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Capturing JFK's Space-Age TWA Terminal Before It's Revamped

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Photos by Max Touhey.

When Lori Walters heard that the future of the iconic TWA Flight Center at JFK airport was up in the air—given that the Eero Saarinen-designed landmark from 1962 was being eyed for redevelopment—she acted quickly. A historian and researcher at the University of Central Florida's Institute for Simulation & Training, Walters and her team at ChronoPoints use three-dimensional terrestrial laser scanning to document historic buildings. The scanning process results in highly detailed digital models that can eventually be incorporated into educational programming about the structures. While the terminal, beloved during its prime and even to this day (even though it sits unused), had long been on Walters's mind, she said news of the plan to convert it into a hotel caused her to bump it up to the top of her scanning queue.

More coverage of the TWA Terminal:
JetBlue May Turn Eero Saarinen's TWA Terminal Into a Hotel
Fly Back and See Eero Saarinen's TWA Terminal in Its Prime
Touring Saarinen's Iconic TWA Terminal Before Redevelopment

The project uses a FARO Focus scanner, which has traditionally been used by the police to document crime scenes in addition to engineers and architects. A scanning team was sent by local firm Langan Engineering to operate the machinery. The scans are like a "capsule in time," according to Walters, perfect for documenting sites that are at risk of destruction or damage from natural or artificial forces. But Walters plans to take this application even further—she hopes to couple the scans with photos and oral histories for each location to develop a multisensory experience that explains and contextualizes the significance of each site.

Walters and her colleague, Michelle Adams.

The TWA terminal fits Walters' criteria for several reasons. First, she and her colleagues have chosen to scan sites that were built in the space-age era of midcentury modern architecture. But the terminal, Walters said, isn't merely an aesthetically beautiful building. It symbolizes an important moment in the history of American travel. For the first time, around the time of its construction, you didn't have to be uber-wealthy to afford to fly. Aviation technology was advancing rapidly. The stewardess, a symbol that is now emblematic of the gender dynamics of the 60s, was rising in cultural prominence. Walters hopes the virtual terminal will provide a glimpse into 1960s life for viewers both young and old.

The idea is to ultimately have the 3D scan and other multimedia materials about the building available online; users can either engage with them on a browser or download them. Walters said she isn't opposed to having a site-based component, too. Even if the terminal's future occupant agrees to some kind of installation, though, she would still want the program online so that it can reach more people. "When something is site-based, it really restricts the number of people that can interact with it," she said.

But Walters has plenty of time to decide on a platform and staging, as she predicts that the program won't be ready for a while. She still has to apply for funding, find and conduct oral histories, and develop the actual experience, all of which will require months, if not years, of work, she said. Plus, ChronoPoints is currently making Florida's Cocoa Beach Glass Bank their focus. The reasons for such a prioritization are largely logistical; the Glass Bank is far closer to where the team works and resides.

Aside from the TWA Flight Center and the Glass Bank, ChronoPoints is working on several other projects. But Walters has still more on her wish list. She demurred that while she's made no active moves on these buildings yet, but some dream projects include the LAX Theme building and the Houston Astrodome. The latter is a long shot, as it would require resources and time that the researchers just don't have, especially with the apparent lack of interest to preserve the dome. Regardless, Walters and her team certainly have their hands full for now.

Here now, revel in photos of the abandoned, yet totally pristine, terminal as scanners record its every curve:

—Wesley Yiin
· UCF's ChronoPoints Project [official]
· JetBlue May Turn Eero Saarinen's TWA Terminal Into a Hotel [Curbed]
· Fly Back and See Eero Saarinen's TWA Terminal in Its Prime [Curbed]
· Touring Saarinen's Iconic TWA Terminal Before Redevelopment [Curbed]
· All TWA Terminal coverage [Curbed]