The Colonial Theatre Tea Garden

The beauty spot of downtown Richmond was, in 1921, the Tea Garden of the brand-new Colonial Theatre. Herein, we recreate the essence of elegance, joy and hauteur that was once found in Virginia's first real picture palace. Bathtub gin is available at the top of the grand ramps.

Friday, April 01, 2011

For whatever reason, when I was a kid, we used Washington's National Airport more often than Baltimore's Friendship Airport. Even though my father was the sort of person who prized city loyalty above all, he also prized his bank account, and I think that most of our relatives lived in places that had more direct flights to Washington than to Baltimore. Actually, I know that's why; my mother's family lived near Kansas City, the home of Trans-World Airlines, which flew into Washington.

Until yesterday, the last time I saw National Airport (which I will NOT call "Reagan" airport) was in about 1989. It was then in the throes of modernization. Those throes are long over; the airport is just plain dead. This is sad, because it was my favorite airport.

There, you little creepers, I actually said that I liked something in Washington more than something in Baltimore or Richmond. Fine.

National was a cool airport. It had '30s style and stainless-steel accents, and etched Art-Moderne glass. Just like when you were in Union Station, you felt like you were Going Somewhere, even if you were there only to pick up a relative flying in from Greenville.

When I clapped eyes upon National Airport yesterday, I could think of little but Stephen King's short story, "The Langoliers." In King's tale, a few airline passengers make it through a weird wrinkle in time (apologies to Madeleine L'Engle) and find themselves in a dead airport. I'll not summarize the story here; it's wonderful and if you don't know it, go find it.

Poor National is like this now. The "new" terminal--now two decades old--already looks a bit tired; even more so than the gigantic 1910 Union Station, which was renovated at about the same time. But then--Oh, dear God. The old main waiting room of the airport is a ghost town. I wouldn't have been surprised to see tumbleweeds. It has been preserved, because it's "Historic!!!" but there are only a few chairs. There are no ticket booths. The balcony is walled off. The great glass wall that allowed people to look out onto the airfield is still there, but no longer are there big Eastern Airliners right there before the eye. It's eerie.

I remember very clearly, too, the Trans-World section of the terminal. It was built in the early '70s and was the Very Latest in style. Since Trans-World Airlines has gone the way of the White Star Line, its once-stylish terminal wing has now been given over to the "Bob's Airplanes!" type of lines. Even more than the 1941 building, it looks--TIRED.

I even miss the bizarre little AIRWAYTE buildings that once stood outside the airport proper. They were short-term hotels: if you had a four-hour layover, you get a bunk and crash until your plane...well, hopefully didn't crash, and took you on. They were symbolic of the Brave New World of air travel, just like National Airport itself. Now that air travel is just a workaday sort of thing, the sleek elegance of the ancient airport just strikes most as an artifact.

Shouldn't this be the scenario that I always wanted? Richmond's 1901 Main Street Station is glittering and reopened (if underserved by Amtrak), while the Washington airport is mothballed? Well, yes. I'd rather travel by rail, and I do like stepping off the train into Main Street. Yet, it's sad to see National as it is now. I remember that big waiting room crowded with people and, in the '70s, full of Moonies trying to sell roses and religion. To see it preserved, but dead, is akin to seeing a dollhouse that no child will ever love again.