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December 17, 2011 Dulles Airport, Eero Saarinen

50 Years of Saarinen’s Dulles

Saarinen's DullesThe current issue of Washingtonian has a  fascinating piece on the construction and politics behind Eero Saarinen’s groundbreaking Dulles airport terminal that opened 50 years ago this month. Sudip Bose explores the architectural wonder that ushered in the Jet Age in Washington. Despite its beauty, many people wondered: Would this soaring building really take off? Would anyone actually use it? An excerpt from Bose’s piece below:

“‘At long last,’ wrote Washington Post architecture critic Wolf Von Eckardt, ‘Washington has a truly outstanding modern building by a truly outstanding modern architect.’ In the estimation of some critics, the opening of Dulles was the biggest thing to happen to Washington architecture since Charles Bulfinch reconstructed the US Capitol after the British set it ablaze in the early 1800s.”

“And yet it wasn’t clear whether anybody would actually abandon National or Baltimore’s Friendship Airport—which could also accommodate jets—in favor of the new facility. As Post columnist Drew Pearson put it, ‘Will [Dulles] remain empty, its ticket counters barren of business, its skycaps idle, its escalators with no more than a trickle of suitcases? . . . Some people are wondering whether Dulles Airport, with all its beauty and all its perfect aeronautical techniques, may become another white elephant.’”

It took many years, but Dulles has now come into its own.

“Sure enough, Dulles endured some lean years,” Bose writes. “Passenger traffic rose from 50,000 at the end of 1962 to just 2.5 million in 1975—this at a time when 11.7 million travelers were passing through National. Even in the mid-1980s, traffic at Dulles hovered only at about the 10-million mark. Not until the 1990s, when the main terminal was expanded—according to Saarinen’s own plans—and midfield concourses were added did Dulles come into its own, with traffic reaching nearly 20 million a year by the end of the decade. Of those, more than 3½ million were international travelers.

“Only recently, then, has Dulles fulfilled the promise of its creators. Airport officials predict that 55 million passengers a year will soon travel through Dulles. The recently opened AeroTrain system, which shuttles travelers from the main terminal to the midfield concourses, has made the mobile lounges largely obsolete. And the Metrorail extension now in the works will provide easier access to the airport—hardly a novel concept, given that as far back as 1962 transit officials had proposed an elevated high-speed rail line from Georgetown to the airport.”

Saarinen's Dulles Airport

I hope these 55 million passengers a year will slow down as they are rushing to their flights. I urge them to think back to the rise of the Jet Age and appreciate Saarinen’s soaring ode to flight that endures to this day.

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  1. Scott KC — December 19, 2011 @ 12:12 pm         Reply

    When I moved to Washington, DC from Greater Los Angeles 3 years ago it was a great thrill to enter Metro DC through this majestic structure. I had studied Saarinen in Architecture School, and had been dazzled by the novelty of the mobile lounges and the soaring roof, it did not dissapoint. It is such a heroic and elegant airport, a far cry from the mediocrity and mundane sameness of most airports. I looked forward to experiencing it as soon as I had purchased my tickets.

  2. Chris — February 2, 2012 @ 8:21 am         Reply

    I grew up in Fairfax, and in the mid-60s we used to go out to Dulles on Sunday afternoons to wander around. The place was always nearly empty, and sometimes you could hitch a ride around the runways on the mobile lounges.

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