NEW YORK/JFK — On a clear, sunny Wednesday morning in May 2019, after nearly two decades of being closed to the public, the TWA Flight Centre at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport re-opened its doors—except transformed into a chic hotel, and no longer as an airport terminal.
The terminal had adorned its formal name as the TWA Flight Centre from 1962, when it opened, through 2001. It was designed by Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen, who had an eccentric taste for wanting to be the “first” at everything.
In addition to designing the TWA Flight Centre, he also designed the main terminal at Washington Dulles International airport (IAD), the main international gateway airport for the D.C. area. He also designed the stunning St. Louis Arch in St. Louis, MO.
An article published in the Minneapolis Public Radio over a decade ago portrayed Saarinen talented yet controversial figure.
On one hand, he was brilliant at his career, becoming the first architect to use self-rusting steel, mirrored glass, and thin steel shells in his buildings. His fame surpassed that of his own father, architect Eliel Saarinen.
According to the MPR, Saarinen believed in, “the importance of being timely in architecture, rather than timeless.”
Unfortunately for Saarinen, timeliness evaded him when he suddenly passed in 1961 following complications from a surgical operation. He would never see the completion of the TWA World Centre in 1965, one of his most iconic projects.
The Building, the Brand, and the Building of a Brand
But even though his death wasn’t timely, his architecture still appeared quite timeless in the decades following. Saarinen used curves to create spaces that would morph into a completely different space, transitioning from ceilings to walls to floors. There are no right angles in the entire facility.
The curvature of the roofs allows for light to flow in through multiple angles, with the glass tilted outward as if to convey that passengers are already in-flight and peering down at the world below them. At its exterior layer, it looks like a bird-in-flight with massive wings on either end. The interior layer makes guests feel as if they’re in a space ship.
His critics saw his style as being too extreme. The TWA Flight Centre opened for commercial use in 1962, essentially the calm before the storm during the more turbulent second half of the sixties.
John F. Kennedy was President. John Glenn had just circled the Earth, and the scars of the major World Wars were behind most of us.
Civilian air travel was also becoming a hot topic in the consumer lifestyle. The Boeing 707, credited for ushering in the “jet age” of aviation from the late 1950s, connected dots all over the map for then-global airlines like TWA and Pan Am.
The latter years that would introduce the counter-culture, skyrocketing fuel prices, airline deregulation, the Vietnam war, and global terrorism scares were hardly existent at the time the TWA Flight Centre opened.
In-flight, the early passengers did not have lie-flat seats, Wi-Fi connectivity or individual in-seat TV screens. But they were pampered with luxury nonetheless. Onboard, premium service abounded, from Dom Perignon to Chateaubriand, poured, and carved, respectively, right in front of a passengers’ eyes.
Even a short-haul flight spanning less than one hour in duration provided full service in the air, with caviar and the works, which seems unfathomable today.
“I remember when I first started, I was serving meals to 40 as 1 flight attendant from Harrisburg, PA to Pittsburgh, PA,” said Barbara Burke (then Ryan) who flew with TWA from 1956 to 1964. She flew on the Martin 4.0.4. and on TWA’s Lockheed Constellations.
She chuckles over how she had to be creative in order to complete the service, “I went up to the cockpit and said, ‘you can’t land, all the trays are still out!'”
Burke flew with celebrities and diplomats. Other flight attendants, such as SFO-based Paige Verducci, had the chance to fly with Pope John Paull II.
“When he flew with us, he always said that he was, “traveling with Angels,” which gave us a moniker,” said Verducci.
The carrier would transform the L-1011 or the upstairs of the 747 to the, “Papal Suite,” and would display the Vatican insignia on the side of the plane.
“It was an amazing career,” she said. “Every one wanted to be an air hostess.”
Verducci, fluent in both Spanish and French, was courted by TWA, Pan Am, Braniff, Eastern, American, United, and she ultimately chose TWA since it offered the earliest training class.
It would turn out to be the flight of her lifetime, so to speak, much like TWA’s storied history during the late 20th century.
Like Eero Saarinen, TWA was also all about firsts: whether it was being the all-plane service from coast-to-coast in the 1960s, to being the first airline to retire the Lockheed L-749A Constellation, among the first to hire an African American flight attendant, to adopt the hub-and-spoke model, and so forth
Despite its global splendor, TWA was a misfit in the airline industry post-deregulation. Rudderless in commercial strategy and burdened by several high-profile hijacking and crash incidents, the carrier was dissolved in early 2001, following an acquisition by Fort Worth-based American Airlines.
After TWA ceased to exist, the TWA Flight Centre, which had been named a landmark seven years earlier, became an obsolescent structure ill-equipped to handle whatever TWA’s vestiges remained at JFK. American had its own separate terminal and did not have a use for the old TWA facility.
Just as one airline was on its way out, another was on its way in: a scrappy, Long Island-based carrier called JetBlue Airways was setting up shop at JFK airport. Over the years, JetBlue grew at an astounding rate at JFK and eventually received its own Terminal 5, encircled around the defunct, dusty, and forgotten TWA Flight Centre.
The building nearly succumbed to demolition five years ago. Thanks to conservationists and the visionary leadership of Tyler Morse, CEO and Managing Partner of hotel owner-operator firm MCR Development, the building has been repurposed into a functional space for the traveling public while retaining its elegance as an architectural relic and brand ambassador for Trans World Airlines.
“I’m going, to be honest with you, this has been a crazy project,” said Morse at the official ribbon cutting on May 15.
Even former New York Mayor, Mike Bloomberg, had said that to Morse when the project idea was being kicked around in 2015/2016.
The Rebirth: The TWA Hotel
That didn’t stop Morse from going full-throttle with the TWA Hotel. The finished product consists of two hotel buildings, with 512 guest rooms, and a 50,000 square-foot event center with 45 meeting rooms.
The original 200-square-foot TWA Flight Centre serves as the check-in area for the hotel and also hosts six restaurants and eight bars.
Upon entering the hotel space, first-time visitors will be dazzled by the openness of the lobby.
The roof itself spans 66,000 square feet, the same size as Madison Square Garden, and remains the largest column-less building in the world.
Much like Eero Saarinen’s succumbing to an early death, it was is questionable whether the resurrection of the TWA Flight Centre into a contemporary, 5-star Hotel would supersede its own high expectations.
And, to make things even eerier, the TWA Hotel was also aiming for the stars in being the, “first” at everything when the ribbon was cut at 9:30 A.M. that morning.
Prior to its soft-opening on May 15, the public was, “wowed” by ritzy images of the hotel’s lounges, amenities, retail components, views and more. A full tour had been promised to guests before 3:00 check-in.
But after the speakers had left by noon and the crews were left to set up shop, it was clear that the hotel may not have anticipated some of the logistical hiccups to come.
One of the hotel’s restaurants is located in the exact spot of the former TWA terminal’s historic Paris Café and Lisbon Lounge from 1962. Guests were told upon check-in (purportedly, the hotel is nearly booked up for two months out) that reservation space at the restaurant had been exhausted for weeks.
Speaking of check-in, everything appeared to be designed around creating a check-in process at the airport that was self-service (the check-in area was, after all, using old ticket counters with conveyor luggage belts that had once been used for actual air travel before).
However, guests who check in to a luxury hotel designed to be modeled after a luxury brand likely do not expect that the concierge service should function like a bag-drop.
At least not on opening day.
The staff appeared confused by the check-in procedures and under-prepared to figure out technical difficulties. The hotel is striving for automation, yet while wanting to recreate the aura of the jet age where customers were pampered with customer service?
The staff was, all around, exceptionally kind, sincere, and apologetic. However, at times it was unclear exactly whose instructions they were following. The elevators were out of order in one of the hotel buildings. Moet was constantly being poured in plastic cups for guests as they waited to figure out when their rooms would be available.
Prior to the soft opening, the building attracted visitors and media individuals from all over the globe. Dozens of former TWA employees flocked to New York, many of them getting emotional about what it felt like to walk through the TWA Flight Centre back when they were employed by the airline.
Verducci recalled working transoceanic 747 flights from JFK to Europe, and how the flight attendants would hold their heads high with pride walking through the terminal.
She lost a lot of friends in the tragedy of TWA Flight 800 in July 1996. One, in particular, was a fellow girlfriend/colleague of hers who was taking a romantic trip with her boyfriend to Paris that day.
“I made it my mission every year to be very involved with Flight 800, for twenty years,” she said.
Passing through the facility, one immediately notices the iconic Solari board, once the centerpiece of the original terminal, located in the sunken lounge. Solari di Udine, located two hours outside of Venice, Italy, has been designing and manufacturing industrial clocks since the 1700s.
The rotary dials flip continuously to display faux flight departures to cities around the globe, reminiscent of TWA’s global network that spanned from San Francisco to Manila, to Basra, or to the Azores, even in the 1960s.
Guests can make unlimited free international and local calls on a 1950s Western Electric 500 phone retrofitted with a pulse to tone converter by Old Phone Works.
Rotary phones may have been #woke in the 1960s, but as decor today, its quite a stretch to even call them cute. What was not cute was the promise of an infinity pool with views of the JFK runways, something that ultimately did not come to fruition.
Inspired by the infinity edge pool at the Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc in Cap d’Antibes, France, the pool has a beach entry and underwater seating — plus a TWA logo mosaic in the signature colors of gold and red.
Purportedly, it will operate 365 days a year and heat up to 100 degrees, and has views of runways 4L/22R and 13R/31L at JFK airport.
For the soft opening, the observation deck was still closed without further explanation. Retail stores, such as Shinola and Warby Parker, however, were open for business.
There’s even a TWA merchandise store. But few were lining up to buy merchandise, as most things had sold out hours before check-in.
Outside the building is where “Connie” sits, referring to a Lockheed L-1649 that was delivered in 1958 to the former carrier. It was a flagship of the TWA fleet for less than a year before the jet age began at TWA.
Her registration code – N8083H – was retired from passenger service in 1960. She had a checkered career after flying for TWA that including running drugs in Latin America.
Thanks to a partnership between MCR/Morse and Atlantic Models/Gogo Aviation, Connie has been restored to her original condition.
But Connie is more than just a refurbished plane: she’s actually a Cocktail Bar, known as Connie’s Starlight Lounge. This will be a pre-dinner spot with cocktails and apps for diners and guests at the TWA Hotel.
First TWA Hotel Experience
Initial reports on the dining services were mixed: much like the check-in process, the serving staff appeared to be friendly, but harried.
Some guests felt that the hotel was completely in over its head and that the dining experience did not live up to expectations. Another group mentioned that the restaurants had run out of food and had to pre-emptively cancel their reservation.
The hotel will feature food trucks offering a wide range of dining options such as the Halal Guys, Empanada Mama, Earl of Sandwich, Earth&Co, and Playa Bowl. It was Earl of Sandwich that came to the rescue, with plenty of warm paninis available for a hungry crowd around 9:00 P.M.
Other guests had pizza boxes delivered.
While food pop-ups and trucks have become a concept of their own in major metropolises over the years, expect ones that exist in a hotel to come at a premium. Oatmeal and acai bowls at Earth&Co run $10-15 for an individual serving. Intelligensia, which is served from TWA carts in several places throughout the hotel, charges guests $6.50 for a small-sized black coffee.
The upper lounges of the hotel serve as a museum, providing glimpses into the uniforms and accessories of TWA crews through the decades. On the lower floors, guests can view exhibits of the Eero Saarinen architectural style leading up to the “flight tubes” to the hotel rooms.
The flight tubes to JetBlue’s Terminal 5 that originally connected the Saarinen Terminal to the gates, now connect it to the two wings with 512 guest rooms. They were made famous by the 2002 film, “Catch Me If You Can.”
Guest rooms offer views of either the TWA Flight Centre or of the JFK runway areas.
Each room is designed in true mid-century style with custom furnishings, with a wet bar, rotary phone, thick sound insulating glass, and a terrazzo tiled bathroom, designed by New York City firm Stonehill Taylor.
The hotel features a glass curtain wall by Fabbrica — the second-thickest in the world after the wall at the U.S. Embassy in London. Seven panes and 4½ inches thick, the glass makes runway noise a thing of the past.
For Tyler Morse, attention to detail was everything in this project, from the clock to the departure boards to Connie. No detail was too small.
In the ribbon cutting, speakers lauded the hotel for its green initiatives and dedication to recruiting employees from surrounding areas in Queens, creating community engagement through jobs and social impact.
In total, the project has employed 7,000 people across 178 companies. There have been 14 preservationists groups, 22 government agencies, and 9 law firms engaged from start to finish.
And just like Saarinen and TWA, Morse is aiming for the stars in this business, hoping that the hotel will eventually receive a 5-star rating.
But, just like Saarinen and TWA, Morse ought to be cautious about aiming to be, “too high, too quickly, and too timely.”
Because, if the minor chaos of the opening night were to be considered a starting barometer, the Hotel has a long, long way to go to deliver on the promises it has made to the public.
The squishy stuff is nice, but these days, the most vocal customers will pay the most attention to the details that matter, not just the gimmicks. Hotel guests like fast, efficient, and hands-on service at check-in. Dining, especially out in a no-mans land like where JFK is, has to be on-point. There cannot be 1-2 restaurants that book out early and then run out of food.
There are also no 24-hour restaurants nor is room service an option for guests. This could be problematic for a hotel that wants to offer future guests a 5-star experience when their delayed flight lands at 2 AM and they’re out of options.
Even for a soft opening, there were way too many hiccups in the first go-around to for the hotel to attract the kinds of adulations it will desperately need in order to flourish.
The TWA Hotel is a great concept, but very much still a huge work in progress. It is highly worth a visit for the history of the building the presentation of the airline in all of its glory, and to walk down memory lane.
Up, up, and away, TWA Hotel.