In the early days of commercial air travel, planes in and out of the U.S. capital had to rely on a traffic cop. It was the 1930s, and the single, unpaved runway at the woefully inadequate Washington-Hoover Airport was cut in two by a major boulevard. To let the planes take off and land, the cars had to be stopped by a police officer swinging a lantern.
By the end of the decade, Washington-Hoover had outlived its brief usefulness, and surrendered to the wrecking ball. In 1941, just down the road, Washington’s brand new airport opened its Terminal A.
For the next five-and-a-half decades, Terminal A serviced the District with style, grace, and just a touch of travel romance. Even though its art deco ticket counters and passenger gates no longer cater to travelers (that all moved in the late 1990s to the modern Terminals B and C), it is still open to visitors as part of the airport’s history, and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The old waiting area has floor-to-ceiling windows that look out over the runways, and several of the original architectural details remain in place. There are exhibits of long-gone airlines, and the curved back wall, where the ticket counters use to be, now displays old photographs and a large commemorative plaque of the building’s 1940 groundbreaking.
In 1998 the airport changed it official name to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, and there is a large bronze sculpture of the former president as you drive up. But old habits die hard, and to most Washingtonians it’s still just called “National.” No cops with lanterns, though, are needed to mind the modern runways.
Know Before You Go
National Airport is accessible on both the Blue and Yellow Metro lines (www.wmata.com). Terminal A is an easy walk from the platform, and you don't have to go through security screening to visit. Or you can get there from Terminal B via a passageway connecting the two. Some spaces in the old Terminal are also available for events.