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Goodbye L.C. Smith Terminal

Aviator C

(Thanks to Rob Hahn for the photos)


On Wednesday, Septemeber 17, you will be reading a post from Rob Hahn about Southwest moving our operation into the brand new North Terminal at Detroit Metro (DTW) that day.  The new building is state of the art, and I know our Customers and Employees will LUV the new surroundings.  Having said that, I am probably one of the few people who are going to miss the old L.C. Smith Terminal.  So, while everyone is gushing about the new facility (and rightly so!), I am going to say a few nice words about the old structure.

To me, airport terminals should have a certain “look” that began with Le Bourget in Paris (now the Musée de l'Air et de l'Espace).  The look is defined by a multi-story building on top of linear public areas.  This design was especially refined in the terminals of the 1950s.  Some of the best examples are Dallas Love Field, the old Atlanta terminal, Paris Orly Sud, Portland Oregon (the current building sits around the original one), San Francisco’s Terminal Two (formerly the Central Terminal), Denver Stapleton, and the L.C. Smith Building at Detroit (even more now come to mind).  I have been fortunate enough to work in all of those 1950s gems, except for Stapleton and San Francisco (but I did fly out of all.)  When these facilities were built in the late 1950s, the 707 and DC-8 were just around the corner, and business travel was leaving the Pullman cars for DC-7s and the later jets.  It doesn’t take much imagination to imagine these buildings as “modernized” versions of big city railway stations, and the amenities they offered were very similar with large sit-down restaurants, barber shops, shoe shines, and common waiting areas.

But why is the L.C. Smith Terminal special to me?  As some of you longtime readers know, I began my airline career with Delta at the DFW Airport.  At the time, all new Delta employees were hired as temporary employees (with no benefits, whatsoever) in Cabin Service, which both provisioned aircraft and cleaned the aircraft.  To get to the ramp, ticket counter, or cargo, you first had to be promoted to a permanent Cabin Service Agent, and then later, you would have to be promoted out of Cabin Service to the higher paying ramp or counter.  In a station like DFW, that could take five or six years.  I was young, single, and impatient, and after three months transferred to DTW Air Cargo to do an “end run around the system” because cold weather stations always had openings on the ramp, counter, or cargo.  The L.C. Smith ramp was the first airport ramp area where I could move about independently, as opposed to being stuck on a Cabin Service lift truck.  For an airplane geek like me, DTW was a very interesting place in 1976.  The ramp was full of North Central (which later became Republic before merging with Northwest) Convair 580s, Allegheny (now US Airways) BAC-111s, British Airways VC-10s (not DC-10s but the British VC-10), 707s belonging to Pan Am and American, and DC-8s of United and Delta.  I don’t want to bore you with my entire career itinerary, but I moved away from DTW by Thanksgiving

In later years, my wife, who is from Fort Wayne, Indiana, and I would sometime fly into DTW and then drive to Fort Wayne.  After Delta bought PanAm’s European routes in 1991, it operated PanAm’s former nonstop A-310 flight from DTW to London Gatwick, and that was a great alternative to Atlanta and Cincinnati for nonreving to the UK.  In fact, we had four or five hours to kill before our London flight left, and I had an epiphany inside the L.C. Smith Terminal.  Then and there, I decided I wanted to work for Southwest at some point.  We were sitting in one of the waiting areas on the mezzanine level overlooking the ticket counters in the main lobby.  We had a panorama of most of the other airlines, but right below us was the Southwest counter. 

Of all the counters in that building, the Southwest counter was the only one where it looked like people were enjoying their work, and I was so impressed that I began thinking about SWA.

So what will I miss about the old building?  One thing is the baggage claim area, especially the part that Delta occupied. 

Parts of it still look like it did on the day the building opened.  The lighting and ticket counter areas (except for the back walls) look like a page out of 1957.  (In later years, Southwest and other carriers had to build ticket counters in the middle of the lobby.)  The old restaurant (I think it was run either by Dobb’s House or Sky Chefs) was down a hallway behind the ticket counters, and it offered great views of the ramp.  The mezzanine where Southwest “came to me” offered a quiet respite from the madhouse below.  I’ll even miss the smell of the building.  There is a certain smell that says “1950s airport," and L.C. Smith has it.  In fact there are a couple of parts of the original, unremodeled North Concourse at Love Field that have what I call the “1950s Musk.”  The funny thing is that these buildings smelled that way when they were new, and that’s why the aroma is so powerful to me.

As I was writing this, the Detroit News had a story about movie companies wanting to use the L.C. Smith Terminal, and I hope they are right.  (Billy Crystal used Detroit’s old Tiger Stadium to represent the 1961 version of Yankee Stadium in *61.)  The new North Terminal will be a showcase, full of great amenities, and we are proud to be a tenant.  But, the first time I arrive there, it would really be nice to look out and see activity (besides wrecking balls) over at Smith.


Frequent Flyer C
Yay! good bye to the old terminal! I'll miss you! Not!!! I will have a longer walk from cargo though. It'll have cool blue jet bridges. I hope the tsa area is a lot larger. Press 1 for more options Pulse sobre para obtener más opciones ¿Puede darme algunos más candycorn? Ha ha! Ding! boy Joe
Explorer C
Hi, I'm from the Detroit Free Press, doing a story about saying goodbye to the Smith terminal. Can you e-mail me and give me a phone number where I can reach you? I'd love to interview you and Rob Hahn about the Smith ...
Explorer A
Brian, Great article, and thanks for the links to the old airport terminals. I know exactly what you mean by the mystuiqe of the old terminals. I had a chance to experience the old Northwest gate area at Detroit before they moved terminals. Just something about their design, look, feel, and yes even the smell just took me to an era of aviation that is now long gone. I am lucky that I know someone at Love Field who works in the terminal building's multistory complex, just right below the old tower. She works on level 5 and I usually take the old staircase up to her office, and both the staircase and her office have that unique old terminal smell that you described. She has a great view of the Southwest ramp at Love Field so I feel like I am in an a moment of aviation history. In fact my one photo that I have on here right now is from her office. I will miss the old L.C. Smith terminal as it is a piece of aviation history that is going away. Hopefully when they do remodel Love Field they will keep the main terminal in it's old 1950s era design. Good luck at the new terminal guys, I know you guys will use the new building to it's potential!

Joseph R. Meyers

Dallas, Texas

Explorer C
Thanks, Brian, for the tribute to the 'real' DTW! I too love the old terminals, and Love is also one of my favorites. The city of Dallas had better never, ever, remove or cover up the 1958 "air age" map of the world on the terminal floor. One I would add to your list of examples is the older, central part of the MSP terminal. After all, it served as "Lincoln International" in the original "Airport"! Paging Joe Patroni... Anyway, my first time experiencing the Smith terminal, and all of what was then DTW, was in the summer of 1975. I was 17, flying around the AA system on my own, and had come in on a 707 'red-eye' from SFO, arriving just as the day began. I had several hours to fully explore the entire terminal complex before leaving on a 727-100 for IND and the then-spanking new DFW. I loved that airport! I remember how the Detroit carmakers would show off new models in the lobby area. That summer I distinctly remember an AMC Pacer on display, which certainly looked like no other car on the road! I did not return to DTW for 30 years, until the summer of '05, after driving from MKE to Detroit the long way, up through 'da Yoopers' and over the Mackinaw bridge. I took Southwest to MDW and then onwards home. Like you state, the terminal still had that classic 'golden age' feel to it. I'm glad I was there again before it closed. Mike in TUS
Explorer C
Have you flown through the Smith terminal lately? It is a DUMP. I am embarrased with the look of it, the garbage all over, SWA employees that are not at the counter.......Ask those of us who have flown through this terminal and you will hear the same. It is a shame no one has cared what it's last few months have looked like. You need to get out more from behind the cubical and into real time like those of us on the a-list and pay to go through DTW. I love SWA but the Smith terminal as it is today represents the worst of DTW and SWA.
Explorer C
Great memories Brian...thanks 4 sharing them! I have never traveled to DTW but your descriptions sure made it clear just how the terminal was when it first opened. My home airport, McCarran International in Las Vegas, has many parts of it that are old (1950s/60s style), particularly in the old A/B concourses. Hope you've had the opportunity to check them out-- Southwest and US Airways are the only 2 carriers operating out of there now.
Explorer C
The LC Smith terminal sure looks like a dump. Amenities such as restaurants and waiting areas were sparse. Seemed that the building maintenance was poor. Especially compared to the Northwest terminal which opened in 2002. The LC Smith terminal especially got worse after the 9/11 attacks, and thereafter security lines extended well into the lobby. Apparently the 50's layout wasn't designed for today's security. It was my only disappointment when flying Southwest (or any other airline except Northwest, for that matter) to Detroit. I am happy that I can arrive to a much better terminal when I visit Detroit next time on SWA.
Explorer C
Im glad to see all the other carriers have finally been upgraded. LC SMITH was a dive. I just wish SWA had more nonstops and cheaper fares out of DTW... swa rarely has the lowest fare out of dtw anymore so we quit using them...
Aviator C
Anonymous and Kumar, I know the Smith Terminal was lacking in many creature comforts and that it may not have aged well. As I said in the opening paragraph, we know our Customers can't wait for the big move tonight. However, I did want to take the occasion to recognize the Smith building for its place in aviation and Detroit's history.
Explorer C
I never got to see the old terminal. Do u have more photos?
Explorer C
I loved this airport, and used to fly out of it all the time as a child. However, we began to fly Northwest when I was 8 or 9 and I never had the chance to revisit Smith before it closed down. I recently drove past the terminal, as the ramp is still open as an access road (at least it was when I was there) and I couldn't help but feel empty. That was the place where I discovered my passion for flight, and I'm actually attending a piloting school right now. Everything in my life relates to aviation, and I owe it all to the Smith Terminal. If you have any more photos or anything of the sort, PLEASE get in touch with me at as I would one day like to build a scale replica of the place, and need to see exactly how it looked from any angle. Cheers, Mike