Inside the Marine Air Terminal at New York’s LaGuardia Airport is a piece of transport art called “Flight” by American painter James Brooks. It’s a mural a massive 3.7m tall and 72m long, and it depicts the human obsession with taking to the skies, from our very first desires to emulate birds right up to the latest form of air travel. It’s had something of an interesting history in its own right, but it also provides an answer to the question as to what an airport might be doing hosting a terminal called ‘Marine’. You see, “Flight” was completed in 1940, and the most modern aircraft it depicts is that lost beauty and pinnacle of stylish transport, the flying boat.
It wasn’t only “Flight” that was completed in 1940. So was the Marine Terminal itself. It was designed to serve flying boats, one of the most glamorous forms of travel ever designed, and yet largely forgotten today. The flying boats which used the Marine Air Terminal included those on the great transatlantic run between New York and Southampton (itself served by another architecturally notable air terminal, albeit one which was a train ride away in London). Unable to make the run on a single tank of fuel, they stopped off in Canada and Ireland on the way. Even then, they could carry only a handful of passengers, along with the airmail which was their other main cargo. But if you could afford to be in this select group of travellers, there have arguably been fewer better ways to travel in the entire history of transport. The flying boats were up there with the great airships of the early 20th Century and luxury Pullman trains. There were cabins, made-to-order meals, and the seats themselves more resembled armchairs than anything you’d now associate with air travel.
They had a brief but glorious existence, culminating in Britain’s ‘Empire’ flying boats for Imperial Airways, introduced in 1936, and the American Boeing 314 ‘Clipper’, introduced in 1938 (and co-opting a much older piece of transport terminology). The Clippers were operated by Pan Am on both transatlantic and transpacific routes (again, with stopovers), and essentially it was this type of aircraft that the Marine Terminal was designed to serve. It would be a suitably stylish place from which to embark on these most stylish of aircraft.
Intriguingly, LaGuardia’s construction was funded by the federal government, at a time when America was reeling from the effects of the Great Depression. The government’s Work Projects Administration employed millions of people on public works to help beat the Great Depression, and sponsored construction of the airport. I’m normally fairly sceptical of the state’s ability to produce transport that is both functional and attractive (usually it’s just the former, often it’s neither) but someone somewhere made a brilliant decision to employ architecture practice Delano and Aldrich. Most of its earlier works gave little hint of what it would produce for the new airport, being generally traditionally American-looking buildings. However, something about Pan Am’s modern flying boats must have proved inspirational, because a few years earlier it had designed an impressive Art Deco terminal for them at Dinner Key in Miami (FL). The Marine Terminal at La Guardia would prove to be even better.
Situated about a mile away from LaGuardia’s main terminal, the Marine Air Terminal is just two storeys tall, but radical in form. It’s circular, with the upper storey smaller than the one below. There is a full-height projecting rectangular entrance with a huge vertical window above the doors, and a curved canopy separating doors from window. There are two additional single storey wings on the opposite side of the building. It is finished in pale brick, with windows set in bands of darker brick. Perhaps the most noticeable feature is the frieze running around the top of the building which features repeating Art Deco stylised flying fishes. It’s hard to think of anything more appropriate to represent the flying boats, themselves silver fish that dared to make the leap from the seas to the sky.
It is a genuinely brilliant piece of work, reminiscent in transport architecture terms of Charles Holden’s Arnos Grove and Southgate London Underground stations, and more generally of some of the civic architecture in Europe which had inspired Holden in the 1930s. I can’t find any evidence that these were direct inspirations though, and perhaps a more likely candidate is the circular 1936 “Beehive” terminal at Gatwick Airport, south of London, claimed to be the first circular airport terminal building in the world. Compare, though, the Beehive’s single storey entrance block with the more dramatic, double height one on the Marine Air Terminal.
In addition to the Marine Air Terminal, Delano and Aldrich completed a larger, central terminal at LaGuardia at the same time. It again featured a circular core but this was masked by a rectangular block positioned across the front, and the whole building has since been demolished, leaving the Marine Air Terminal as Delano and Aldrich’s legacy at LaGuardia.
The inside of the Marine Terminal is just as good as its exterior. The star-shaped light fittings are wonderful, and the walls of the grand circular lobby are finished in classy dark marble. It’s now a dramatic open space, but there used to be a marble-fronted circular ticket desk here in the middle of the room, with a globe sculpture in the centre (see this photo).
It’s in this part of the building where you’ll find Brooks’s “Flight”, an internal counterpart to the flying fish frieze on the outside. It runs right round the inside of the lobby, so although it’s 72m long, it doesn’t strictly have a beginning or end. Like the airport itself, it was commissioned by the state, in this case the Work Projects Administration’s Federal Arts Project. It features imagery including Daedalus/Icarus on home-made wings, da Vinci’s ideas about powered flight, the Wright brothers and their first successful heavier-than-air craft. These days, you’ll find hanging from the round skylight which tops off the building a model (I don’t think it’s original but I’m happy to be proved wrong) of a Boeing 314.
When it was first opened, a pier led down into Bowery Bay from the Marine Air Terminal, and the Clippers waited to whisk away the ultra-rich to far away places in unimaginable luxury. Think on that, the next time you’re trying to squeeze onto a budget airline-operated aircraft.
It couldn’t last. Just like the airships, and the luxury Pullman trains (apart from the few that hang on to serve the high-end leisure market), the flying boats were overtaken by technology. Increasing numbers of airports with properly made-up hard surface runways meant that the flying boats’ ability to serve places without proper airports, simply by touching down at the coast, was no longer such an advantage. Technological developments meant that aircraft could fly further, and penetrate inland. America is a big country, and this was a considerable advantage over the flying boats, which could only touch down where there were large bodies of water.
But the most significant reason for the demise of the flying boats, and the driver of the technological changes described above, can be deduced from the date the Marine Terminal opened. By 1940, Europe was already well into the Second World War, and America would join in 1941. The flying boats were pressed into military service, and there was little appetite or reason for long-distance civilian air travel.
After the war, the flying boats re-entered service, but were swiftly superseded by new landplanes. And somehow, we’ve managed to more-or-less forget the flying boats completely. I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve simply baffled by talking about flying boats, expecting them to at least know generally what I’m talking about. This video will give you some idea of how special they were – there are a couple of interior shots from 3:51 which should throw into sharp relief the difference between the flying boat experience and today’s airliners.
Meanwhile “Flight” was painted over in the early 1950s by the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, LaGuardia’s then operator. No-one knows exactly why, but it’s widely assumed that in the Communist hysteria and paranoia promoted by men like Joseph McCarthy in post-war America, some of the imagery suggesting that flight could be the province of ‘ordinary’ people, rather than the elite, was a bit too socialist for comfort (see this stuckattheairport article for more detail).
With the end of the aircraft it was designed to serve, the Marine Air Terminal fell out of use and slowly into disrepair. Fortunately it was restored and reopened in the late 1960s to act as a terminal for business jets, a role it has continued to play since, along with the introduction of short-distance shuttle flights to various cities in America. It is now connected to a larger building, though not too intrusively, all things considered, and is known as Terminal A. “Flight” itself was restored largely due to the efforts of publisher and historian Geoffrey Arend (as you can read in this Business Insider article), who got Brooks himself to work on the restoration. The terminal building was further restored in the mid-2000s by Beyer Blinder Belle (see here for details), an architecture practice that has undertaken similar work at the TWA Flight Center and Grand Central Terminal (I think I’m nominating the firm as an official The Beauty of Transport hero).
Although Terminal A is a rather more prosaic name than Marine Air Terminal, thanks to its flying fish frieze, hanging model of a Boeing 314, and representations of the Clippers in “Flight”, it’s not hard to discern its original purpose. Always assuming, that is, that passengers using the terminal know about the flying boats in the first place. There’s just one museum in the world dedicated to the flying boats, and it’s in Foynes, Ireland, which the flying boats used as a stop-off on the transatlantic run. It has a replica of a Boeing 314 Clipper (only the fuselage, no wings attached), and displays about the history of the flying boats. Well worth your time, I’d suggest.
Bibliography and Further Reading
Moyle, Terry (2015): Art Deco Airports: Dream Designs of the 1920s & 1930s. London, New Holland Publishers
The website of the Foynes Flying Boat and Maritime Museum, here
New York’s Landmark Interiors, a website specialising in interiors with an official designation as landmarks, has a page on the Marine Terminal interior, here
National Park Service Historic American Engineering Record for the Marine Terminal, here
A National Park Service article on the Marine Air Terminal, here
…and anything else linked to in the text above.