Defunct since 1991, Terminal 1 lifted Sky Harbor Airport into the modern aviation era as a dining and entertainment destination during air travel’s golden age.
The 100,000 passengers that pass through Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport on a typical day are to be excused if they think the city is mathematically challenged. Terminals 2, 3, and 4 teem with flight activity, but Terminal 1 is mysteriously nonexistent. Having ushered modern airline travel into Phoenix when it opened in 1952, the facility formerly known as Terminal 1 was razed in 1991 after 38 years of service. Subsequently, the name “Terminal 1” was retired, causing the odd numbering scheme.
Terminal 1 remains extant, however, in the recollections of people who flew during the golden age of air travel. In the ‘50s, Sky Harbor was a destination for sightseers and fine-dining fans as well as travelers, including celebrities sometimes behaving badly. It thrived in an era before necessary modern nuisances like TSA lines and baggage carousels, when even a short hop to Los Angeles was imbued with glamour and excitement. “Passengers came dressed up, men in suits and ties, ladies in their Easter dresses,” retired Sky Harbor maintenance employee Bob Erickson says. “People thought flying was something special, so they dressed special.”
And maybe some of that old romance is alive still. Sky Harbor’s recent incorporation of local restaurants and works by Arizona artists in terminals partially restores the distinct sense of place pioneered in Terminal 1.
Before Terminal 1 was constructed, passenger amenities at the airport were limited. Scenic Airways built the first runway at Sky Harbor in 1928, and folded the following year on the heels of the Black Friday stock market crash, leaving ownership of the airport in the hands of Acme Investment Company. The first official landing was a Ford Tri-Motor aircraft that touched down after flying from an airstrip located near Central Avenue and Thomas Road. Limited commercial flights began soon afterward and Sky Harbor was purchased by the City of Phoenix in 1935. The facility then included lighted runways, a hangar and an undersized, 30-passenger terminal.
Airport improvements, including a new terminal building, were recommended by the city in 1943, but it would take a post-war air travel boom to jump-start construction. Mardian Construction Company was awarded the $856,500 contract to build the new terminal and an access road. The road was named “Camino al Cielo” or “Roadway to the Sky,” but was later changed to Sky Harbor Boulevard. Terminal 1 was dedicated on September 12, 1952, in a celebration that included tours, live music, and gifts for its first passengers. To commemorate the event, Bonanza Air Lines and Trans World Airlines passenger planes managed almost simultaneous landings. The terminal had “facilities worthy of a progressive city… Everything is designed to present the best side of Phoenix to the public,” according to a 1952 Phoenix Gazette article.
The curving brick building featured a picturesque air traffic control tower at its midpoint. Parking cost a nickel. Navigating the terminal was a breeze; there were no concourses or security features. Departing passengers checked their luggage in the terminal and walked outside past landscaped medians to climb the mobile stairways into the plane. Anyone could meander onto the tarmac to admire the planes. “As a kid waiting for our stepdad’s flight, we noticed that our younger brother was missing,” airport employee Michael D. Jones says. “Moments later, we found him with a pair of Continental Airlines’ wings on his chest. While he was looking at a 727, a Continental Airlines pilot had given him a tour of the airplane.”
Flying into Phoenix, it took just minutes to depart the plane using both front and back exits and to retrieve luggage outside by the curb. “It was very convenient; however, in the summer you could still melt waiting for the bags,” ASU history professor Heidi Osselaer says. “Then the entire contents of your luggage could be soup by the time you got home.”
One of the terminal’s signature features was the observation deck, where aviation enthusiasts watched propeller-driven airliners like the DC-3, DC-6, and Lockheed Super Constellation. “There were these boxes that, for a coin, would broadcast the air controllers as they spoke to the pilots on takeoff and landing,” independent film promoter and Phoenix native Steve Weiss says. “Luckily, there was also a switch to set it to previous broadcasts or information about the airport on a tape. Because there were so few flights, it would generally be dead air.”
Another popular attraction at the terminal was Sky Chefs, a classy, glass-enclosed dining establishment the Phoenix Gazette called “a symphony in chrome, leather, and soft-toned wood.”
“In the early 1960s, a big night for our family was to head to the airport to eat at Sky Chefs,” Weiss recalls excitedly. “It served the best French onion soup I ever ate.”
The restaurant was also the site of an important civil rights victory in Phoenix. Sky Chefs refused to serve band leader Louis Jordan and his party in 1952, citing the local custom of not allowing blacks in upscale restaurants. Since the airport was a municipal facility, however, Phoenix Mayor Hohen Foster said the city “will take necessary steps to see that people are served, regardless of color,” according to Jet magazine.
Terminal 1 entered the commercial jet age inadvertently in 1959, when a Boeing 707 passenger plane bound for Los Angeles had to make an unscheduled landing because of bad weather in California. Among the inconvenienced passengers on the American Airlines jetliner was actress Marilyn Monroe. A decade later, another sex symbol had a more ignoble experience at Terminal 1. The Doors singer Jim Morrison and a friend were arrested as they exited a Continental Airlines plane. Flying to Phoenix to attend a Rolling Stones concert, the pair allegedly threw glasses and used vulgar language on board. The charges were eventually dropped, according to the book Desert Wings: A History of Sky Harbor Airport by Michael D. Jones.
The terminal also had its own fame, serving as the backdrop in scenes from two movies. Mixed Company is a 1974 comedy in which the Phoenix Suns are greeted at the terminal by a group of die-hard fans. In the 1978 film A Fire in the Sky, Phoenix residents are in the terminal frantically trying to board Air Force transport planes sent to evacuate the city before an impending meteor crash.
Over the years, Terminal 1 changed names and narrowly survived two proposed demolitions. The facility was originally known simply as “the Terminal,” but when Terminal 2, known as the East Terminal, opened in 1960, Terminal 1 was slated for removal. It survived, however, because of increased air traffic and was renamed the West Terminal. When Terminal 3 was completed in 1979, the old facility was once again scheduled for demolition. Airline deregulation delayed its demise due to increased flights, and it was officially renamed Terminal 1. After Terminal 4 was finished in 1990, however, Terminal 1 was demolished. Located west of the current Terminal 2, Terminal 1’s parking lot is now the West Economy parking lot.
By the time it was razed, the interior of the terminal bore little resemblance to its sleek 1952 appearance. The chic Sky Chefs restaurant had been replaced by a utilitarian coffee shop. “In the latter years, the underground pipes were corroded and the electrical system was overworked,” Erickson says. “It was tough to keep the terminal operational.”
Parts of Terminal 1, including the control tower (see sidebar), survived the demolition. Vintage bathroom ceramic tiles decorated with motifs of various airlines and famous aircraft were saved for employees. Perhaps the greatest legacies of the terminal that brought modern passenger service to Sky Harbor, however, are the fond memories of those who experienced the early days of air travel. “Flying from Terminal 1 was so easy,” 81-year-old attorney Charles Fine recalls wistfully. “I’ll take Terminal 1 over any of the present Sky Harbor terminals.”