Last night, Open House New York featured a discussion with the development team behind the TWA Hotel, the redevelopment of Eero Saarinen’s space-age masterpiece at JFK Airport. Construction is finally underway on the terminal, which has been empty since 2001. It will eventually transform into a hotel, restaurant, retail, and event space.
After a few failed attempts at redevelopment, a formal plan for the space came together in 2015 when MCR Development, in partnership with JetBlue, signed a 75-year lease for the hotel. Details of the ambitious project—which requires coordination with 22 government agencies, 124 consulting firms, four architecture and design firms, and nine law firms—were announced this December.
Tyler Morse, CEO of MCR Development, is clearly a big fan of the flight center, which is both an interior and exterior landmark. Throughout the evening he emphasized how much Saarinen’s design influenced the rest of the project. “Everything in this development is about 1962,” he said, referring to the year the flight center opened. “We are bringing this building back as it looked in 1962.” Even hotel employees will dress in “uniforms evocative of the ’60s,” according to Morse.
MCR has made it well known that the historic building is the centerpiece of the project, flanked by two new six-story crescent-shaped hotel buildings with 505 rooms. Besides a full restoration of the structure, the terminal’s two long, arched hallways, decked out in bright red carpeting, will be “restored to their former glory,” Morse said.
One exciting announcement revealed last night: The main terminal building will connect to a restored Lockheed Super Constellation aircraft inside of which will be a restaurant and bar. The aircraft will sit between the two “tubes” of the building, which currently lead to the JFK Terminal, and will also connect to the hotel itself. “Kids will be able to sit in the cockpit of the plane,” Morse said.
Former terminal lounges, like the Constellation Club, Lisbon Lounge, and Paris Café, will also be restored and turned into eating and dining establishments. (The Constellation Club will become a night club, according to Morse.) Even the “split flap boards” designed specifically for this terminal will be rebuilt for the main lobby. “We see this lobby as a draw and destination,” Morse said.
As prior renderings have shown, the two hotel buildings—set 80 feet apart from one another—are modest. The hotel branding, however, harkens back to the terminal’s roots. “This will not be a chain; this will be an independent hotel,” said Morse. “It will be the TWA Hotel … to keep that brand alive is a big deal.”
A curtain wall made of seven layers of glass will ensure hotel guests can’t hear nearby planes. MCR Development is also replacing all 486 panes of glass in the main terminal building—none of which are the same size. To bring the terminal up to code will cost MCR a total of $65 million.
Morse told the packed crowd that although he was discouraged from colleagues by taking on such a complicated project, “I couldn’t pass up this opportunity.” He later added: “We believe you have to do this right.” After his presentation he was joined for a panel discussion by Richard Southwick, partner and director of historic preservation at Beyer Blinder Belle; Anne Marie Lubrano, founding principal at Lubrano Ciavarra Architects; and Jim Steven, manager for the JFK physical plant and redevelopment for the Port Authority.
Steven called the Port Authority’s process finding a development partner to restore the structure “a constant disappointment.” (Several years ago, the Port Authority invested $20 million to restore the sunken seating lounge and replace the curtain wall to help attract developers.) “It has been a cycle of ups and downs … but we are definitely riding a high right now,” he explained. Steven went on to add that the final result “is gonna be perfect.”
Lubrano, one of the project architects, said the design team sought “a light touch between the relationship of old and new.” She added that they wanted to “give the building space to breathe,” and experimented with five different schemes before deciding to push the hotel buildings back.
Southwick, of Beyer Blinder Belle, also worked on this building during the Port Authority’s earlier restoration. He noted that the “building is really quite fragile,” with the 60,000-square-foot concrete roof supported by only four columns. The concrete shell, he said, gets as narrow as eight inches. The team continues to test the original structure to protect it against the new construction.
Morse said that excited New Yorkers can expect an opening for the end of 2018 or beginning of 2019. If you’re already gearing up to make a hotel reservation, he said that reservations for a room will run “roughly $250 per night.”