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:
For eight of 11 international travelers presently arriving in New York, the warming symbol of journey’s end no longer is the stately, green copper Statue of Liberty seen from a boat deck, but a glistening complex of low-lying architecture—strongly suggestive of a world’s fair site—seen from the window of an airplane.
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:
Idlewild is more than the handsomest, highest-geared air terminal in operation; it is several terminals, each attuned to the newest advances in the technology of getting people and freight on and off airplanes as fast as possible. Its every feature bespeaks speed and function. Yet, for the disembarking passenger Idlewild offers vivid and lasting impressions of one of America’s most imposing displays of artistic and industrial design.
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.