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Throwback Thursday: Pan Am's Art Deco Airline Terminal is a Sweet Miami Secret

Where: 3500 Pan American Drive [map], Miami, FL, United States
February 20, 2014 at 12:34 PM | by | ()

Sure, we love all the speed and comfort of modern travel, but it didn't that way overnight. Every Thursday, we're going to take a look back at travel the way it used to be, whether that's decades or centuries ago. This is Throwback Thursday, travel edition.

Some call it the "Gateway to the Americas," but most just know it as Miami City Hall.

This small, art deco building in the south Miami neighborhood of Coconut Grove houses the offices of city officials and one stately meeting room, complete with wood dais and original Pan Am winged clock. Why a Pan Am winged clock? Well, this meeting room was once a departures area for flights, and the building the airline's very first terminal.

Acting mostly on rumor and the results of a few Google searches, we made the 15-minute drive from downtown Miami. Venturing inside, we were thrilled to discover that the general public is welcome to meander around after a brief security screening and during city business hours, but note that the second floor restaurant has closed.

Visitors expecting a full airport will quickly notice the lack of runways; Pan Am placed this terminal here to utilize the neighboring calm waters of Dinner Key Marina on Biscayne Bay for the operation of their flying boat services, with routes stretching as near as Cuba and as far as Buenos Aires, covering most South American and Caribbean capitals in between.

What's left of Pan Am's history are the architectural and interior design elements—don't miss the terrazzo floor map of Pan Am's flying boat routes and the meeting room's ceiling painted with the zodiac, a compass rose, and pioneers of early aviation—but the city has done a tremendous job in maintaining it. During a recent renovation, officials even went so far as to painstakingly match the original paint colors, found under layers of other paints applied over the decades.

Pan Am flew the Clipper seaplanes from the Dinner Key terminal from 1933 until 1945. The City of Miami purchased the site in 1946, and repurposed the terminal as City Hall in 1954. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. Fans of aviation, history, architecture, and art deco design should absolutely pencil in a quick visit. Make a lunch of it! There's a great, cheap little eatery next door called "Scotty's Landing" that cooks up conch fritters with an impressive view of the Bay and Dinner Key Terminal.

To read more on this topic, view the National Park Service entry, the City Hall Renovation Project official site, and the University of Miami archive of photos.

Caption for historic photo above: "Charles Lindbergh (in dark jacket) stands next to his Lockheed Sirius. He and wife/co-pilot, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, had just completed a 5-month transatlantic survey flight for Juan Trippe. Behind, construction on the permanent Dinner Key Terminal is underway. December 16, 1933.

If you're quite serious about Pan Am or have a little more time to spare, the nearby "First Flight Out" store within the Coconut Grove shopping center houses a mini-museum of Pan Am's more modern jet era. Exhibits include ephemera like original onboard menus, amenity kits, crew items, and commemorative gifts to lucky passengers. There's even portions of a real galley and business class cabin taken from a Pan Am 747. While there's no sitting down allowed, the shop does sell various Pan Am-branded items.

[All photos: Cynthia Drescher (taken on an iPhone, so excuse quality)]

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