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Travelers today might not think of New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport as the most impressive travel hub out there. In 2012, Travel and Leisure ranked it one of the nations’s worst airports, and travelers this summer may be in for delays as one of its runways gets a rehaul. But when it was featured in a LIFE photo essay in 1961, the airport—then still called Idlewild after the golf course it displaced—was a shining beacon of modern architecture. As the magazine wrote:
The airport had been open since 1948, but it experienced a major growth spurt between 1957 and 1962, when United, American, Pan American, Northwest and TWA all opened new terminals. LIFE praised its innovative meeting of form and function and its well-oiled logistical operation:
JFK’s terminals are showing some cracks in their advanced age, but Dmitri Kessel’s images offer a reminder that today’s outmoded dinosaurs are often yesterday’s architectural triumphs.
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.