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How Dulles Airport Brought Us into the Jet Age
Fifty years ago Dulles promised to transform Washington into an international gateway. But for all the airport’s beauty, would anyone use it? By Sudip Bose
Comments () | Published December 12, 2011

One architecture critic called Dulles a “fleeting vision of a white Viking boat sailing the rolling meadow.” Photograph by Ezra Stoller/Esto

The crews had scrambled through the night and into the early morning, but at 4 AM on November 17, 1962, the orders came to stop and go home. Dulles International Airport wasn’t finished—a few final touches had yet to be applied. But in just four hours, the terminal would be opening, with two Presidents, a chief justice of the Supreme Court, and thousands of spectators expected at a dedication ceremony.

During those early days of jet travel, New York City was the primary point of entry to the United States for diplomats and tourists. Dulles was going to change that, promising to transform Washington into an international gateway. That the airport was the first in the world built expressly for jet aircraft distinguished it from National Airport, whose runways were too short for jets of that era to land.

So it was with great anticipation that the spectators began to gather. The crowd grew to 60,000—an anticipated 40,000 more had been kept away by gloomy skies and intermittent rain. Those who endured the weather were rewarded with a glimpse of a building unlike any other in or around the nation’s capital—a strange and wondrous structure, a giant bird of concrete and glass alighted upon the Virginia countryside.

Inside, Secret Service officials did security sweeps, readying the terminal for President John F. Kennedy and his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower. When Eisenhower arrived, he made his way to the south concourse, where a bronze bust had been installed, sculpted by Boris Lovet-Lorski. It depicted the man for whom the airport was named, John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, and it was before this sculpture that the former President shared a quiet moment with members of Dulles’s family—his widow, Janet, and his brother, Allen, former director of the CIA.

Outside, the spectators huddled in rain gear, for the moment subdued. But then President Kennedy’s helicopter was spotted in the sky, having taken off from the White House ten minutes before. Its touchdown sent a charge through the crowd. A photograph taken that morning shows Kennedy emerging from one of the airport’s “mobile lounges” to greet the thousands in attendance—smiling, confident, eschewing both overcoat and hat despite the 54-degree chill.

With the US Army Band playing “Hail to the Chief,” Kennedy made his way to the speaker’s stand, where he took his place alongside Eisenhower; Janet and Allen Dulles; Chief Justice Earl Warren; Aline Saarinen, widow of the airport’s architect, Eero Saarinen; and Najeeb E. Halaby, head of what was then called the Federal Aviation Agency.

The crowd grew silent as Eisenhower stepped to the podium. He remembered the time more than five years earlier when General Elwood Richard Quesada—Eisenhower’s adviser on aviation and later the first administrator of the FAA—convinced him that the capital needed a jet airport. He recalled asking Congress to appropriate the funds in 1957 and how the selection of a site had been “a knotty problem.” Most of all, he remembered his “very close friend John Foster Dulles,” who as Secretary of State traveled to many distant ports and whose name would forever be remembered by those who passed through this one.

Next: A time of change for Washington

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Posted at 11:30 PM/ET, 12/12/2011 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles