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Family Aid 2020
   Vol. 19 No. 78
Thursday December 31, 2020
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General Post Office 34th Street

Penn Station circa 1910     There is a celebration this week in New York City. The nearly three quarters of a million people that are mostly commuters going to and from work in New York & New Jersey have been forced to travel pre-pandemic through Pennsylvania (Penn) Station in Manhattan, a daily subterranean dismal railroad encounter since the misdirected destruction in 1963 of the monumental Beaux Arts 1910 version of Penn Station (right). These commuters will get some relief beginning later this week when a new passenger experience begins on January 1.

A Tale of Two Buildings

     Just across the street from Madison Square Garden that today sits on top of what was Penn Station is a second equivalent to Penn Station building (pictured) that opened in 1921 and was designed by McKim, Mead & White, in fact the same architects that created the original building. Both masterpieces of construction and imagination complemented each other having been inspired by the Baths of Caracalla in Rome.
     The surviving building was and has been in use since it was created as the Main General Post Office (GPO) for New York City and is named in honor of James Farley, who served as Postmaster General during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration.

Airlines Went Postal at Takeoff

     But, thanks in large part to the late, great Senator Patrick W. Moynihan, the story really gets interesting and connects all of us in the airline business.
     During the early days of aviation as the airlines were being formed and even before they carried passengers, every airline that was founded during the startup years of the early 20th century had one solid revenue base: they all carried mail and express.

Kelly Air Mail Act of 1925

     The USA Kelly Air Mail act of 1925 paid fledgling airlines to carry mail—$3.00 a pound for the first 1,000 miles . . . and the airlines were born. The Kelly Act was about putting mail and parcel carriage up for bids, taking air mail control away from the Post Office preferring private enterprise.
     But USPS did command some vital terms of contracts, including which airports were to be used; that is where our new Penn Station Building that used to be the New York City GPO steps into the picture.

Fastest from Airport to Post Office

     The edict in the mid 1920s was that the contract to carry and deliver the mails was given to the carriers that could deliver fastest to the GPO located as mentioned across the street from Penn Station.
     The early winner in airport location was Newark Airport that began as little more than a farmer’s field in New Brunswick nearby the City of Newark, New Jersey. But City of Newark and New Jersey politicians, especially Mayor Meyer Ellenstein were very fast on their feet recognizing aviation and were firmly onboard with money to support the aviation business.
     Based on carrying mails and building what at the time during the 1920s were amongst the greatest airport facilities in the world with early Unit Terminals for Eastern Airlines, United and others, Newark Airport served in fact as the world’s busiest airport from the day it opened formally in its present location in 1928 until December 2, 1939, the day LaGuardia Airport opened in Flushing (Queens), New York.

Expressway from Newark to Penn GPO

     Since success with the airlines was dependent on being fastest to the Manhattan GPO, no doubt Newark Airport benefitted greatly from the opening of the Holland Tunnel (1927) to New Jersey in lower Manhattan and also from building an elevated Pulaski Skyway (1930) above the many canals, rivers and railroad crossings that dot the landscape from Newark to Elizabeth, where the Holland Tunnel connects New Jersey with lower Manhattan.
     Once in Manhattan, the ride to the GPO was achieved in minutes, in fact the entire journey took less than 40 minutes from airport to GPO.

Brooklyn Landing Trip Took Hour

     At the time New York City’s only airport was Floyd Bennet Field located about a mile from where JFK Airport is today.
     So as aviation dawned and U.S. Postal mail subsidies paved the runways for fledgling carriers to form and bid for contracts, a mail van could drive from rampside Newark Airport to the GPO faster and with much less delay and commotion than a similar journey from Floyd Bennett Field.
     Floyd Bennett, named for a WW I aviator, is located (and still today) at the foot of Flatbush Avenue so every mail delivery trip in the 1930s, even with an armed escort and sirens blaring, had to navigate past several miles of trolley cars, horses and carts, street vendors and shopping districts just to get to The Brooklyn Bridge. Once across the BB, the mails then had to navigate all the way across Manhattan’s West Side through cross-town traffic to the GPO. On a good day the trip took over an hour.

Ticket Reads New York So Take Me There

 Mannie Berlinrut    Repeatedly New York City tried to wrest the mail contracts away from Newark and finally in a major publicity gag, Mayor LaGuardia, insisted upon arrival at Newark one night in 1932: “My ticket says New York, and I want you to take me there.”
     My friend, the late E. B. "Mannie" Berlinrut, who was the only reporter when TWA had booked the Mayor’s flight with the ticket reading:  “Chicago to New York (Newark)”, obligingly granted the Mayor’s wish and flew Hizzoner to Floyd Bennett.
     “After the flight that I covered for The Newark Evening Call newspaper,” Mannie told me, “I flew back alone aboard that tiny DC-2 and saw the lights of New York City coming up and knew that would not be the last time Newark would hear from New York about aviation.”
     Well, they did and he did, and as mentioned earlier, LaGuardia Airport opened for business December 2, 1939.

Airlines Went to LaGuardia

Robert J. Aaronson     Newark Airport was washed up, the airlines departed in droves as EWR shut down like a light switch, and in fact remained that way in the backwater of New York/New Jersey aviation for more that 35 years, until the aggressive management of the New York & New Jersey Airports under people like Port Authority Director of Aviation Robert J. Aaronson and others finally turned that situation around in the 1980s.
     But for Newark it was great while it lasted and carrying mail to Manhattan with that postal subsidy lasted long enough for the passenger business to take hold and the rest, as it is said, is history.

Fast Forward to Today

     Today Floyd Bennet Field is part of the U.S. Park Service.
     In 2021 a great portion of the heyday airport that used to be at Newark still exists, including an exquisite building created in 1934 that housed the world’s first Air Traffic Control Center.
     I wrote a book to try and save that building in 1978, when Newark Airport was using it as a flight kitchen, a postal facility and a weather station. Great Airports, Newark 1928-1978 brought the rich history of New Jersey aviation to the fore.

Geoffrey Arend at old Newark Control Tower

The Unsung Hero

Great Airports Newark and LaGuardia     Port Authority Aviation Director Bob Aaronson, mentioned here earlier, took action during the early 1980s to not allow planners to further alter or even perhaps knock the building down because it sat at the end of one of the airport’s main runways.
     Quietly, with great skill and determination Mr. Aaronson granted the place a reprieve until funds were finally secured to save the building and move it elsewhere on the airport, where it serves as the airport managers’ office today.
     And here lies another twist connected to our story of Penn Station.
     Our book on Newark got the ball rolling to save Building One at Newark Airport.
     Later our book Great Airports LaGuardia actually saved The Marine Air Terminal, the home of the overseas flights for New York City until Idlewild Airport (JFK International), opened in 1948.

Laurance Rockefeller, James Brooks, Geoffrey Arend, Cynthia Grassby Baker and Elizabeth Hanford Dole

     We were recognized and honored with the highest award of the U.S. Department of Transportation, FAA and The National Historic Trust, for “Outstanding Contribution to Aviation History & Preservation” in a Washington ceremony in 1986. The connection to these activities of course was the destruction of the aforementioned giant Penn Station that impacted everyone, big and small, who loves New York.
     Losing Penn Station made everyone keenly aware of the need to protect our heritage for future generations. So, the rebirth of the great first generation passenger stations at airports here and everywhere else in the U.S. came in one manner or form from the uproar over the loss Penn Station, one of the greatest U.S. train stations of all time.
     Makes the coronation this week of what’s left that can be called Penn Station in Manhattan very sweet indeed. When we can all go out and travel and live again, if you ever find yourself in the Newark Airport air cargo area, and have a minute, go find Building One, you will not be disappointed.
      At LaGuardia where $8 billion USD is spent to rebuild the entire airport, the only building that cannot be touched is the Marine Air Terminal. That jewel of a place, where we had our offices and shepherded the MAT preservation effort for 25 years, is still there and is home to the mammoth mural “Flight” created by James Brooks. When one comes to New York, this is a place not to be missed.
     So as of January 1, 2021 ‘The Moynihan Train Hall’, where the airmail made the airlines, will open the skies for train riders as part of the new Penn Station featuring expansive 92-foot-high skylights.
     Somewhere in that beautiful revitalized 255,000 square foot reimagined space for travelers in Manhattan, where commercial aviation spent many of its most formative years, today – across the decades – moves us still.

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Marine Air Terminal

Marine Air Terminal benches     I grew up at the Marine Air Terminal in New York City. At the time I was unaware of the unique perspective it afforded me—how few children gestated in the belly of a great, round terminal, nourished by ephemera and the hollow, high-topped sound of cavernous spaces carved in marble. I was a wild thing in a civilized cave, hiding behind wooden benches salvaged and meticulously arranged by my father, who recognized their beauty and inherent historical value, and saved them from the garbage heap. Each had a steel propeller inlaid in its sides, as if at some miracle moment the propellers would thrust outward from the wood, rotate frontwise, and the benches would steal away in flight. They lined the rounded walls of the Marine Air Terminal’s atrium, which pumped the people in from the streets and fed them to their flights down ventricular hallways. My father had also placed four benches in the center of the room, facing outward, their sides aligned so each propeller had a mirror image in its neighbor. The negative space they created behind them—a small square of Marine Air Terminal real estate—was my island, and I comforted myself by lying on my back on the floor and looking straight up at the round ceiling, which was tiered with concentric circles leading up to a circular skylight, like some great windowed eye staring at the sky. The iris of that eye was the mural my father saved from obscurity. The great WPA-artist James Brooks painted his earth-toned “Flight” along the upper walls of my cave—it was my very first picture book. If you stood in the center of the MAT and rotated slowly, the story of man’s ascension to the clouds was depicted in vivid detail.

Marine Air Terminal Mural

     I suppose it was through the great eye of the Marine Air Terminal that I first saw the world.
     The sound. The sound of the Marine Air Terminal is most visceral to me. I’m sure it had a smell, too, something of lemon-waxed floors and ocean salt, tinged by the oily residue of Jet A. But the sounds stay with me, even now, as sonorous and forlorn as tolling bells. The clack of hard-heeled shoes traversing the marble floors, the rumble of conversations diluted by space and hovering in the air like vapor, the distant sound of Glen Miller’s Moonlight Serenade permeating every corner. My father had outfitted the rotunda with speakers fed directly from his office, and so his music was everyone’s music. It played in the background like a halo of sound descended from on high, out of reach but always there, as if it were the sound the environment naturally generated in its relaxed state—a law of nature.
     My father’s office. Carefully curated, beautifully preserved, it encompassed three impeccable rooms overlooking the road leading to the Marine Air Terminal. The first room held his secret sound system, housed behind a wall—the same sound system that gave the Marine Air Terminal its voice. His desk faced the door, as if he were always readying himself for a visit. The room to the left of his desk was like a mini living room, complete with a couch, a small TV, and a mini-fridge. He had an autographed picture of Mickey Mantle on a shelf, which I remember quite distinctly. If you asked me what else was on the shelf I couldn’t tell you, but I can clearly remember the photo and its signature. The mini-fridge held M&Ms and sodas, and—my favorite—Planter’s Cheese Balls, which no longer exist. If I told you I felt melancholy about the satisfying crunch of biting into a chilled Planter’s Cheese Ball I would understand, but could not align myself, with your confusion.

Geoffrey with Magnesium birds

     The room to the right of his desk housed a small cabinet with toys belonging to myself and my older brother, Geoff, and a spiral staircase that ended with a door to the Pan Am Shuttle. The wall showcased a large piece of art created by my father—a magnesium stencil silhouette of birds in flight, hung behind glass panels and backlit by white light. Another of his salvage pieces, my father rescued the birds from Building One at Newark Airport. The birds had once flown above the arrivals/departures doorway, but my father discovered them in the trash while delivering editions of Air Cargo News to Newark Airport. Building One at Newark was another of my father’s preservation pet projects. While the Port Authority had initially sanctioned renovations on the historic terminal—and in the process, destroyed much of the art and architecture of the place, despite a book my father published in 1978 in dedication to the building—later, in 1981, my father was able to halt further destruction with the help of Port Authority’s new aviation director, Robert J. Aaronson.
     Geoff and I often raided the fridge for icy M&Ms and cheese balls and sat in front of the toy cabinet, sliding open its doors to remove our toys. We played on the spiral staircase and at its bottom, opening the door to peek out at the other side of the airport. I remember thinking it was my Narnia, and the spiral staircase the equivalent to Lewis’ famous Wardrobe. Our favorite thing to do, however, was to open the office door and chase each other down the hallway, which was circular and closed—a loop that slanted slightly inward and felt dizzying to run on. Whoever made it back to my father’s door first was the winner. This was a wonderful game for me, but must have been torture for my asthmatic brother. Next door to my father’s office was the office of the North Beach Club, which had been furnished with the remnants of several First Class Lounges. Bathed in warm browns and rich, deep burgundies, the space felt shuttered and dark, so unlike the bright, filtered white light and steely greys of my father’s Bauhaus-inspired office. If Geoff and I were very good, my father would open his office window and we would stick our heads out—the windows being tall and wide, like the windows of a factory—and watch the planes come roaring overhead.

Geoff II, Geoffrey, James Brooks, William Lieberman and Hans Dieter Altmann
In 1986 at the Marine Air Terminal, rededication ceremony for the restored mural, "Flight" are from left to right: Geoffrey Arend II (in bowtie), Geoffrey Arend, artist James Brooks, Curator William Lieberman, Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Lufthansa Manager North America, Hans-Dieter Altmann.

Flossie Arend     I was an airport brat. I thought Rocco’s Yankee Clipper café was my extended kitchen, and the MAT was my living room. I got free gum at the newspaper stand and raced at top speed down every corridor, and when my father lost his office at the MAT—how quickly this world forgets those people who work, tirelessly and often thanklessly, to preserve its legacies—I felt like I had lost a dear, old friend.
     I don’t know what music they’re playing in the Marine Air Terminal anymore. I wonder what they’ve done to my father’s office, and whether anyone truly knows everything he did to breath life back into an Art Deco Grande Dame no one wanted anymore. I look at pictures of the MAT’s interior online and feel wistful for those times when I felt ruddy-kneed and free to roam, quiet in my thoughts among the cacophonous sounds of the airport. My father saved the Marine Air Terminal for everyone, but I can’t properly quantify how thoroughly it saved me.
     I’m an airport kid. You wouldn’t understand.

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