Group fights to save JFK airport’s old Pan Am terminal

Holly Bailey
National Correspondent
The Lookout

NEW YORK—Kal Savi was just 10 years old in 1971 when he took his first flight out of the “flying saucer” terminal at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.

“It was just spectacular,” recalled Savi, the son of a former Pan Am employee who fell in love with the building.

Built in 1960 as the Pan Am Worldport, the building, now known as JFK’s Terminal 3, was an early icon of New York’s entry into the modern jet age. Its white circular roof and ultrasleek glass-and-steel interior was unlike anything anyone had ever seen, adding an air of glamour to the growing passenger airline industry.

But Savi, whose group Save the Worldport, plans to file paperwork with the New York State Preservation Office this week to win landmark status for Terminal 3, is the first to admit the building has seen better days. "It's sad to see how the place has deteriorated," he said.

Now home to Delta Airlines, the Worldport is a shell of what it used to be. Its circular roof is cracked and peeling and, inside, white tarps on the ceiling catch plaster and other debris from falling on passengers. Once considered one of the world’s most stylish airport facilities, it was named the world’s worst airline terminal last year by the travel site Frommer's—and soon, if airport officials get their way, it will be demolished.

In May, Delta will vacate the building and move its operations to the new Terminal 4, currently under construction next door. The airline and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the airport, have announced plans to bulldoze the Worldport by 2015. Their plan: Build a parking lot for airplanes.

But Savi and a group of other Worldport admirers are hoping to stop the plans for demolition. Save the Worldport, in addition to fighting for the terminal to get landmark status, hopes the old terminal will be given a place on the National Register of Historic Places, saving it from the wrecking ball.

Savi and Anthony Stramaglia, also one of the group’s leaders, want to see the Worldport restored and repurposed—possibly as an airline club or a public building, such as an aviation museum.

"The idea of just destroying this iconic building and paving it over is just absolutely ridiculous,” said Savi, an information technology worker from New Jersey who first launched a Facebook page to save the terminal in August 2010.

The page quickly attracted several thousand followers—more than 2,000 of whom later signed a petition calling on Delta and the Port Authority to reconsider their plans.

The efforts come as the Port Authority is wrapping up a $20 million renovation of the old Trans World Airways Flight Center, designed by architect Eero Saarinen, which received landmark status in 1994 amid rumors of its possible demise. The old TWA terminal, known as Terminal 5, is attached to a new JetBlue terminal and is being eyed as the possible home of a new boutique hotel.

But airport officials have not always been open to renovation. In 2011, JFK demolished Terminal 6, the home of the old National Airlines. Designed by architect I.M. Pei, the Sundrome, as it was known, was, along with the TWA terminal and Pan Am Worldport, one of the earliest buildings at JFK. Preservationists had tried and failed to save the building, and it was demolished to make way for JetBlue’s Terminal 5 expansion.

Savi and Stramaglia have appealed to officials at Delta and the Port Authority, arguing the Worldport is a building of historical consequence. They have gotten little response.

They and others have noted the building’s architectural significance, with one leading aviation architect, Hal Hayes, calling it the most important of JFK’s historic terminals. In addition to its unique design, the Worldport was one of the airline industry’s first terminals designed to allow planes to pull in directly to the building, allowing its passengers to disembark through a jet bridge.

The building’s supporters have also noted its cultural impact. Among other things, the Beatles departed from the terminal after their first trip to America in 1964. And it was the backdrop of several films, including the 1972 James Bond film “Live and Let Die,” in which Roger Moore made his debut as Agent 007.

“It defined a whole new era of culture,” said Stramaglia, who joined the Save the Worldport effort in 2011.

He and Savi have likened their effort to the preservation of Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan, which had been threatened for demolition in the 1970s until a group led by former first lady Jackie Kennedy Onassis campaigned for its renovation. Hoping to replicate those efforts, Save the Worldport has been trying to recruit prominent civic leaders and celebrities to its cause—including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and actor Alec Baldwin, a lifelong New Yorker who, Savi notes, played the founder of Pan Am in the 2004 film “The Aviator.”

“What better celebrity to get on board than someone who is known for being outspoken?” Savi said.

At the same time, the group has appealed to Delta, in hopes of talking the airline into seeing the renovation of the Worldport as a “branding opportunity” for the company. A Delta spokeswoman, however, told Yahoo News the future of the building is up to the Port Authority—which did not respond to several requests for comment.

So now Savi and Stramaglia are basing their hopes of saving the terminal on winning landmark status for the building and attracting public support for their cause.

“You don’t see terminals built like this anymore," said Stramaglia. "Yes, it’s not efficient and it’s way too small to continue operating as it is. But once it’s gone, it’s gone, and with it goes all of this history."