If you get a chance, stop in at LaGuardia Airport’s Marine Air Terminal (also known, much less romantically, as Terminal A) and take a look at James Brooks’ 235-foot circular mural, “Flight.”
This was the last and largest mural produced under the Work Projects Administration. The WPA, a key component of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, was the nation’s largest employer in the years leading up to World War II. Brooks painted several projects for the WPA in the 1930s.
“Flight” depicts man’s dream to conquer the skies, from ancient mythology to the reality of transoceanic, multi-engine airplanes. Brooks completed it in 1942, a few years after the Marine Air Terminal — itself a WPA project — opened to become New York City’s aviation gateway to the world. Pan American Airways’ Clippers, on returning from Bermuda, Lisbon and other points, would land on the East River and tie up at a dock behind the terminal building, where passengers would disembark.
The terminal itself was a showpiece. The Art Deco building was completed in 1939, just as the World’s Fair was opening a short drive away. It had a circular rotunda, restaurants, customs facilities, and a control tower that is still in use today. The exterior boasted a frieze of flying fish intended to represent the flying-boat Clippers of that era.
But artistic and political tastes can be fickle. In the early 1950s, just a decade after Brooks finished the mural, someone at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey ordered that it be painted over. I have not found anything official giving the reason, but the widely repeated story is that, in the anti-Communist fervor of that era, someone saw left-wing sympathies in Brooks’ work. Certainly, all sorts of creative people were being hounded for their real and imagined political beliefs at that time.
The painting was lost to a generation of New Yorkers — my generation. I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s. Air travel was still pretty much a luxury, and I never knew the Marine Air Terminal existed, let alone anything about a historic mural.
But in the late 1970s, a plucky publisher-historian, Geoffrey Arend, launched a campaign to restore the mural. Arend published Air Cargo News, and had an office in the terminal building. According to a 1987 account in New York magazine, Arend placed old photos of the mural in the terminal lobby, in sight of the upper-crust New Yorkers who used the building to board private aircraft. Eventually he was approached by Laurance Rockefeller and Reader’s Digest founder DeWitt Wallace, who agreed to finance the restoration.
I had a chance to look at “Flight” myself last week. My daughter arrived from Chicago on a Delta Shuttle that uses the Marine terminal. Most of her fellow passengers never even saw the building. They deplaned from a rudimentary annex that leads straight out to the parking lot. It was after 11 p.m., and only a handful turned the other direction, past the security screening checkpoint and into the original building.
We headed down a dingy fluorescent-lit corridor and then, suddenly, there we were — in the middle of the rotunda, which felt like a small Rockefeller Center lobby, gazing up at Brooks’ long-lost work.
I’m no art historian, nor a scholar of the classics, but I know enough to recognize the references to Icarus and Daedalus, to DaVinci and the Wright brothers, and to the prewar aviators who navigated the seas with little to guide them but a compass, dead reckoning and the stars. In the representation of an ordinary man and woman, with the woman holding binoculars, I saw why someone might have felt uneasy amid the Cold War paranoia — because Brooks portrayed flight as being important for the common citizen and not just society’s military, business and political elites. Not a socialist thought, necessarily, but pretty far ahead of his time.
The glamorous era of flying boats and gleaming airborne cutlery is long gone. We’ve gotten used to air travel as an everyday convenience and inconvenience, as the recent security-screening flap drove home. But if you find time to visit that rotunda, and look up at what James Brooks left for us, you can travel through time: first, back to when air travel for the masses was a glittering promise, and then to when it became a subversive idea.