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

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:

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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…

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…and very little has changed over the years:

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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.

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

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

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“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:

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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.

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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:

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Close-up:

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

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

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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.

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

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

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

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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…

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Identical doors also lead to the Yankee Clipper restaurant:

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Another look at the awesome MAT insignia:

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

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

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

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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:

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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:

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

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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?

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

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…seen here in this historical photograph:

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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:

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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:

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Inside the Yankee Clipper cafeteria…

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…I love the stainless steel chairs, which perfectly match the terminal’s motif:

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Also, in the hallway leading to the terminal…

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

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Stainless steel staircase leading upstairs:

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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.

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I especially like the American Airlines hangars…

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…which are still decorated with the original AA logo. And anything in the Futura font is fine by me!

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Closer to the MAT is another great art deco administration building…

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My favorite feature is over the door…

 

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A beautiful art deco eagle:

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

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

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

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…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?).

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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??

-SCOUT

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

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56 comments

  1. Pretty cool! I used to visit this terminal a lot, to come home from school in Boston and visit my parents on Long Island. I don’t think I ever really appreciated it quite as much as you did, though…

  2. All of the Pan Am clipper fleet (which consisted of the Martin M-130, Sikorsky S-42, and the Boeing 314 aircraft) ended up being lost or destroyed in a short amount of time. There’s a life-size mock-up of a Boeing 314 in Ireland you can visit. Otherwise you can look at this site to a bunch of detail on the Boeing 314:

    http://www.asb.tv/blog/2011/02/boeing-314-flying-boat/

  3. Great post Scout, and yes, the LaGuardia Airport Hotel is a thing of beauty!

    @ “C”, thanks very much for the link to the clipper website, quite fascinating!

    My late grandmother told me a story of her flying on a clipper from Europe to the US during the start of WW2. A number of passengers had seen what looked like German U-Boats in the ocean below during the flight and shared that info with the crew, who in turn radioed that info to the authorities.

    The clipper was ordered to land off the Azores Islands where they were met by Allied naval forces who asked everyone exactly what they had seen, and at what time, to try to gauge where the U-Boats might be by now.

    My grandmother had not noticed any U-Boats herself, but she had not done much looking out the window either, as the whole exodus for her to be on that clipper bound for the US in the first place had been so exhausting, that she slept throughout the first leg of the flight. In the end, she was just relieved to “get the hell out of the middle of the ocean”.

    • That’s a great story JL. It’s interesting that a) the passengers would have been paying attention to what was going on around them since air travel wasn’t treated like right instead of a privilege and 2) their information was taken that seriously. Our culture certainly has changed.

  4. I’m guessing that in its original incarnation the terminal did not include a souvenir stand selling “I Love NY” mugs and Snyder’s pretzels.

  5. Another link to this era can still be seen on the oldest of the Staten Island ferries. If you look at the funnel of the John F Kennedy you’ll notice it doesn’t have the same DOT signage as all the other boats. It has a sign with an insignia of an anchor and a pair of wings for the old Department of Marine and Aviation. It’s pretty telling that they initially tacked on aviation to marine services back in the day. You can also see the remnants of the Dept of Marine and Aviation on the pier at the end of 15th Street (pier 57). It still has its original signage from back in the day (Something I really hope they save when they renovate that pier). That pier has always had a cool deco vibe. If you are ever on the river side of it, its architecture is very distinctive – totally a throw back.

  6. I love the old Pan Am cutaway. But does anyone else think it’s odd that there’s a “Ladies’ Room” but no “Men’s Room”?

  7. Newark Airport has something similar. The original terminal is still there, although it has largely been converted to offices. The facade and entrance evoke that same old-time aviation feeling.

    My old man used to work there and I got to see it a few times.

    More here: http://www.bergergroup.com/?p=open_work&type=work&id=19&t=Preserving_Aviation_History

  8. I was curious about the Hotel too, because of the round tower attached. You see a lot of those from buildings from the 70’s, according to one web site I found this one was constructed in 1980.

  9. I worked at LaGuardia Airport back in 1978 – 1981 while going to college at the bookstore (another almost relic) at the center terminal. This was next to the small waiting area where the bust of LaGuardia was located that now is in the center of the Marine Terminal. Great photographs.

  10. Oh, thank you for posting these!

    I used to fly out of that terminal with my mom in the 80s and early 90s when we went to Martha’s Vineyard. (I don’t recall which airline, sadly! Eastern, maybe?)

    That rotunda is a total blast from my past.

  11. What a beautiful building indeed, thanks for sharing! Could the winged figure be Daedalus, father of Ikarus who seems to be sketched in the white panel below and to the right?

  12. Oh, what a heavenly post, Scout! I’ve seen random photos here and there of the inside of the terminal, and have driven past it on the M60 bus, I think, but I have never seen all these wonderful photos in one place.

    I’m so happy they restored the “Flight” mural–that is one of the WPA-est of WPA murals I’ve ever seen.

  13. Wow, these pics are great! What a wonderful place to discover and it’s so neat to have the old pictures for comparison. I especially appreciate your eye for details and always enjoy your posts a lot.

  14. Nice pix. Before moving to NYC, I used to come up often on the Shuttle from DC. In the late 90s you could take a ferry from the old Clipper Dock (or something that replaced it) to 34th Street or Wall Street.

    The other big virtue of the Marine Terminal was that until recently, it was all Shuttles…which meant all grown-ups and almost no tourists. Fast, easy lines and staff that were still friendly.

    They also used to have row after row of free magazines and newspapers there as a promo for the high-income/influential demographic that passed through there (I once had Vernon Jordan in front of me and Ed Rollins two rows back). The boxes are still there now, but the freebies are long gone.

    @ Karen: That parking lot on the East Side is actually shaped like a boat if you look at it from afar. You get a better sense of it from the northbound FDR. If memory serves, it was briefly closed a few years ago due to possible structural issues.

  15. The Marine Air Terminal was designed by Delano & Aldrich, the architects of many of New York’s great club buildings, including the Colony, Knickerbocker, and (similarly art deco) Union Club. The many details you point out, including the flying fish frieze, are typical of their ornamentation.

  16. Not the same, but you can see a British Flying Boat, the Short Solent at the Oakland Aviation Museum. If you keep going (South) West, you can go to MOTAT in Auckland, NZ, to see another example.

  17. Great Post. While I was always aware of this facility; I never had the chance to go in until about a year ago and I was blown away. I was amazed that a public air transportation facility was in such pristine condition. I’m sure there was many an elected official or public servant that would have given his left nut to bulldoze the place over the years!

    While there has been some discussion regarding the Marine/Air connection. What is stranger is the U.S. Postal Service’s influence on aviation history. The first airport planned and developed by the City was at the site of Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn. The U.S. Post Master General at the time refused to allow airmail to be shipped via Brooklyn and sent all NYC bound airmail to Newark. As a result, no commercial airline would agree to fly there.

  18. Great post. I’ve greatly enjoyed the Marine Air Terminal whenever I’ve taken the Delta Shuttle, although it’s been a few years (and I’m saddened to hear they no longer have the free magazines). It was always a great experience — extremely fast ticketing and security even though I flew with a lot of equipment. I think they tried to make the Shuttle seem effortless, as easy as taking a bus, to make business daytrips to Boston and DC simple.

    As for flying boats you can tour, there’s always the Spruce Goose. It’s not local, and it may be a bit bigger and more famous than you’re thinking of (and perhaps unavailable for movie shoots) but it’s the one that comes to mind.

  19. It’s a gem. And where else in a U.S. airport can you find a restaurant that’s not part of a chain? The building to the left of the terminal is the old flying boat terminal, and there used to be a ramp into the bay to winch the planes up – you can see it in the aerial photo. The eagle on top of this building originally graced the center section of Delano & Aldrich’s original main terminal building, which was one of the first to have separate levels for arriving and departing passengers. It lasted until 1964, when the current terminal was built.

  20. Sorry, meant to say flying boat hangar!

    • From 1969-71 I attended a flight school located in the hanger building. The front of the building was set up like any office structure, meaning you could not tell it was part of a huge hanger. My school, LaGuardia Flying Service, was on the top level, left side. When I’d come for a lesson, I’d go there first and have a preflight brief with my instructor. Then walk down a stairwell to the first level and go out the back door. Except it was not really a back door, it opened into the hanger. There were always a few big corporate jets and traffic helicopters… all of which I closely examined. Then out the big door was a big paved area for airplanes. Now I see cars and building there.

      As I remember the inner structure of the hanger, it did not appear to be suitable for passengers in anyway. I would think it was for airline offices or other aviation related office apace. The back wall of the hanger seemed like one big wall with only opening for a few doors here and there on ground level.

      At the time I knew about the flying boats and MAT but didn’t know the hanger was built for that purpose. Now it all makes sense to me.

  21. Nick, Thanks for the peek inside. I only have one photo myself taken from the helicopter shuttle from JFK (Idlewild when I was a kid) to midtown. The only times I have routed thru LaGuardia It has been thru the main terminal which was a mess of construction.
    This is really a blast from the past and I thank you for showing it to us. I will make a point to check it out the next time I am in town.
    And to echo a previous comment, all the B314’s were broken up after the war. Too bad one didn’t survive to show us what airline travel was like in a more genteel world. Some years ago Air Classics did an article on these aircraft.
    Great stuff as always.

  22. LaGuardia was to Pre-War air travel what Kennedy was to Post-War — monumental and definitive of its time, and largely ignored within a generation. At least a lot of LaGuardia’s original concept is intact, unlike the progressive architectural erasure that has turned Kennedy into just another Detroit or Atlanta.

  23. wonderful! i would love to see that mural

  24. The MAT makes flying pleasant again. The close-by (and cheap!) parking lots, the short lines, and even the separate exit off the parkway make for a _very_ different airport experience than either LGA or JFK ever could provide. I flew in and out of there many times in college, back when it was the PanAm shuttle, and I could pay $29 one-way to Boston. Thanks for showing it again!

  25. It did not occur to me until late last night, but the Miami City Hall is right next to the municipal marina and it once served as Pan Am’s sea terminal. I was never in the building, but from the outside you could tell it was from the same period of Art Deco/Moderne.

  26. I used to come and go between home on Long Island and college in Boston for three years through this terminal and always appreciated it, although I wish the Internet was really around back then to better inform me! (It existed, but barely.)

    The only flying boat that I can think of that you can tour is the Spruce Goose out in San Diego. It used to be docked with the QM1 and although you could not get on board, you could see it and learn the history. Of course, that is not your typical flying boat!

  27. K – Indeed you are right about Miami City Hall. Best of all, it’s located on the wonderfully named Dinner Key.

    By the way, there are no 314s left, but there is a restored Sikorsky VS-44 at the New England Air Museum at Bradley Airport in Windsor Locks, CT. The three VS-44s were the last U.S. long-haul flying boats to enter service, with American Export Airlines (later American Overseas Airlines) in 1942. Here’s the wikipedia entry:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sikorsky_VS-44

    • This might seem like a strange place to look, but considering there are an estimated 25,000 commercial, military & private aircraft mothballed in the Mojave & Sonoran Deserts you might want to start with Google Earth. There are also fleets of commercial jets that were delivered from the factory to the desert because the buyer was insolvent.

      • I first read your comment as “because the buyer was insolent”. “The customer was a jerk so we’re going to drop his plane off in the desert – that’ll show him!”

        I really need to slow down and actually READ comments. :-)

  28. Pre-9/11, my brother & I managed to get on the roof of the Marine Air Terminal (after wallowing in the superb Deco design inside) and were almost on the same level as the air-traffic controllers in the old tower. It was a chilly, brilliantly clear night & we stood there for at least an hour, watching the planes take off & land SO CLOSE to us, and NOBODY bothered us! That stainless-steel eagle looks like it might have inspired the new Chrysler logo!

  29. another Awesome Post!!!

  30. Found an external walkround (and some internal photos) of a B-314 Clipper here: http://www.seawings.co.uk/B-314ClipperWRgal.htm

  31. Jaie, Thanks for the link. Some great pix in there. Definately a different era, where are the fanny packs and spandex? The bow shot of the Dixie Clipper has the Marine Terminal in the background. I would say the spread dates to 1940. That is when the Clippers had U.S. flags painted on the bows.

  32. Wow! What it reminds me of the most is Union Station in Cincinnati. It has a huge history of transportation mural and a very similar skylight, except it’s colored in shades of red, orange and yellow and looks a lot like a sunrise (or sunset). And it still has the original ticket counter. Have you seen it? It’s worth the trip. And I love the way it looks like a giant old console radio set into the hillside from a distance. :)

  33. I flew into La Guardia in 1960, but I didn’t see that building – and more’s the pity!! I want one of those stainless steel chairs!

  34. Pieces of B314’s still exist in the Museum of Flight at Boeing Field in Seattle. My father flew in them as a radio operator for a while before I was born. I had forgotten that when I went to the museum with him about 20 yrs back. Found him in the flying boat exhibit saying he had flown in that plane & identifying people he had known in the photos. In my early years (1950’s) he still worked for PAA at LaGuardia & Idlywild & sometimes would take me to work with him. Exciting for a young boy to get into the hangers to see all those airplanes & get to go into some. Too exciting at that age to ever notice the buildings. Later as I approached my teens he worked for Flight Safety at LaGuardia & at this point I can remember the buildings better but still wasn’t old enough to fully appreciate what I was seeing

  35. Thanks so much for this, it was an inspiration to go see it in person on 9/16/11.We took lots of photos as an inspiration for future artwork. I want to go back again , perhaps on an early Sunday morning when it is really quiet with my 1940 Buick Roadmaster 4 door convertible to take some “period” shots. Again, thanks a bunch.

  36. Glad you got to see my ‘Office Building’
    My work digs occupy the 3rd floor suite of the rotunda where the LGA Weather Observation Station is located (and has been since the Pan Am Clipper era). It is indeed a unique privilege to be able to work there as I have for the past 12 years. With a commanding vista of both the west area of the airport and the NYC skyline, it is the PERFECT location to do weather observations. Thankfully last year, my boss was able to convince the powers that be not to relocate our office to a ground floor location in the newly constructed control tower. It is indeed a GORGEOUS public building that begs of anyone’s time to come and behold. FWIW, I purposely make the trip from my LI home in early December just to take my kids holiday greeting card pic in front of the splendid Xmas tree that is put on display in the Rotunda.

    • Hey Rich, ask an old timer about the microwave dish seen on top of the older MAT pictures. Back in 1970 or so I was told it was a live weather feed from the RCA (now GE) building where they still have a radome for weather radar. Today you have multiple radar sources. It’s good to know your doing real weather observations at LGA

  37. I think there is often quite a bit of history around us that we miss when we are rushing through our days. Thanks for posting the photos and giving us a history lesson.

  38. To see other terminals from the original days of aviation, check out Floyd Bennet Field on Flatbush Ave at the very southern end of Brooklyn. All of the original terminals still exist in varying states of repair/disrepair.The area is now part of gateway national recreation area.

  39. TWA Flight Center was just added as one of OHNY’s sites! So excited to see it this Sunday, October 16th.

  40. Great paintings! That is the type of information that should be shared around the net. Disgrace on Google for no longer positioning this post higher! Come on over and consult with my web site . Thanks =)

  41. Great website…
    I grew up in Garden Bay Manor, literally across the street from MAT. At that time the art deco admin buiding had a gigantic rotating white/green searchlight which could be seen pretty far away. I think it is/was some standard symbol of airports, but I don’t believe it still operates. It was very impressive at the time and evocative of airport history.
    RS

  42. The hotel. Rectangular part came first. Probably mid- sixties. Circular portion, maybe 1971…as the Holiday Inn.

  43. Thank you for these pics and the post overall – like everyone else here, I am enormous fan of art deco, and this terminal is a shining example of that architecture.

    I’m also running a program to restore the Grumman Albatross (amphibious) flying boat not just for display, but to full flying condition. And not just one, but a whole lot of them.

    The aircraft will be re-equipped with Honeywell turbo-prop engines, the airframe will be strengthened with titanium, and the cabin will be extended to accommodate up to 34 passengers. We have eight pre-modification airframes already, although most of our prospective clients will be overseas.

    Flying boats are – without question – the most dramatic and vivid way to fly.

  44. There’s a Sikorsky S44 flying boat on display at the New England air museum near Bradley Airport in Hartford, CT

  45. There’s a building in Miami, now the Miami City Hall, which was also a Pan Am flying boat terminal; with many of the same kinds of decor and details.

  46. Wow! Brought back old memories. Spent many days at the airport just watching flights arrive and leave. I grew up near the where the runway ran out into the bay during the 1940’s. Used to watch the aircraft land and take off. Most of my friends fathers worked at the airport. My friend’s, who lived downstairs, father was the Chief Mechanic for American Airlines at LaGuardia. So many stories went through my mind when I read this article.
    THANKS

  47. Thanks for sharing this great piece of information. Do keep us update with some more great information…..la guardia airport limo

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