A look back at the original Lindbergh Terminal, a building that captured the spirit of its forward-looking era

By Frank Edgerton Martin

Long before it accrued the long concourse extensions and massive parking structures we know today, Lindbergh Terminal at Wold-Chamberlain Field was one of the largest and most dramatically sited buildings in Minnesota. Early photos show the terminal and its scalloped roofline beneath a broad arc of sky and changing weather. At night, the long, transparent building glowed with an atmosphere of welcome and adventure. There was nothing like it in Minnesota—because the region had not yet seen commercial jet travel. The postwar boom in aviation technology and jet capacity sparked an urgent need to create a new building type to serve it.

Opened in 1962, the Lindbergh Terminal put the Twin Cities at the cutting edge of Jet Age airport design with drop-off and pickup separated on two levels and light-filled concourses offering dynamic views of the surrounding planes. More than a half-century later, Lindbergh’s soaring curtain walls and folded-plate concrete roof are still iconic.

In 1956, Minneapolis-based Cerny & Associates teamed with airport architects Leigh Fisher from San Francisco to design a new terminal complex on the vast Wold-Chamberlain site at the edge of farm fields. In being selected by the Metropolitan Airports Commission, Cerny stood in good company: In 1956, Minoru Yamasaki completed the elegantly arched Lambert Terminal in St. Louis, and, four years later, Eero Saarinen debuted the sweeping Dulles Terminal outside of Washington, DC.

Lindbergh Terminal is a Minnesota work of architecture—a testimonial to the state’s postwar sophistication in design and engineering for new project types. Young architects at Cerny, including future luminaries James Stageberg and Milo Thompson, designed many important churches, academic buildings, and hotels. But the Lindbergh Terminal would be their largest and most visible project of all.

Frederick Benz, FAIA, who was chief draftsman at Cerny in those years, says that lead designer John Rauma almost certainly gave shape to the hyperbolic paraboloid canopies over the drop-off area; the concrete canopies resembled the vaulted ceiling Rauma designed for the University of Minnesota Architecture Building (1960). Benz also recalls that Stageberg made the first sketches for Lindbergh’s folded-plate concrete roof, which ultimately became the building’s signature element. Much credit for the roof also goes to the celebrated New York structural engineers Weidlinger Associates, who were experts in folded-plate concrete and thin concrete shells.

In its airport-themed April 1963 issue, Progressive Architecture praised Lindbergh for its modular flexibility and capacity to double in size by 1972, when more than 3.2 million travelers were projected to pass through its gates. Cerny & Associates designed the 420-foot-long main terminal to expand in 30-foot bays, as expressed in the roofline.

Inside, Cerny designed second-level offices as metal boxes over loadbearing piers between the two concourses. This innovation effectively created a building within a building. New units could be added as needed, and the independent structure provided occupants with a measure of insulation from airport noise and vibration from takeoffs and landings. With their narrow gun-slit windows—a Cerny trademark—these modular units remain largely unchanged today.

Greater Minneapolis magazine went even further, touting Lindbergh as a new kind of building with “a unique structure—one designed with the adaptability of change found in factories combined with the permanent features of public buildings.” The article also extolled the use of modern colors in the concourses (brick walls were glazed in gold, red, tangerine, and blue) and the “subtle new look of the north woods” (walnut paneling and sculptural rods designed to evoke trees) in two restaurants that cantilevered out on the tarmac side of the terminal. Unfortunately, the Nordic restaurant interiors are gone.

While Saarinen’s Dulles Terminal became the more celebrated midcentury airport, Lindbergh proved to be more functional over time. One of Saarinen’s innovations at Dulles was the use of bus-like “mobile lounges” to shuttle travelers to and from their planes (thus allowing passengers to avoid long walks through inclement weather and fumes on the tarmac). But the development of the jet bridge and other airport enhancements nullified the advantages of that system.

Lindbergh’s linear, terminal-connected concourses, on the other hand, were easily replicated as the airport expanded. Lindbergh’s clear separation of ticketing and service areas also fared better over time; it better accommodated security screening and new retail services than did Dulles, Saarinen’s TWA Terminal in New York, and many other airports of the era.

Although the original terrazzo floors on the ticketing and baggage levels have been replaced with modern tile, many of Lindbergh’s original character-defining features endure, including the roofline and the facade’s serif metal lettering. The adventure and romance of air travel is mostly gone now, but Cerny’s vision still inspires. The Lindbergh Terminal embodied its moment in time—the moment when Minnesota suddenly became more modern and connected to the world.