How To Leave New York via 1940: Scouting LaGuardia’s Marine Air Terminal

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If you ever want to experience what flying was like in the 1940’s, simply take a trip to the Marine Air Terminal at LaGuardia:

Built in 1939 to handle sea planes, the art deco Marine Air Terminal is New York’s only surviving terminal from the first generation of air travel…

1974 – Too bad that great clock is gone

Every time I’ve driven out to LaGuardia, I’ve seen the signs for the Marine Air Terminal but simply assumed it had something to do with a port or dock. I finally decided to stop by the other day, and was absolutely blown away by what is literally an airport frozen in time.

Opened in 1940, the Marine Air Terminal was built to handle sea planes…

…better known as “flying boats,” which explains the winged fish pattern surrounding the building:

“Flying boat” is the perfect term to describe what this type of aircraft was. Able to land in water on its hull, these enormous seaplanes bear little resemblance to air travel of today, as this awesome cutaway of a luxurious 1947 Pan Am clipper reveals. Click for a full size image:

Below, a Pan Am flying boat at the Marine Air Terminal circa the 1940’s:

Sadly, the luxurious age of clipper planes ended with World War II. The Marine Air Terminal closed to air traffic during the 1950’s and fell into disrepair. Thankfully, it was converted for use as a corporate flight terminal in 1966 and has been in operation ever since.

Even better, most of the terminal is exactly as it was over 70 years ago. Just going through the entrance is a step back in time, with beautiful stainless steel doors topped off with awesome winged planet insignias, which I imagine was inspired by Pan Am’s presence:


But it’s the central terminal that really takes your breath away:

A large rotunda with a magnificent tiered skylight, this room was originally dominated by an air travel desk centered around a large globe:

While the desk is long gone, most of the rest of the room is just as it originally was, from the fanciful WPA mural lining the walls to the wooden benches still in use today.

The MAT’s skylight is one of my absolute favorites in New York.

It perfectly evokes that sense of sleek futurism inherent in early air travel. A spoked design on the roof creates a fascinating shadow pattern:

A Pan Am flying boat now hangs from the ceiling in commemoration of the MAT’s past:

Today, the Marine Air Terminal is used for Delta shuttles to Boston and D.C. along with several other smaller airlines. Passengers still go through the original MAT doors for departures…

Identical doors also lead to the Yankee Clipper restaurant:

Another look at the awesome MAT insignia:

Meanwhile, offices lining the terminal are blocked off by silver blinds, perfectly matching the room’s decor:

A row of pay phones – one wonders if this was once a line of wooden telephone booths:

Dominating the room is a mural entitled Flight by artist James Brooks, depicting the evolution

of aviation:

Finished in 1940, Flight is the largest mural to have been commissioned by the WPA and features wonderfully fanciful moments from man’s ascent to the heavens:

It’s nothing short of a miracle that Flight survived to the present day. During the 1950’s, the mural was deemed too socialist in the way workers were portrayed as strong and muscular, and was painted over by the Port Authority:

Luckily, the mural was sealed before being painted, and in 1980, was fully restored:

I love the imagery in Flight. and could stare at it for hours. Some of the allusions are easy to understand, while others fire the imagination – for example, in the below picture, who is the winged figure, that stranged masked man on the left, and that assemblage of what appear to be totems?

Another great remnant from the early days of LaGuardia: the Marine Air Terminal’s original benches…

…seen here in this historical photograph:

Each bench ends in a propeller design, inspired by the flying boats. It’s pretty amazing to sit waiting for a plane in the same bench used by passengers over 50 years ago:

What appears to be a compass rose is set into the ground where the airline desk once was, along with a bust of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia:

Inside the Yankee Clipper cafeteria…

…the lighting design is really great – perhaps inspired by compass points?

Stainless steel staircase leading upstairs:

I love going to LaGuardia because the whole place feels like a trip back in time to when aviation was exciting. a blend of utility and adventure: the future realized.

A beautiful art deco eagle:

Also lining the walls: wings adorned with the flying boat logo:

Finally, if there’s one building near LaGuardia that takes me back to an earlier age of travel, it’s the LaGuardia Airport Hotel.

I’m not sure when it was built, but there’s just something about its design…

…coupled with its circular wing, that just feels like it would have been cutting edge around the time the Beatles were first coming to America (and does that connecting hallway remind anyone else of a jet bridge?).

Though JFK tends to get all the credit as being New York’s premier airport, LaGuardia is a classic in its own right, and the Marine Air Terminal is a one of a kind treasure. Anyone can visit – I parked my car for $3 in the lot right outside, but you can also get there by bus. Absolutely worth it for a trip 70 years into the past.

Now who can get me into the old TWA terminal??


PS – For you plane buffs out there, do any restored flying boats exist? Is it possible to tour one?

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