National Airport: A New Terminal Takes Flight


An aerial view of the new terminal.
An aerial view of the new terminal, with the Washington Monument in the background.
Photo by Robert Reeder/TWP
Christening a Vision of the Future, With a Nod to the Past

By Alice Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 16, 1997

Washington is about to welcome its newest monument, the just-completed terminal at National Airport -- a quarter-mile of glass and steel that becomes part of the city's signature for the next century.

The $450 million showplace near the Potomac River shoreline, designed by one of the world's leading architects, will launch the 56-year-old airport into a new era when it opens July 27. Long an eyesore where travelers fought their way through crowded, dingy hallways, National now will be an attraction -- not just a place to endure.

At the new National, there are nods to style and history (the terminal is filled with art and topped by 54 "Jeffersonian" domes), commerce (it's part shopping mall) and convenience (Metro's more accessible than ever).

But the big draw may be the view through the terminal's five-story glass wall -- a panoramic sweep of the Mall's monuments and the Capitol, with the Potomac in the foreground. Unmistakably, inspirationally Washington.

The view "is important psychologically," said former airport board chairman Linwood Holton, a former Virginia governor who was determined that the 1.1 million- square-foot terminal would be a dramatic front porch to the city.

"It's right in the bend of the river, and the apex of the bend points right at the Capitol," Holton said. "You won't be able to walk into that building without thinking of the history of this nation -- Washington, who created the republic; Lincoln, who fought to save it. . . . How could you put more history into a single statement?"

The terminal's windows, treated with tint lines to reduce glare, are supposed to provide a sweeping view of the city from the ground, similar to what airline passengers see from above.

"Even I, who've been here 37 years, when I'm landing . . . and I look down and see the Mall and the Capitol, I think, 'Isn't that wonderful!' " said Ron Linton, a former board chairman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which operates National and Dulles International locator mapairports. "We wanted to carry that sense of excitement right down to touchdown. You want to take their breath away every time they fly in and out of there."

And airport officials spent a bundle to do just that -- despite initial objections from airlines that fretted about how passengers would react to a lavish terminal and ticket surcharges to pay for it, and complaints from anti-noise activists who fear the more spacious facility will lead to an easing of federal limits on flights at National.

Although half of National's $1 billion renovation program has gone toward the practical and not the glitzy -- new roads, garages, a fuel tank farm and an enormous plant to cool and heat the place. The terminal itself is the crown jewel. No longer will National be the airport long on convenience to downtown, but short on just about everything else.

At two day-long open houses scheduled for this weekend, tens of thousands of area residents are expected to pour into the terminal to take in the view through designer Cesar Pelli's 58-foot-tall riverside windows and gawk at the more than five dozen shops and restaurants along the building's concourse. They can wander below blue-ceilinged domes supported by a 65-foot network of yellow steel (visible on the exterior as well) and examine $5.5 million worth of artwork throughout the building, including 18-foot-wide floor medallions created by 10 artists and fabricated by Italian craftsmen.

There are dozens of other expensive features, including stainless-steel ticket counters that fold down for use by disabled passengers, terrazzo floors and plastic-paneled walls that resist dents and scuffs. For travelers who want to relax outside -- if that's possible less than a thousand feet from where jets take off and land -- there are two outdoor patio areas, recently planted with wisteria. And near the baggage claim on the lower level, there's a meditation room, for those who want a moment's peace.

"Airline passengers alternate between sheer terror and boredom," said Clyde Bingman, the authority's commercial space planner, who looks on the shops and restaurants as a diversion for patrons as well as a potential moneymaker for the airport. "If their flight is delayed and they have an hour to kill, they could spend a very interesting hour with all the choices we have for them."

The 35-gate terminal -- along with most of its shops and restaurants -- is scheduled to open for business a week from Sunday with the 6 a.m. departure of American Airlines Flight 335 to Dallas-Fort Worth. About 2 hours later, airport officials will conduct a ceremony to mark the arrival of US Airways Flight 1721 from Albany, N.Y. Only 25 gates will open initially; the 10 others will open over the next year or so as sections of the old terminal are closed for renovation.

Passengers, through surcharges of $3 a ticket, will repay part of the $1 billion in bond-financed redevelopment costs for the airport. Airlines complained at first, but now seem happy with their new digs.

"The [airport] board wanted to make a civic statement for Washington, and we didn't want to make this a Taj Mahal," said Richard DeiTos, a lobbyist for the airlines that use National. "But three years ago, we gave up the rhetoric. We're fine about it now."

Part of the cost in rebuilding National has gone toward constantly changing roads, signs and sidewalks as the existing airport continued to operate while two major parking structures and the new terminal were being shoehorned onto a 90-acre site.

"It's a major accomplishment putting a new, modern terminal on an unbelievably tight site and handling . . . 45,000 passengers a day at the same time, with a minimum of inconvenience," said Robert F. Tardio, the current chairman of the airport board. "To do that you have to spend more money. You had to put in temporary roadways, then take them out. Signs had to be constantly changed."

A Modern Public Space

The view, the design and the art notwithstanding, National's new terminal also is about commerce, and is an example of how the nature of public space has changed in recent years.

"Public space in the late 20th century is also increasingly commercial
An aerial view of the new terminal.
US Airways ground crews move a plane to a new gate to make sure it fits and turns.
Photo by Robert Reeder/TWP
space," said Richard Guy Wilson, an architectural historian at the University of Virginia who said that the enormous expense of building a structure like National's new terminal now virtually requires a commercial presence.

"The problem is, how are you going to pay for public space? There's no other way but to sell off part of it to Victoria's Secret or McDonald's," Wilson said. "That concept has completely invaded our concept of public space, and it says something about us."

Like National's new terminal, Denver's recently opened airport is part shopping mall. Increased retail space also has been used to help pay for extensive renovations to grand public buildings such as Washington's Union Station, which underwent a face lift nine years ago and now is visited by as many shoppers as travelers. Even the Louvre museum in Paris now has an underground shopping area.

In part because 60,000 square feet of space in the new terminal will be leased to 38 retailers (including Victoria's Secret) and two dozen restaurants (McDonald's among them), airport officials expect to rake in $53.5 million in revenue this fiscal year, up about $10 million from revenue for fiscal 1996. That increase will help pay off the debt used to build the terminal.

The new terminal also will be bread and butter for more than 10,000 people, from cabbies and skycaps to gardeners and store clerks who will work there. That's a few hundred more than work at National now, airport officials say, because of added stores and restaurants.

A New Chapter at National

National's face lift represents a victory for those who have insisted all along that having a major airport close to downtown Washington is still a good idea, and who for decades have argued for its renovation.

Chief among them was airports authority General Manager James A. Wilding, who ran both National and Dulles for the Federal Aviation Administration before the U.S. government turned over the airports to the newly created regional authority in 1987.

Wilding said that early on, supporters of the airport decided that "it was a mistake to do what a lot of cities were tending to do, to let close-in airports be closed in favor of distant airports. . . . A lot of aviation's power lies in the efficient use of time."

As the federally owned airport became more and more crowded during the 1960s, several plans to redevelop it popped up, but they were never realized. One design called for a round terminal building that could be reached through a tunnel. There also were proposals to add 22 acres to the runway area by filling in part of the Potomac, which is how the airport's runways were built in the first place.

But nothing was ever done. As a ward of the federal government, which never had much money to spend on National, the airport grew seedier and seedier.

"You didn't want to sit on the chairs," said Stephen Fuller, an economics professor at George Mason University who compared the National of the 1970s to a bus station.

But when Congress created the regional airports authority in 1987, things began to change. Local control -- and in particular the ability to sell bonds to raise money for construction -- sent both airports into redevelopment programs that together will cost more than $2 billion, and dramatically change the airports.

At Dulles, the famous terminal designed by Eero Saarinen is being doubled in length, and new roadways and a midfield terminal are nearing completion. Airport officials are creating an airport that in a few decades will be able to handle more than 50 million passengers a year -- five times the volume at Dulles today, and more than three times the 16 million passengers National sees each year.

At National, where the numbers of flights and types of jets using the airport are limited by federal law and short runways, airport officials say that a $1 billion renovation is buying style and much-needed space for existing passengers.

Local economists predict the new terminal will be a boost to the entire region.

"The new terminal reestablishes the sense that good architecture and amenities and the visual arts are important elements," Fuller said. "We sort of had the antithesis of that at National Airport for the last 20 years."

National's new terminal also is a symbolic defeat for a hardy band of anti-noise activists who have opposed the airport's renovation. Citizens Against Airport Noise tried repeatedly to have the work stopped by challenging the constitutionality of a congressional review board established to oversee the airports authority.

The activists have had some success; at one point the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Congress overstepped its authority in setting up the regional airport board by giving itself veto power over the board's decisions. The decision briefly threatened the flow of bond money to National's renovation. But construction went on, and now Congress has passed legislation abolishing its oversight panel.

Sherwin Landfield, a retired Foreign Service officer who heads the anti-noise group, said he fears that National's redevelopment means it eventually will handle more traffic than federal limits currently allow, sending more noise to nearby neighborhoods. When work at the airport is complete with the renovation of the 56-year-old main terminal in 2002, the airport will be big enough to handle 19 million passengers a year -- up from about 15.5 million projected for this year.

Even though federal law limits the number of flights into the airport, Landfield and other anti-noise activists believe there will be pressure to change those laws, especially now that so much money has been spent to improve the airport.

"To begin with, it was a lousy airport in a lousy location," Landfield said. "Now, it's a dolled-up airport in a lousy location."

'The Visionary Future'

But its location, transit analysts say, is what makes National Airport such a key link in the region's transportation network. And with the new terminal, getting to the airport via Metro will be easier than ever.

Those who take the subway to National no longer will have to ride a shuttle bus or make a 15-minute hike to their airline gates. The new terminal is linked to the National Airport station by two bridges. The airports authority spent $8 million building a northern mezzanine for the Metro station so that passengers can exit in either direction, or take an escalator downward and walk across one of the two enclosed, glass-and-steel bridges to the new terminal's concourse.

Airport officials predict that soon, 20 percent of the airport's passengers will arrive or depart by Metro, nearly double the number in recent years, when construction added to the inconvenience of taking the subway to the airport.

Architect Pelli said that type of convenience, combined with a functional, imaginative terminal, should please travelers.

"We've tried at every level to make this terminal as pleasant to use as we could," he said.

Local architectural historian Pamela Scott said she believes that Pierre L'Enfant, the Frenchman who conceived of a Washington with grand avenues and sweeping vistas, would be pleased with the new terminal's scale, its domed design, its proximity to Washington and the "breathtaking" way its windows frame the city.

"L'Enfant was a real futurist. He was also very eclectic and embraced the whole American experience, yet linked it to his European experience," Scott said. "He said Washington was a microcosm of the vast American empire, and I think the design is in that realm. It is part of the visionary future of the city."

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© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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