Ernest Blumenthal & the WPA (Part 2): The Old Airport Terminal

THE ALBUQUERQUE SUNPORT--Imagine the emotions running through Ernest Blumenthal when he found out that he was to be the architect for Albuquerque's New Airport Terminal. He must have started working on it in 1936 or 1937 for it was completed in 1939. The U.S. was still in the depths of the Great Depression. The WPA (Works Progress Administration) was the largest employer in the country, and the new terminal was a WPA project. It was actually more than just a new terminal, it was a whole new airport.

In 1935 the city sought money from the WPA to build a new airport on the east mesa. It opened four years later, in 1939, with two paved runways, a terminal designed by Blumenthal, and a huge hanger big enough to hold Boeing's newest aircraft, the 307...also known as The Stratoliner. But a whole lot more was happening in Albuquerque at that time.


The year 1937 was important to Albuquerque for other reasons as well. Route 66 had just been carved through Tijeras Canyon and was now going straight up and down Central Ave. What is more, it was finally paved. Gone was the twisting climb up La Bajada Hill between the Duke City and Santa Fe. Gone was the trek down 4th St. as old Route 66 twisted its way through Isleta Pueblo all the way to Los Lunas before turning west heading for Gallup and the Arizona border. That double bend in the road had been straightened out. Now more traffic was coming. New motels were being opened on Central Avenue in 1937, including the El Vado and the Modern Auto Court, what is now the Nob Hill Motel.

In addition, by 1937 Blumenthal's contemporary John Gaw Meem was hard at work designing what has to be considered the greatest of all Pueblo Revival public buildings: Zimmerman Library on the campus of the University of New Mexico. Working that 9-story tower into any kind of Pueblo Revival theme is one brilliant feat of architectural design. It opened in March of 1938. This building is in a "modified" Pueblo Revival style, using a lot of concrete and steel construction but still in within the puebloesque theme of the campus.

A City Not So Much at the End of the World
And now Albuquerque was finally looking at being really connected to the rest of the world. The Alvarado train station was still the major gateway to the city. Route 66 was opening up. A brand new airport would greet visitors who flew in. It must be remembered that the Albuquerque airport was not primarily a destination; it was a stopover on the major east/west air route. Coast to coast was a 2-day trip. In fact during the 1920's planes only flew during the day. Passengers would fly into the Duke City and board the train for the night journey.

The Planes
The chief passenger carrier of the 20's, the old Ford Tri-motor, an unpressurized, noisy, and vibrating air-borne adventure whose outward appearance was that of a tin shed with wings...well, it was gone. It was replaced by the DC-2 in 1934 and the famous DC-3 which was introduced in 1936. These aircraft from Douglas are credited with doubling the number of aircraft passengers from 1932 to 1937. The numbers went from 474,000 to 1,102,000 in that 5 year period. They continued to increase. Passenger miles grew 600% between 1936 and 1941, largely as a result of the fast and fairly quiet DC-3.

The Postcard
But Albuquerque's airport terminal is usually associated with an even newer plane, Boeing's model 307 Stratoliner. This plane debuted on New Year's Eve, 1938. It had four 1000 hp engines, held 33 passengers and cruised at an amazing 20,000 feet. It sped along at 220 mph. Cruising at this altitude enabled it, according to the advertising at the time, to fly above the weather.

A 1941 postcard is part of the online collection available from the City of Albuquerque. It shows the airport terminal building in the background. Quoting from the back of the postcard: "Where East Meets West" Municipal Airport, Albuquerque, NM. North also meets South here, as this is the crossroads for TWA and Continental Air Lines. The mammoth TWA Stratoliner is being inspected by Navajo Indians, amazed at seeing "Chi-di-nah-tah-ee" (wagon that flies) at close range.

The Eagle's Nest
When it first opened the terminal was called The Eagle's Nest. It may have been dubbed that because of its elevation or because it sits at the edge of the mesa overlooking the Rio Grande valley. Whatever the origin, the building itself was made of adobe. And it offered visitors a quick glance into history and culture with its protruding vigas, adobe walls, ceilings of herringbone patterned latillas , floors of native flagstone, and a large portal to protect arriving passengers from the hot New Mexico sun.

This was somewhat different from John Gaw Meem's approach. While Meem's use of wood and tinwork ornamentation is indeed extraordinary, the structure itself is concrete. Ernest Blumenthal built true adobe buildings. He did make some concessions to standard construction practices, like concrete piers and beams tying his adobe walls together.

His buildings have much more than the use of native materials to make them feel so New Mexican--they had scale. His buildings are people-sized. Even though the great lobby of the airport terminal is indeed huge, people still feel comfortable there. He did this through the use of details that beg to be noticed individually, like fireplaces, artworks that are painted onto wall niches, and finely detailed distressing of the wood posts with cross-hatched axe marks. And like the exquisite flagstone floor...which has been trod on and waxed thousands of times until the stones are no longer sharp-edged. Your eyes seem to glide from stone to stone as if looking at the bottom of a still lake.

Two Faces
The terminal was built with two front doors: one on the north and one on the south. The south door led to the planes; the north led to the parking lot. The planes coasted right up to that wonderful portal covering the walkways. This portal, which was restored in the 90's along with the rest of the building, looks exactly like it looked in the 1941 postcard...right down to the pattern of the log-work balustrades.

There are differences however. The postcard has painted out the chimney which is so prominent in the real building. There are also some differences in the location of the tall section of the structure. I do not know what the story is concerning that.

Blumenthal's terminal has always been a gathering spot for locals, much like the Alvarado although on a smaller scale. It housed a Fred Harvey restaurant and that was used by the community for special occasions like Sunday dinner. There was an observation tower on the roof that provided entertainment for Albuquerqueans when there was nothing else to do. And the fabulous art collection was one of the best in the southwest. By the way, the art collection survives to this day and much of it is on display in the new terminal.

After the new terminal was built in the 1960's, the Blumenthal terminal was occupied by the Junior League of Albuquerque which sought its designation on the National Register of Historic Places in the 80's. Weddings and other important events were common in the facility at this time.

I Take a Look
The old Sunport Terminal is just to the west of the current terminal. It looks to be less than 200 yards directly south of the airport hotel. But it is a case of "You can't get there from here." You need to go south on Yale Blvd. and turn west on Randolph Rd. Follow it around south under Sunport Blvd. and then back east heading towards the post office. Go past the post office a block and you will see it on your right. Park on the north side of the building. Look around. You will swear you have circumnavigated half the state and ended up within spitting distance of Yale Blvd. where you started.

The airport security firm of TSA currently occupies the old terminal, but the lobby remains open to the public. I arranged to meet Ed Boles and Maryellen Hennessy who are with the city Planning Department and work with the Landmarks and Urban Conservation Commission. What a treasure to the city they are. We wandered around the building and grounds for over an hour. Two restorations, one in 1997 and one in 2001, have brought the place back to its former beauty. There were several additions to the building over the years which were removed during the restorations. The windows were replaced, but look almost identical. In some cases, an inner window was added but the outer casement windows were retained. The plane-side exterior had undergone extensive renovation in previous years. A room had to be removed and those wonderful covered walkways were added back as shown in the original building.

The Craftsman Touch
The ceiling is supported by steel posts, but around each of those steel pipes is wooden sheathing. Twelve planks of wood make up each sheath. Each plank has been manually distressed with a hatchet in a criss-cross design. Then sanded, stained, and varnished. This is an incredible amount of labor...something that would never be considered today even in the current time of high unemployment. But if there is one common theme in the beautiful Pueblo Revival buildings it is this attention to detail. Take the stucco pattern: the relief achieved by the plasterers is incredible, at least 3/8th of an inch. It must have taken a lot of skill and probably took using a special formulation to get this result. After all, Blumenthal experimented with Algonite, that granite, marble, cement, and lead ore mixture that was used to make the Madonna of the Trail statues. At any rate, the stucco work is superb.

The touch of an artist is everywhere, from the tight joints in the flagstone floor to the herringbone pattern of the latillas in the ceiling...from the painted beams overhead to the murals of Pop Chalee on the walls.

The Future of the Building
This structure is so important in the lives of many here: weddings, graduation parties, anniversary celebrations, and dances. And to many this terminal was the first thing they saw when they first came to town. But its future is unclear.

First of all it is certain that the old terminal is safe. Its place on the Historical Register assures that. The real question is what can the building be used for once TSA is done with it. I would love to see it rented out again for events like weddings. It sure would help if access to the site via Yale Blvd. were improved. A special art museum would also work in that space. But these are only suggestions. Currently there are no plans for future public use. This gorgeous building deserves a better fate than to be hidden behind hangars and fenced parking lots. City planners Ed Boles and Maryellen Hennessy know this and are looking for answers.

Lessons of the WPA
What are the lessons of the WPA? There are several, including vocational training. But let's talk about something a little more subliminal: like Pride. One can't help but feel the pride that everybody felt in contributing to this amazing building. In the long haul, that has to be worth even more than a few cents in your pocket. Let's talk about Confidence in the future. The 1930's changed Albuquerque for good. Everything from Route 66 to UNM to hospitals to parks to the Eagle's Nest speaks of that. The times were changing and we had the foresight and confidence in the future to use federal stimulus dollars to change with them. Finally, let's talk about Respect: respect for work, for the important hand-crafted details of our lives, respect for the human element in our public buildings, respect for the beauty of our natural materials. Adobe structures here last for hundreds of years. We need to start looking at them again.

Take the time to visit Ernest Blumenthal's terminal. It will give you some of what it gave to everybody in 1939: Pride, Confidence, Respect.

Views: 1454

Comment by misterhinkydink on October 20, 2009 at 2:07pm
It is a shame it's hidden behind the ugly cargo terminal. Maybe someday they'll move that to another part of the field.
Comment by Johnny_Mango on October 20, 2009 at 3:01pm
Ed Boles sent this to me in an email:

FDR is quoted in a recent, art-oriented National Park Service article, 1934 -- A Stimulus Package for the Soul, as follows:

"One hundred years from now my administration will be known for its art, not its relief."

I believe that is true. Not that relief is unimportant, but it is still true.
Comment by Barelas Babe on October 20, 2009 at 4:26pm
Great post, Johnny! You did an excellent job with the photographs.

Every time I take off at the Sunport I make sure to catch a glimpse of this wonderful building. It is easier to see from the runway than the road.
Comment by Adelita on October 20, 2009 at 4:51pm
I have such fond memories of the Sunport. At one point in the sixties, the Albuquerque Museum resided there. I remember my mother was a volunteer ,actually started the museum gift shop. As a child I would go with her when she volunteered. I remember wandering around the different rooms and halls and I remember those incredible floors and the beautiful vigas. Left quite an impression on me as a child. I believe my mom has pictures of the old museum gift shop. I'll ask her to dig them up!
Comment by bg on October 21, 2009 at 9:35am
I think most of the public art collection that was once on display at the new terminal is no longer there. It has been replaced by coffee carts, jewelry and gift stands, newspaper stands, computer plug-ins and other stuff of current commerce, all of which is so much more important than art.

Art works have disappeared from storage, no one knows where they are. No one keeps watch. The remains are in closets. What a pity.
Comment by Athena_Sword on October 21, 2009 at 10:25am
This has been a great series. Johnny really put a lot of time and work into it. However, just for the record, It's ErnstBlumenthal, not Ernest. He was a German immigrant.
Comment by Bosque Bill on October 22, 2009 at 5:31pm
Johnny, thanks for these posts. When I was in grade school (Zia, 1956, 57?) we toured the fire station of your previous post... when they showed us the fire pole, I was terrified they were going to make us slide down. I must have been in the old airport terminal a few times, but those memories are not available.


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