Final push to save JFK’s endangered ‘flying saucer’ Pan Am terminal

William Holt
William Holt
The Lookout

Anthony Stramaglia has many fond memories of JFK Airport’s iconic Terminal 3. For one, it was the first place he ever got on a plane.

“I was only 2 years old,” said Stramaglia of his first trip through Pan American World Airways’ "Jetsons"-esque structure, the Worldport. “I’m dating myself here, but it must have been 1971. I flew out with my mother on a trip to Rome, and there must have been something about the terminal that struck me, even then.”

Stramaglia, a New Jersey resident, has thrown himself into a quixotic campaign to save the Pan Am Worldport from almost certain demolition by the New York/New Jersey Port Authority and Delta Air Lines, which now owns it. In 2011 he joined a grass-roots Save the Worldport campaign, founded by a former Pan Am employee, Kalev Savi.

“I’m not a preservationist by trade,” said Stramaglia. “I’m an IT guy. But this is something I latched on to. I have a close emotional tie with it.”

Opened on May 24, 1960, the Worldport conjures up images of a time when air travel was seen as sophisticated and glamorous. With its massive, cantilevered roof suspended over a structure of concrete and glass, the terminal is a sleek embodiment of 1960s style and the emergence of the Jet Age. Some call it a flying saucer; and for Stramaglia, it’s a flying saucer worth saving.

“Midcentury modern is disappearing these days. Some of it is making a comeback with TV shows like 'Mad Men,' but we’re afraid that if this goes it’s going to be one of those Penn Stations,” Stramaglia said, referring to New York City’s original Pennsylvania Station, which was demolished in 1963.

Named to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s annual list of America’s Most Endangered Places this week, the Worldport has recently garnered a considerable amount of attention, including an article appearing in The New York Times.

“With the Worldport, the threat was clearly dire and the significance of the place was really compelling to us,” said Roberta Lane, spokesperson for the National Trust, told Yahoo News by phone. “Our aim is to help people embrace modern design and to preserve our modernist heritage. The Worldport embodies the very best of the tradition that came out of the Jet Age, and it occupies a significant place in aviation history as well.”

Stramaglia says he appreciates the publicity his cause has received, but he worries that it might be too late. According to the Times, workers have already started to remove asbestos and lead paint from the terminal to prepare for the wrecking crews.

“It’s not looking good at this point until we get in front of Delta,” he said. “We know the terminal’s obsolete as far as travel—that’s a given. But the saucer can be repurposed.”

Suggestions from the Save the Worldport campaign have included a museum as well as restaurants, shops and an observation space.

The organization has yet to receive a response from Delta on these proposals. And while Stramaglia and his team have spoken with the Port Authority on several occasions, they say that’s not enough.

“It’s a small victory,” said Stramaglia of those meetings. “But they can’t do anything here—they need the private funding from Delta.”

Still, the National Trust believes it can use its status as a top preservation advocacy group to rally support for the Worldport.

“Raising public awareness can be an extremely powerful thing, and we’ve had a good record of that with our annual lists of endangered places,” said Lane, who cited the successful refurbishment of JFK’s futurist TWA Flight Center after that building appeared on the organization’s 2004 list. “There’s been a real groundswell for groups like Save the Worldport.”

More than 6,700 people have joined the group’s Facebook campaign, while an online petition has garnered signatures from almost 70 countries. Stramaglia said people aged 16 to 64 have signed the petition.

“It shows you how much younger people care for the architecture and the history,” he said.

The Worldport has been on the chopping block since 2001, when the Port Authority conducted an eligibility report on the terminal’s status as a historical landmark. According to the Times, Delta plans to turn the site into a parking zone for its aircraft by 2015.

“They said there’s nothing original about the building,” said Stramaglia of the Port Authority’s 2001 report. “They said that the terminal’s cantilevered roof and the suspension cables were something you see every day. They’re not. Those techniques might be common in architecture, but it’s the uniqueness of how they were applied here that makes the building special.”