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Tourist in Her Own Town

One of my favorite books as a child was New Worlds to Conquer by Richard Halliburton, an early travel writer who entertained my grandmother and others in the 1920s and 30s who didn’t travel as we do today. His accounts of swimming the Panama Canal and jumping into the Well of Death at Chichen Itza are still a great read.

I thought of Halliburton last week as I was out and about three days in a row interviewing honorees for our virtual Chairman’s Awards on February 23. After almost a year of pretty much staying put on the West Side, I felt like I was on an exotic adventure.

Top photo: Philip Johnson’s iconic 550 Madison Avenue, photo courtesy of The Olayan Group Bottom photo: TWA Terminal at JFK Airport, photo courtesy of TWA Hotel, David Mitchell

The TWA Hotel at JFK was the first stop last Wednesday. We’re honoring Tyler Morse of MCR and Rick Cotton of the Port Authority for restoring Saarinen’s sublime former terminal and repurposing it as the lobby and centerpiece of the hotel with restaurants and even a TWA uniforms fashion display. The Port Authority first invited us there in the late 90s as they wondered what to do with a glorious building that no longer served air travel. We participated in years of public reviews. The soaring column-free interior with its glorious curves instantly lifts your spirits. When I saw a woman come towards me pulling a roller bag I was startled. A real traveler!

The view from the roof is more sobering. Looking out at the vast runway system, one plane was taking off. The rest was quiet and empty.

The next day I met Erik Horvat of Olayan America for a tour of interior construction at 550 Madison Avenue, the iconic Philip Johnson/ John Burgee building. Olayan initially planned to change the façade. When architects and preservationists objected, they graciously pivoted and supported exterior designation. The grandeur of the monumental entrance arch and the soaring lobby was worth experiencing even on a frigid day. Madison Avenue was full of traffic. But a 25-block walk showed the empty shops and restaurants.

Friday was my first visit to Port Authority offices at Fumihiko Maki’s elegant World Trade Center 4. At 8 a.m., my car on the downtown Number 1 subway had scant passengers. I was alone for the last three stops. The expansive Trade Center site was empty.

As the Port Authority’s Executive Director, Rick Cotton knows the challenges New York faces. But he points to Moynihan Train Hall, plans for a new bus terminal, and the enormous improvements underway at LaGuardia. Cotton, Horvat, and Morse are confident that New York will recover. And each sees that historic buildings have a role to play.

These were admittedly small adventures compared to what life used to be like. But I enjoyed seeing wonderful architecture and speaking to people working on New York’s recovery. And, as the old song goes, I don’t get around much anymore.

Peg Breen, President
The New York Landmarks Conservancy

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