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D.C.’s existence depends solely on four rooms: the Supreme Court chamber, the chambers of the House and Senate, and the Oval Office. Think of it. You’re paying rent for your rooms because these four rooms were built here. If they hadn’t been, you’d be sitting in a swamp right now, on land as valuable as, say, the Everglades. This town was built not for a natural reason but a very unnatural one, as cities go: Washington is Washington because of some architecture.
Union Station is a kind of arrival foyer for these four rooms, and its interior was designed to be glorious for that reason. Same goes for the 1941 lobby of National Airport’s main terminal, which was officially replaced on Sunday, July 27, by the latest of the capital foyers, Caesar Pelli’s new terminal. These are the rooms that inevitably create first impressions of the capital city, and therefore of the country.
Along with the usual airheaded praise from area critics and some soaring rhetoric from its architect, the brand-new terminal comes complete with a brace of mall boutiques (Disney Store, National Zoo Store, perfume store, sterling silver store, underwear store, Cinnabon, the Art of Silk). It also comes festooned with a corporate-style logo and name: “National Hall.” This new buy-it-on-the-runway palace is more than a transit station, it’s the kind of edifice in which Americans feel most comfortable these daysa place to flash the gold card and leave with a pretty box. Complete with whirligig floor art to roll your Smarte Carte over, this “airport” is a shopping mall-pinball machine with you as the silver ball and your flight to Topeka as the anchor store.
In contrast, the 1941 main terminal was simple and confident, content to label its central lobby “Waiting Room,” its restaurant “Dining Hall,” and its coffee shop “Coffee Shop.” Designed by a committee of staff architects from the Civil Aeronautics Authority (now the Federal Aviation Administration), the main terminal’s waiting room is one of the capital’s premier, and least noticed, foyers, singularly effective at evoking the American ethos and the country’s high ideals. Pelli’s runway-length hall, for all its loftiness, high windows, and monument views, can’t touch it.
“This building was erected during the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of the United States,” declares an aluminum plaque inside the main terminal’s waiting room. The waiting room is a lobby that was designed for, and that watched over, the era that started with metal propeller blades and ended with Vietnam. This foyer is a three-dimensional portrait of the American Century, a period whose self-confidence is reflected in the winged globes at each end of the waiting room: Both show only the American continents.
However, it is not just such tangible examples of national self-regard that call for the terminal’s preservation. One of the reasons the main terminal belongs on the National Register of Historic Places, according to architectural historians, is simple: its “feeling.”
What is remarkable about the waiting room is that it manifests the eloquent purity of the ideals of the Roosevelt era. Done in what has come to be called “streamlined moderne,” a smoothed and rounded combination of Art Deco and International Style, the waiting room is a curved rectangleit’s shaped like a bent Pink Pearl pencil eraser. Aluminum clock hands and numerals are on the two short walls, aluminum stars, stalks, and lightning bolts top the columns on the back wall, and aluminum ceiling trim rings the room and tops the doorways.
The longest wall, a curve overlooking the runway and the river, is a 30-foot-tall-by-200-foot-long window, a gargantuan, double-length IMAX screen built before the age of “observation decks.” This room was the observation deck. Planes took off and landed in the middle distance and unloaded passengers in the foreground, with the river and the hills behind Bolling Air Force Base in the background. Deco eagles, wheat stalks, and swords wrapped in laurels are etched prominently in the glass.
What’s perplexing about the feeling of the waiting room is what it does not call to mind about the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. Although it is entirely nationalistic, it steers clear of the overly solemn fascist-derived architecture current in Europe at the time of National’s groundbreaking. Furthermore, the waiting room is innocent of the Cold War and the Ugly American. Its portrait of the American Century presents only the best of the nation’s motives. Not the U-2 spy plane. Not an arms race. Not napalm. Instead, it broadcasts a naive, confident agricultural and martial wholesomeness; it would make a lousy backdrop for a spy film. In fact, the Cold War domestic-coup thriller Seven Days in May set its scenes of clandestine midnight arrivals at Dulles instead of National. With a huge bomber-wing airfoil for a rooftop, and a name borrowed from Eisenhower’s white-knuckled secretary of state, Dulles and its foyer are very Cold War.
Perhaps the reason the waiting room is so architecturally effective is that it’s a shining example of that moment when all of Americaideals, empire, progressfit together. Sure it’s naive, but architecture is allowed to be naive, presenting only what you want seenexactly the role of the capital city’s foyers. National’s waiting room is a flawless evocation of a superpower’s self-assurance and understated patriotism. Its “feeling” is from the period before President Richard Nixon felt the need to wear his patriotism on his lapel, and urged his staffers to join him by wearing an American-flag pin on their suit coats.
“National became the Civil Aeronautics Authority’s model airport…a standard against which to judge other airports across the country” when the main terminal opened, according to a report by Robinson & Associates, an architectural history consulting firm hired by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA).
The waiting room has suffered over its five decades of use. The coffee shop and the dining hall are long gone, as is the chandelier that hung over the grand staircase to the mezzanine. A compass rose originally outlined in white bronze and positioned at the center of the waiting room’s floor is lost; now, a few feet from where it was stands an upright machine with flashing have-you-seen-me photos of missing children, courtesy of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. There are no plans to put this machine in Pelli’s new terminal.
(The terrazzo floors where the seats are have been covered with gray carpet. One evening when I was there to meet someone arriving at one of the basement gates, airport security officers directed me back to the waiting room. “You need to wait in the gray area,” they said.)
Giving it a new name, the “South Terminal,” MWAA has started a restoration of the main terminal. The lighting, seating, and terrazzo floors in the waiting room will be restored according to the original plan. MWAA architect Dan Feil has found one of the original waiting room doors lying on rocks beside the river, a few lost basement windows plastered into walls, and some of the waiting room’s original leather and metal chairs sitting on the tarmac at Dulles.
“What makes us unique is our real estate,” says MWAA spokesperson Tara Hamilton about the new terminal. She points out that if you climb up to the top floor or walk out to the furthest windows of the docking piers you can see the Mall’s monuments. Otherwise, the terminal is not much different from the corridor terminals in Chicago, Denver, or Minneapolis (the latter served as the ground locations for Airport, the first of the airport disaster movies of the ’70s).
Unlike the new terminal’s long corridor, which has direction signs overhead like highway exit signs, the old waiting room’s curve masks the fact that it is a hallway. The wall of windows also helps diminish the intrusiveness of the operations of an airport lobby, drawing attention outside to planes passing by a few feet off the groundsomething Pelli’s new terminal fails to do. Look out the long, straight windows on the runway side of National Hall and you’ll see the earthbound elements of a major airport: the sides of the piers where the planes dock, and those metal elephant trunks that wait to connect a gate to its plane. Pelli’s main corridor isn’t a room, after all, it’s an expressway.
Pelli’s effort to fit into the local vernacular stops at the “Jeffersonian” domes in the roof. Below that you’ll find the foyer of the America of the Global Centurythe consumerism that all the world loves and hates.
If the Kennedy Center is a tissue box on the Potomac, Pelli has given us an upside-down egg carton across the river. But if you pick the right airline, you can still fly out of a foyer to be proud of.CP