Beneath the glow of fluorescent light in an otherwise dark room, a small piece of Salt Lake City history is waiting for its big return.
For decades, the iconic terrazzo world map in the old airport delighted travelers, giving them a spot to meet before flights, an area for kids to explore the globe in just a few steps, and a place for Latter-day Saint missionaries to take photos before embarking on their volunteer journeys.
Now, the map is in dozens of dusty pieces in airport storage, resting on wooden pallets until it can find new life in the new airport.
“To be able to save this really iconic piece of Salt Lake history,” Department of Airports Executive Director Bill Wyatt said, “is incredibly satisfying.”
The map was designed by Julius Bartoli and installed by J. Bartoli Co., a subcontractor that worked on many government projects from the 1930s through the ‘70s, including the Hoover Dam. About 36 feet in diameter, it showed old United Airlines flight paths from Salt Lake City to large cities around the globe.
Like trying to touch up ‘Mona Lisa’
It didn’t always look like the map was going to make the trip to the new airport. Officials thought the terrazzo was affixed to a 2-foot slab of concrete, making it too heavy to maneuver without damaging it. Before determining the piece could be salvaged, the airport had high-resolution photos taken to re-create it in a window of the new airport’s greeting area.
When the old airport shut down, Wyatt had a contractor take a closer look at what was below the surface of the terrazzo map.
“They did a core sample,” he said, “and about 3 inches down, the little terrazzo, almost like a hockey puck, popped out right away.”
When workers installed the map in 1961, they laid a fabric mat to create a barrier between the artwork and the slab below. That gave workers the ability to saw it into pieces and extract it for reassembly in the new airport.
The process, Wyatt said, created tension.
“When it got down to sawing it into pieces, it’s a little like trying to touch up the ‘Mona Lisa,’” he said. “You don’t want to screw it up.”
Full removal took a couple of weeks, according to Mike Williams, who is overseeing redevelopment of the airport. At first, engineers thought they would have to remove the map in small sections measuring 2 feet by 2 feet.
“Once we got into it,” Williams said, “it went a little better than we thought”
Workers used suction cups to extract the map from the floor. The largest chunk measures 6 feet by 4 feet and weighs more than 800 pounds.
The pieces now sit in a storage area, next to a covered painting of Delicate Arch that once hung in Terminal 1. They’re spaced out and labeled so they’ll be easier to put together in the future.
Workers have reassembled some sections to see what it will look like when it’s in place again.
“You can barely tell that we did anything to it,” Williams said. “It looks great.”
When will the map return?
Travelers will get a chance to reunite with the piece in the B concourse plaza when that area opens in fall 2024. When it’s reinstalled, the map will have some space to shift around to avoid cracking in the event of an earthquake.
Among those eager for the artwork’s grand return is Tanya Robinson, who carries fond memories of traveling as a young girl and looking at the map to see how far her destination was from Salt Lake City. She was drawn to the piece as a visual representation of a whole world waiting to be explored.
As a teenager in 1989, she and a friend took their dates to the airport for a picnic on the world map. They brought a wicker basket and blanket and wore dead corsages from the spring formal the weekend before.
Neither travelers nor airport patrols seemed to mind, she said. That, of course, was before the days of heightened security. Eventually, the map became part of the security line.
“There was something so special and cute and quaint about that map,” she said. “I don’t expect to be able to have a picnic on it again, but I would love to see it again. It’s just memories.”
David Amott’s excitement is palpable as he talks about the world map. Amott, executive director of Preservation Utah, said it’s fitting that a work of art where folks go for transportation has its own way of transporting people.
It does so by imagination, allowing travelers to look at where they could go. It also transports them through time, allowing them to recall trips they already had taken.
And, Amott said, it’s a remnant of a period when air travel was novel, even glamorous.
“It was not just another piece of linoleum or carpet or even terrazzo,” he said. “It was just this device that did so much.”