today is a reminder of its original use. The building was planned for convenience of both passengers and crew. The clippers taxied in from Long Island Sound pulled by small motorboats and docked outside the terminal. For maintenance, they were hauled out of the water and moved along special railroad track into a nearby hangar.
Although a very large airport for the era in which it was built, by the late 1940s it was the world’s busiest airport, and clearly too small for the increasing amount of air traffic. Through the years, its runways were lengthened, and facilities were improved to handle larger and faster aircraft and more people.
Art Deco Rules
The Marine Air Terminal is a Art Deco masterpiece. It is rich colors, bold geometric shapes, and lavish ornamentation. The exterior boasts two cheerful frieze of flying fish intended to represent the flying-boat clippers of that era. The terminal is facing brick, originally buff colored with black brick detailing, but stainless steel, one of the new materials favored in the Art Deco circles, makes a sleek appearance on the exterior and interior of the building. Faceted circles, again a nod to the Art Deco style, were created by setting the black brick in vertical, angled courses between the banks of windows. The apparent simplicity of the Marine Terminal design is deceptive. It is a building of subtle interlocking geometric relationships, well scaled, well-balanced, and well-planned.
Murals tell the history of flight
The Marine Air Terminal’s mural measures 12 feet (3.7m) in height and 237-feet (72m) in circular length, called “Flight,” and divided into three sections, that had a very specific focus according to artist James Brooks. “The aim of the design,” said Brooks, “is to identify the spectator with the broad scope of man’s yearning for flight and its final recognition.”
This was the last and largest mural produced under the WPA. The WPA, a key part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal Administration, was the nation’s largest employer in the years leading up to World War II.
Almost anyone can recognize the references to Icarus and Daedalus, to DaVince on the mural; and the prewar aviators who navigated the seas with little to guide them but a compass, dead reckoning and the stars.
The mural tells the story of the global desire to fly from humankind’s earliest dream of becoming airborne, to the visions of Leonardo Da Vinci. It shows the flight of Icarus and Daedalus, in Greek Mythology. The Wright brothers are pictured and the mural ends at the point in aviation history where Pan American Airways’ flying boats were dominant.
But artistic and political tastes can deviate and change. In the early 1950s, just a decade after Brooks finished the mural, someone at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey ordered that the mural be painted over. There was no official reason ever given for covering the mural, but the widely repeated story is that, in the anti-Communist fervor of that era, someone saw left-wing sympathies in Brooks’ mural.
In the representation in the mural of an ordinary man and woman, with the woman holding binoculars, it is possible to see why someone might have felt uneasy amid the Cold War paranoia. Brooks portrayed flight as being important for the common citizen, and not just society’s military, business and political elites.
What James Brooks left for us was the ability to travel through time: first, back to when air travel for the masses was a glittering promise, and then to when it became a subversive idea.
By the end of the war, technological advances in airplane design had made the Clippers obsolete. The terminal was closed for airline traffic in the 1950s (though it was still used as a waiting area for passengers who were bused to the main terminals) and it fell into a state of disrepair. In 1966, it was renovated and reopened for corporate jets.
It was only in the late 1970s, when publisher-historian, Geoffrey Arend, launched a campaign to restore the mural did many become aware of the mural. Arend published Air Cargo News and had an office in the terminal building. To attract attention to the “missing” artwork, Arend placed old photos of the mural in the terminal lobby, in sight of travelers who used the building to board corporate and private aircraft. Eventually he was approached by Laurence Rockefeller, and Reader’s Digest founder DeWitt Wallace, who agreed to finance the restoration. After an extensive restoration project headed by Arend, the mural was rededicated on September 18, 1980.
The Marine Air Terminal at LaGuardia Airport remains the only active airport terminal dating from the first generation of passenger travel in the United States, the “Golden age of the flying boat.”
In 1982, the terminal was added to the National Register of Historic Places.