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JFK's famed stained glass panels coming down

Its red, sapphire and purple stained-glass panels have greeted millions of air travelers arriving at and departing New York since 1960.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Its red, sapphire and purple stained-glass panels have greeted millions of air travelers arriving at and departing New York since 1960.

Now, the panels are the ones on the move.

American Airlines last week quietly began dismantling the 900-pane window facade at an old John F. Kennedy International Airport terminal, despite pleas to keep the piece intact.

Many museums said the work — more than 300 feet long and 23 feet high — was too large to handle. The airline said removing it in one piece, transporting it and storing it would cost millions.

"It's not necessarily the outcome that everyone might have hoped for," airline spokesman Tim Smith said Wednesday. "But any solutions were extraordinarily expensive and no one would be able to do that."

Smith said small pieces of the window would become displays at Kennedy Airport, the airline's Fort Worth, Texas, headquarters, and a Long Island museum. The rest is being given to an antique salvage company that is taking down the glass for free.

Artist Robert Sowers created the modern glass facade for American's terminal when it opened in 1960 at Kennedy, then known as Idlewild Airport. It was believed to be the world's largest stained-glass window.

An artist who said he studied with the window's designer criticized its removal, saying the airline was too cheap to properly restore a priceless work of art.

"That was American Airlines' visual identity at Kennedy for 50 years. To just throw it in a trash heap is incredibly disrespectful," said Kenneth vonRoenn, an architect and glass artist in Louisville, Ky. "To intentionally destroy it because it was more cost effective ... it's regrettable."

The airline announced plans more than a decade ago to build a new, larger terminal at Kennedy. The $1.3 billion facility opened last summer after years of discussion of what to do with the window. A proposal to scrap the glass and convert pieces of it into employee key chains was instantly derided and fell through.

Eileen Clifford, a 29-year American flight attendant from West Islip, said the window was a beacon for her. She called dozens of conservation groups, asking museums such as the Smithsonian to preserve and display it.

"It's too big," she said they told her. She said the Cradle of Aviation museum in Garden City had agreed to take it, but a museum official said it might only be able to use a small part of the window.

Smith, the airline spokesman, said no group came forward with an offer to display the window in its entirety.

American Airlines needs to work fast to take down the terminal the facade is attached to and use the empty space to store ground equipment such as snowplows and de-icing machines. The airline spends around $50,000 a day in construction costs as long as the building stands.

The company removing the glass panels has already taken down about 10 percent of the panels and hopes to have the entire window dismantled in three weeks, Smith said. The airline will then select which pieces — about 2 feet by 4 feet — it would like to use for the three separate displays.

VonRoenn said the company doesn't specialize in removing stained glass and would likely damage the surviving pieces. Furthermore, he said, small displays of the window panels "won't visually make any sense." Sowers, who died in 1990, wouldn't want it, he said.

"Just destroy it," vonRoenn said. "He would rather have not any part of it seen than to have it portioned off."