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Going, going ... Demolition of old airport terminal resumes

Sunday, April 04, 1999

By L.A. Johnson, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

It was a gateway to the world, a place of tearful hellos and goodbyes.

Allegheny County officials and members of the media stand in the main lobby of the old Pittsburgh International Airport Terminal at the start of the walk-through of the building before the start of demolition. The site will be used for a new air cargo terminal. (Tony Tye, Post-Gazette) 

Now, it's a crumbling hulk of concrete blocks, marble slabs, broken plaster, cracked tiles, exposed wires, and bent metal - a maze of corridors with peeling paint hanging from the ceilings like little flaps.

"It looks like Beirut International Airport," joked Allegheny County Commissioner Mike Dawida yesterday, as county officials and media members took a final walk through the old Greater Pittsburgh International Airport terminal.

"No parking, bus and limo stop only," reads the green and white sign sticking up out of a mound of twisted metal outside the rotunda's main entrance.

Demolition of the terminal formally resumed yesterday after almost a two-year delay. Work to tear down the old terminal began in July 1997, but had to be halted until asbestos could be removed. The old terminal shut down when the new terminal in Findlay opened in 1992.

"I have mixed emotions," Dawida said as he stood over the big compass design on the floor inside the rotunda. "This was the place where my dad took me to watch planes when I was a little boy."

Dawida took a young woman there on a first date and some 25 years later, they're still together, now as husband and wife. He vividly recalls the first and only time he saw armed guards at the airport. It was 1991 and they were stationed at El Al, the airline that flew to Israel.

As one worker directed a steady stream of water on the old United Airlines baggage claim building to keep the dust down, an orange excavator with a demolition claw squeaked toward the building, gripping the roof in its maw and pulling bent metal sheets down to the concrete, which now sprouts weeds.

"To build, many times you first have to tear down," Commissioner Bob Cranmer said.

An air cargo center, business park, and aviation center - totaling 700,000 square feet - will replace the old terminal, county Aviation Director Kent George said. The development is expected to bring 3,000 jobs to the county.

Construction, which is expected to top $80 million, is slated to begin this fall, said Kelly Fredericks, the county aviation department's deputy director of engineering and planning. Demolition, which is being handled by B&B Wrecking and Excavating of Cleveland, should be completed within the next three months and will cost more than $1.4 million.

But even broken down and poised for the wrecking ball, the old terminal still has a certain ambiance and mystique. Up a short flight of dust-covered marble stairs to the mezzanine, there's still the sign for the Red Winds restaurant, the site of many proms and romantic dinners. "You used to sit up here and watch the world come in," Dawida said, looking down upon the main entrance from the mezzanine. "This is where people met."

There's an abandoned wicker chair in the corridor leading to the old observation deck. Someone has written "Help Me!" across old observation deck windows.

"It was a more innocent time," Dawida said, explaining that today security demands prohibit spectators from having an unobstructed view of planes. Today, people can view takeoffs and landings from behind glass windows at most gates in the new terminal.

As people walked out of the terminal a final time, a worker in an orange safety jacket yelled out, "Anybody want a piece of history?"

And everyone eagerly stuffed the pieces of broken marble he handed out into their knapsacks, pockets and bags. History can make a nice paperweight.

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