More on Dulles, the man and the airport


Dulles Airport. (MARGARET THOMAS/MARGARET THOMAS TWP)
John Kelly
Columnist December 8, 2012

Pack your bags. We’re headed back to the airport.

Last week’s column about the naming of Washington Dulles International Airport inspired many readers to write in about the 50-year-old airport and how it came to be named after John Foster Dulles, Dwight Eisenhower’s secretary of state.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

“It is quite impossible to explain adequately what a mountain of American diplomacy Secretary Dulles was seen to be, riding the ferocious tides of the early Cold War,” Walter Skinner wrote.

Riding the tides and riding the airways. During his time in office, Dulles was the most-traveled secretary of state and one who was closely associated with the airplane. He logged 479,286 miles on his trips outside the United States.

“Having been documented extensively during his protracted but hopeless battle with cancer, his death racked our nation to pretty much the same extent as that of President Reagan,” Walter wrote. “When [the airport] was renamed Dulles, the general populace, with no particular personal agenda, was overwhelmingly supportive.”

But Dulles’s hard-charging style was not universally loved. Wrote Bruce Steinhardt: “I believe it was Mort Sahl who said, ‘Eisenhower was elected president in 1952 and took office in 1959 upon the death of John Foster Dulles.’ ”

The hawkish secretary of state was a frequent foil for comedian Sahl. When he was once asked to say something funny, Sahl responded, “John Foster Dulles.”

Dulles was popular with a young, up-and-coming comedienne, too, wrote Clarksville’s George Hamlin. “Carol Burnett made a name for herself singing ‘I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles,’ ” George wrote.

Winston Churchill was not as much of a fan, said Daniel H. Borinsky. The British prime minister once quipped, “Dull, duller, Dulles.”

There was aviation on that plot of Loudoun County land before Dulles opened in 1962. “The first airport on Dulles property was Blue Ridge Airport, which consisted of two runways,” wrote Jim Fearson of Oak Hill. “Opened in the late 1930s, it had two hangars, a flying-club shack and three secondhand airplanes. This airport went out of business in 1942 because of wartime restrictions requiring a 24-hour guard over all airplanes or removal of all propellers at night!”

As outlined last week, early in its construction, the airport went by “Chantilly.” There were some who thought it should be named after George C. Marshall, whose Leesburg manor was not far away.

“Those of us who are admirers of General Marshall for his leadership in World War II and his service as secretary of state and creator of the Marshall Plan under Harry Truman have always felt he deserved this recognition,” wrote Gerald Parshall of McLean. “To this day, Washington lacks an adequate monument to George Catlett Marshall (1880-1959), one of our finest soldiers.”

Jim Wilding, who in 1959 went to work on the construction of Dulles and retired in 2003 as head of the Washington Metropolitan Airports Authority, has vague memories of Marshall’s name being considered for the airport. “There was some chitter chatter, but nothing ever really got in gear on that,” Jim told Answer Man.

Jim said it’s hard now — at a remove of half a century — to realize just how revolutionary Dulles Airport was.

“What the planners at Dulles were successful in doing for the first time in this country was to get away from the notion of building a terminal building that had to look like a row of parked airplanes,” Jim said.

Airplanes, you will remember, have long wings. When parked wingtip to wingtip, they need a lot of space, creating a long distance for passengers to walk. Large terminals, Jim said, are disorienting and off-putting.

“What happened at Dulles was the recognition that airplanes needed to be serviced at a place that was built for them and people, very importantly, needed to be accommodated in a place built to human scale,” Jim said.

To accomplish this, the designers of Dulles employed something that was cutting edge at the time, though it seems antiquated — and occasionally infuriating — now: the mobile lounge. Passengers used the terminal to get to the lounge. The lounge then took them to the plane.

Freed from the constraints of building a parking lot for airplanes, architect Eero Saarinen could design a (quite beautiful) building at a human scale. “The original building was only 600 feet long and 150 feet deep,” Jim said. “You just couldn’t find something that compact at any other airport. . . . Every major airport built since has done roughly the same thing, only now they use trains, rather than mobile lounges. Dulles really broke the old mold and started a new mold.”

Helping Children’s Hospital

Pass the hat. Put out the coffee can. Hang an interoffice envelope on your door.

Those are just a few ways to organize your co-workers into donating to Children’s National Medical Center during our annual fund drive. When your group donates, I’ll be sure to give you a public thanks in my column.

You can make a tax-deductible donation by going to www.childrensnational.org/
washingtonpost
or sending a check (payable to Children’s Hospital) to Washington Post Campaign, P.O. Box 17390, Baltimore, Md. 21297-1390.

Send your questions to answerman@washpost.com. To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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