Travel's Glory Days: 10 Survivors From the Past

LAX Theme Building

Los Angeles World Airports

In the late 1800s and early 20th century, the history of the world was drastically changed when the average person was given a new option: long-distance travel. Before then, most people lived and died within a few miles of their homes, but with the advent of trains, ocean liners, and air travel, the world opened up.

Our ancestors knew what a miraculous gift it was to be able to travel safely far from home, and they built fabulous monuments that proudly declared this new possibility and boasted about the technological prowess that made it happen. Anything was possible.

Today, a few of those glorious monuments remain, although sometimes they have been repurposed into less optimistic uses. Here are a few survivors from the glory days of travel have withstood the test of time to be with us today:

Victoria Terminus, Mumbai

Mumbai Train Station

Sven Lindner, Flickr

Opened in Bombay in 1887 on the 50th anniversary of Queen Victoria's ascension, the Victoria Terminus train station was an over-the top Gothic statement about the supremacy of the British Empire. That ended soon enough, but the station, now known as the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, is still a landmark in the city, itself renamed Mumbai. Many Americans have been in it, at least via film: The climax of 2008's Best Picture, Slumdog Millionaire, was filmed here.

Cunard Building, Manhattan

Cunard Building

Terrica M. Gibson

Back when the only way across the Atlantic Ocean was over its waves, the great Cunard Line, in business since 1838, had its terrestrial flagship in New York, which was then the busiest port in the world. Its booking hall at 25 Broadway (1919) dazzled with an interior of vaulted ceilings inspired by Roman baths, and walls encrusted with starfish, sea creatures, and the ships of Columbus. Cunard still sails today, but its American headquarters has moved to the San Fernando valley and its prestigious Manhattan booking hall is now a desultory U.S. Post Office – ghostly murals depicting the line's transatlantic routes loom over the postal clerks.

The Overseas Railroad, Florida Keys

Overseas Highway Channel 5 Bridge

Elkman, Wikipedia

The Overseas Railway was built in 1912 to link Key West, an isolated island of salvagers and Cuban emigrées, with the rest of Florida, 128 miles away. The feat of engineering, which hopscotched the Florida Keys, took seven years and was hailed as "The Eighth Wonder of the World." But a deadly 1935 hurricane ruined the tracks, and in 1938 they were converted to the sole road unifying the Keys. Until the 1980s, if you wanted to drive to the "Conch Republic" of Key West, you had to squeeze uncomfortably amidst two-way traffic on infrastructure intended for a single train car – but you got to traverse the world-famous "Seven-Mile Bridge," a man-man viaduct over the longest stretch of water, west of Marathon. Modern highways do that job now on the road we now call A1A. Chunks of the obsolete rail-turned-road linger, attracting anglers.

The Theme Building, Los Angeles

LAX  Theme Building

Los Angeles World Airports

Officially known as the Theme Building, this Los Angeles International Airport icon turns 50 this year. It was opened in 1961 as a declaration that Los Angeles was now in the "Jet Age" and a roost for the then-novel pursuit of planespotting. Its cocky midcentury "flying saucer" statement proved impractical, however, and its flawed design recently required three years of expensive renovations and earthquake proofing. Since 1997, this now-landmarked emblem of the city has been Encounter, a bar (outside the security zone) offering 360-degree views of the airport and – what else? –California cuisine. The observation deck atop the restaurant closed after 2001 but began opening intermittently in 2010.

Marine Air Terminal, LaGuardia International Airport

Marine Air Terminal


LaGuardia Airport's Marine Air Terminal in New York City is the only active airport terminal that dates to the first age of American passenger air travel. Erected in 1940 as part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's audacious Works Progress Administration plan to hoist the country out of the Great Depression through enduring infrastructure, the Art Deco building is still used for charter flights and some commuter routes. The mural by James Brooks, "Flight," is 12 feet high, 237 feet long, and boasts of the history of air travel up to that time. That state was still primitive: the first flight to depart the Marine Air Terminal, a Yankee Clipper to Lisbon, Portugal, carried just nine passengers and had a journey time of 18 hours and 30 minutes.

The Queen Mary, Long Beach, California

Queen Mary

Carol Cochrane

From 1936 to 1967, Cunard's Queen Mary's speed and luxury made her the preeminent liner on the crossing between New York City and Southampton, England. Cary Grant met one of his wives on a voyage, Bob Hope practiced his golf drives from her upper decks, and Greta Garbo would slip past the media by disembarking in a stewardess' uniform. In 1955, the first relic of the Buddha to be displayed in America (a piece of bone as big as a mustard seed), made the crossing with a monk. The city of Long Beach, California, paid $3.4 million for the ship, and she's now a hotel and tourist attraction. Most of her Art Deco fittings were auctioned to the likes of Lucille Ball and Frank Sinatra, but her fate was nobler than her sister ship, the Queen Elizabeth, which caught fire and sank in Hong Kong Harbour. Both ships received modern replacements in the past seven years.

Union Station, Los Angeles

Union Station Los Angeles

Los Angeles Metro

Union Station in downtown Los Angeles is smaller than most other American terminals that united various railway lines, and it came later, too: in 1939. But while other cities such as New York and Washington built pompous stone cathedrals to railways, LA's Union Station is a moody, woody Art Deco jewel that proclaims the California ethic. It was also the setting for many cross-country rail journeys in the heyday of Hollywood. Rail travel waned in the 1950s, but the station, now on the National Register of Historic Places, is still used as a growing hub for bus, subway, commuter rail, and Amtrak services. A proposed high-speed rail project would connect it to downtown San Francisco in just two hours and 38 minutes.

TWA Flight Center, JFK International Airport

Terminal 5

Port Authority of NY & NJ

With curved roof spans outstretched like a bird's wings in flight, Eero Saarinen's swooping 1962 TWA Flight Center terminal at New York City's JFK airport (called Idlewild when it opened) is the world's most iconic airport terminal, yet it's been closed for a decade. While the government decreed the tubular corridors and soaring walkways of this masterpiece inadequate for the security and traffic demands of modern aircraft, the Saarinen terminal still represents our highest aesthetic ideals for international travel. So it sits, landmarked and in mothballs, in front of JetBlue's custom-built Terminal 5, which opened in 2008. The old T5 building could become a museum, a restaurant, or the new check-in hall for JetBlue, and its Jet Age tube corridors, visible in Catch Me if You Can, could again lead travelers to unfolding world journeys.

Wigwam Village, Holbrook, Arizona

Wigwam Village


In the early days of long-distance car travel, modern-style motels were unheard of. Instead, travelers usually rented free-standing rooms, like little cottages, which were typically called "motor courts." In 1937, not long after private vehicles had become ubiquitous and road surfaces made smooth, an architect named Frank Redford capitalized on the booming road trip trend by throwing an ersatz American West gimmick onto the thriving motor court style. His "Wigwam Village" in Cave City, Kentucky, was licensed and others were built across America until the 1950s. In payment, Redford got every dime that guests inserted in their coin-operated bedside radios. Of the seven original Wigwam Villages, three survive: The Cave City original, one in Holbrook, Ariz., and one in Rialto, Calif. With rising land values, individual sleeping cabins became impractical, and the term motor court can now signify any type of motel.

The George Inn, London

The George Inn

Jon's pics, Flickr

Perhaps the oldest surviving piece of tourist infrastructure in the Western World, the George Inn, in London's Southwark area, dates from medieval times – it's mentioned on the first known map of the area, from 1543. Known as a "coaching inn," it's where travelers from the south would stop for the night before crossing the river into London or where people leaving London would catch one of the many horse-drawn coaches heading to southern England. William Shakespeare was a patron (the Globe, Swan, and Rose theatres were nearby), and Charles Dickens wrote about it in Little Dorrit. The street it's on was once the primary route into the city. In fact, the Tabard Inn, from which Chaucer's pilgrims set out on his Canterbury Tales, was a neighbor until 1873. Once U-shaped, with a pub and rooms surrounding a galleried courtyard from three sides, today a single line of wooden buildings survives, but it's a popular pub and is carefully tended by the National Trust. The Shard of London, under construction and slated to be the tallest building in Europe, is now towering above the ancient carriage yard.

Executive Editor Jason Cochran is online at and Facebook, and on Twitter as @bastable.

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