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Dulles Metro stop could block views of airport architecture

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 8, 2010; 6:44 PM

Virginia state historic preservation officials are concerned that a proposed outdoor location for the Metrorail station at Dulles International Airport will block sightlines of the airport's main terminal, which was designed by Finnish American architect Eero Saarinen and has been called one of the greatest architectural achievements of the 20th century.

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Original plans for the rail stop at Dulles called for an underground station, but a consultant's estimate released in September put the price tag of the needed tunneling and terminal and road improvements at $640 million more than an outdoor station.

Members of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, the independent body that is building the rail line to Dulles and Loudoun County, said they would consider two underground options - one under the parking lot in front of the main terminal and the other leading into the terminal - and two outdoor locations, near the airport's north garage, about 550 feet from the terminal, and a spot on the arrivals roadway ramp in front of the terminal.

Airports and state officials are scheduled to meet Tuesday afternoon to discuss the station proposals.

Charles D. Snelling, a Pennsylvania businessman who serves as chairman of the airports authority, told contractors and fellow board members last month that an entrance near or at the terminal is preferred but that costs would be a consideration.

The Virginia Department of Historic Resources has said the outdoor location near the main terminal building would have "profound implications" on views of the airport. Marc Holma, a state architectural historian with the Office of Review and Compliance, also questioned whether the proposed sites comply with federal laws requiring that agencies minimize adverse impact to historic properties.

"We would have concerns with how it would be compatible with the public face of the terminal," Holma said Monday. "Saarinen's whole design concept was that people would have this sense of arrival when they drive up, and see the terrain and glimpses of the terminal. . . . This would seem to impede the view of this historic building."

Saarinen, who died in 1961, was known for structures that combined innovative design with swooping, curved features. His most famous works include the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, the TWA Flight Center at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport and the main terminal at Dulles.

The Northern Virginia airport, which opened in 1962 at the border of Fairfax and Loudoun counties, has been described as an "unmistakable architectural metaphor, an all-encompassing, monochromatic form without ornamentation, symbolizing aerodynamic flight" by Roger K. Lewis, an architecture critic and professor at the University of Maryland. In his 2000 critique, Lewis said the terminal's wing-like roof and sloping glass walls were "structural poetry."

Visitors can see the terminal rising cleanly from the surrounding land. Other architects have said that Dulles is an architectural marvel, with its drooping roof of precast concrete slabs attached to steel suspension cables. It was nominated to be included on the National Register of Historic Places soon after it opened but has never been included, in part because the Federal Aviation Administration worries that such a designation could hamper operations at a busy airport.

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