I used to be an Architect
Posted on July 31, 2014
One March, I thought it might be nice to take my family along for a site visit in the Bahamas. The kids had Spring Break and I could take a few days to linger on the island and relax. It all started out nice enough, I met my clients, walked the building site and retreated with my family to a quaint cottage on the beach. We had our fill of fishing and eating conch and readied ourselves to get back to the mainland life.
The afternoon before our departure our pilot called and said if we didn’t leave by five we would be grounded by an oncoming storm brewing in the west. We scrambled to pack and raced to the landing strip just in a nick of time. We calculated our best shot for making it to the mainland was to head to the nearest island with a real airport and book a commercial flight out in the morning. The Exumas were our closest bet. Arriving at the small airport jammed with German tourist and a dark sky looming, it was clear that we weren’t going anywhere, so we scrambled to find a room.
The lobby of the Peace & Plenty Inn wore the bright colors of an ‘80’s remodel over the historic bones of an 18th century house. Businessmen searching for a non-existent wifi signal lit from chair to chair like nervous flies. As the wind rose, I dropped our bags and made for the Slave Kitchen Bar. I immediately felt at home in a dark colonial hangover festooned with pictures of past regattas and the movie star guests of the 60’s. The air hung with the cologne of Hemingway- tobacco & whiskey. Eric Clapton tunes playing in the background confused time. In the corner sat two old souls bent over the bar like giant question marks, staring at the clear liquid with a lemon twist in front of them. They were quiet, but looked content. We sat through a couple of drinks before he finally said, “I used to be an Architect”. As the palm fronds outside lashed at the shutters, he slowly began recounting his time as a student at the Cranbrook Institute, and working for Eero Saarinen for little to no pay. As a young man he had labored night and day over the drawings for the TWA Terminal at JFK , “it was hard; too hard”, he said. He had quit and started building furniture in Pennsylvania. His daughter now runs the, evidently successful, company. They had come to “paradise”, a place they had remembered, for one last visit.
The next morning, the lines at the airport were impossible- all flights out were booked and I had to be in San Francisco the following day for a project interview. Desperate, we finally found a private pilot that would fly from FT. Lauderdale to rescue us. We were pleased with ourselves as we pushed by the angry mob to board our small aircraft. We were away. But after an hour in the air, my wife asked the pilot “do we have enough fuel?”. One never to worry, I assured her while noticing a ominously low needle. The pilot merely chuckled. As the turquoise water turned ultramarine, indicating we were now over the Gulf Stream, I privately tired to remember how the rosary went- there was no way we were going to make land. Trying not to alarm the others, I finally broke my silence, “are you sure we have enough fuel?”. The Pilot chuckled again, waited just a few more moments before flipping the switch to the reserve fuel tank. The needle quickly rose as he laughed a hearty laugh. Pilot humor. Funny. The coast came into view and as I spied the airstrip just as my daughter announced that she was going to “pee in her purse”. I began to laugh until my wife shouted “don’t you dare!” and I realized this wasn’t part of the joke.
We scattered as we hit the ground- my son and I with bags, my wife and daughter to the bathrooms. We raced to our flight at the main terminal with only moments to spare. We were stopped cold. The weather had grounded everything to a halt. Made worst by the hundreds of tourist departing from their cruise ships simultaneously, the concourse was standing room only. I was still calm, there was still time, our flight was only delayed a couple of hours. But as departure timelines slipped, I became more anxious- I could NOT miss this interview in San Francisco. Worry turned to despair when we arrived into Houston after the last flight out to San Antonio that evening. Not to be beaten, we rented a car and drove the 3-1/2 hours home. We arrived at 3 am- weary souls dropped their bags and shuffled off to bed. I set my alarm for 4:30 (am) to wake for my morning flight; then, set it again for 4:45.
The next morning my flight lifted off on time at 6 am- bound for San Fran via Las Vegas. Yet, the Gods of the Air were not done with me. My flight in Las Vegas was delayed for hours- having me arrive after my meeting. As I waited to board, I pondered the irony of my many Facebook friends “Liking” my play-by-play “adventure”.
Fortunately, the meeting had been delayed and I was only fashionably late. The client and other consultants were gathered in the paddock of the old stable as I arrived. Steven Gambrel was evidently already somewhere in the meadow contemplating the view out of some imaginary window. The meeting was a success and the client dropped me off back home, exhausted, on his way back to Florida.
A few months later I flew into JFK, large plastic bags with tubes hung from the ceiling of the old Pan-Am Worldport like a patient on life support; the sweeping concrete ceiling that defined a new era in architecture and travel had given way to Hurricane Sandy’s insults. The next time I came through JFK I could see through the window of my plane the old terminal being dismantled. The next time, it was gone.
At the same airport Saarinen’s TWA terminal remains buried in decades of additions, it’s demolition debated over and over, but one day certain to meet the fate of its other famous neighbor.
One day, hopefully long from now, I will say “I used to be an architect”. I can only hope my buildings will be loved; not just now, but for generations. Just please outlast me.