On a sunny afternoon in the middle of May, Eero Saarinen’s soaring Jet Age terminal at JFK Airport is as bustling as it was when it first opened in 1962.
Models and dancers dressed in vintage TWA flight attendant uniforms glide around the terminal like ballerinas. A trio of former Ambassador’s Club servers take selfies in a cocktail den; “we used to work here!” they squeal, puckering their lips and admiring the Knoll candy-stripe fabric that has been custom-designed to match the one from their youth. Decidedly 21st-century laptops pop open in the Sunken Lounge, the Instagram darling of the space. A Solari split-flap board clatters, displaying faux departure times for airlines (like the now-defunct Pan Am) as the Temptations’ “My Girl” plays in the background. There are TV crews everywhere. Even the Beatles make an appearance in the form of a tribute band that has materialized, as if by magic, on the cantilevered bridge suspended (also as if by magic) across the soaring lobby of the just-opened TWA Hotel.
Rarely does a hotel launch drum up so much fanfare, but then again, the TWA Hotel isn’t any old project. Aviation and design geeks and preservation advocacy groups—not to mention New York City, the Port Authority, and John F. Kennedy International Airport—have been waiting for decades to see Saarinen’s winged creature, once the Trans World Airlines terminal, take flight again.
“There’s a debate in the landmarks preservation world about embalming—about putting something on a pedestal and not giving it a life, but keeping it exactly the way it was,” muses Adam Rolston of INC Architecture & Design, the firm behind the hotel’s meetings and event spaces, on a tour of the revamped property. “And the other side says you gotta breathe new life into these things and give them new functions. This is a beautiful example of that.”
Nostalgia for the 1960s is no new thing; from the prevalence of midcentury furniture to tableside Caesars, contemporary culture loves a throwback. But when Saarinen’s Flight Center was finished, it would still be another two years before the the Civil Rights Act of 1964 came into being. In taking inspiration from the culture of the era—as well as the design—are we willfully glossing over the more sordid details of a decade that began with Jim Crow laws still in place and ended, in 1969, with the National Organization for Women protesting the White House for “Rights, Not Roses”?
The rise, fall, and rebirth of the TWA Flight Center mirrors the timeline of the commercial aviation industry at large. In 1956, when TWA, under the ownership of Howard Hughes, commissioned a terminal from Saarinen, the Finnish-American architect behind the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, the era romanticized as the “Golden Age of Flying” was in full swing, as were Lockheed Constellations, propliners with a capacity of less than 100. The much larger Boeing 707 came onto the scene in 1958. In 1970—eight years after the Flight Center’s completion, and nine years after Saarinen’s death—Boeing launched its mammoth wide-body 747, effectively rendering its smaller predecessors, and Saarinen’s creation, obsolete.
Enormous new planes brought with them passenger levels unforeseen in Saarinen’s era, and the airport heaved under the added pressure. When TWA Flight Center opened in 1962, 11.5 million people passed through New York International Airport (also known colloquially as “Idlewild” until it was renamed in 1963 after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination). Thirty years later, in 1992, that number had ballooned to more than 25 million.
As the Port Authority considered ways to expand JFK in the ’90s, there was talk of demolishing the Flight Center, but the agency was eventually dissuaded of that rather unpopular idea. The building’s fate was cemented in 1994, when it became a New York City landmark. “This is perhaps the quintessential modern form, expressing movement and the whole concept of flight,” a relieved Laurie Beckelman, the then-chairwoman of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, told the New York Times when the news was announced.
In a column later that year, the late Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp praised the Flight Center as “the most dynamically modeled space of its era,” yet trumpeted the “dire need of design modifications.” In conclusion, he wrote, “T.W.A. sits aloof amid the architectural hodgepodge of J.F.K.’s Terminal City, like a bird that has lost its flock.”
In the late 1990s, in order to keep Saarinen’s newly landmarked building intact and solve its own urgent capacity needs, the Port Authority settled on a plan to position a new terminal—what eventually became jetBlue’s T5—behind it. Various city agencies got involved, a Redevelopment Advisory Committee (RAC) was formed out of more than a dozen preservation advocacy groups, and a roadmap materialized about how to restore and redevelop the site. By 2001, when the Flight Center closed after TWA went bankrupt, it had been empty for more than two years.
The man tasked with overseeing the restoration of a building he calls “the perfect symbol of post-war optimism, the magic of flight, and the elegance of mid-century modern architecture” was architect Richard Southwick, a partner and the director of historic preservation at Beyer Blinder Belle (BBB), whose efforts helped land the Flight Center on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005.
Commissioned by the Port Authority, Southwick and BBB spent nearly a decade developing a preservation plan and guiding the first phase of construction. They used Saarinen’s original working drawings and specifications to rebuild the Sunken Lounge. They repaired and restored the tubes famously featured in the 2002 Leonardo DiCaprio flick Catch Me If You Can. Originally those groovy passageways ushered passengers into the TWA departure halls; now, each leads to one of the two hotel additions and, beyond that, the jetBlue terminal. (An elevator near baggage claim offers only two buttons: “1960s TWA HOTEL” or “PRESENT DAY JETBLUE.”)
The idea for a hotel came about early on in the restoration process after other ideas—a museum or a conference center—were deemed impractical. Coincidentally, in 2009, as traffic swelled to nearly 46 million passengers, the Ramada Plaza JFK Hotel—the airport’s only connected hotel—closed. In 2011, as construction on the first phase of BBB’s restoration was coming to an end, the hotelier Andre Balazs won a Port Authority bid to turn the Flight Center into a hotel, but the deal fell through in 2014.
Enter Tyler Morse of MCR/Morse Development, which was awarded the redevelopment project in 2014. In addition to a fully restored Flight Center, there was to be retail and restaurants, 50,000 square feet of meetings and events space, and at least 500 hotel rooms (which can be sold as standard nightly bookings, plus four-, six-, or 12-hour chunks when a guest needs only a nap and a shower).
BBB, hired by MCR as the project architect for the second phase of the restoration as well as the new hotel structures and conference center, turned its attention to the Flight Center’s exterior curtain walls, replacing every single one of the 238 original window panels—no two are alike—as well as the neoprene zipper gaskets that hold them into place. Although much of the vaulted core of the lobby and flight tubes had already been restored by this point, the dual single-story wings on either side of the main entrance, which once housed ticket desks, had not. Today, hotel check-in is located to the north, and there’s a food hall to the south, both with desks and lighting that replicate their 1962 predecessors. Even the lobby’s public restrooms mirror Saarinen’s original design, right down to the large, central paper towel dispenser.
One design element that was particularly challenging was the restoration of the Flight Terminal’s ceramic penny tiles, used by Saarinen to clad the floors and swoopy walls. BBB sourced a total of 20 million half-inch-diameter mosaic tiles from China over the course of both phases of the restoration. “They had to match precisely the original Italian tiles in size, color, texture, and aggregate,” Southwick says. “Oftentimes, one or two new tiles had to be placed within a large field of the original—any variation stood out like a sore thumb.”
Meanwhile, Lubrano Ciavarra Architects, a Brooklyn firm, was tasked with designing the 512-room hotel addition. It had to meet the same preservation guidelines imposed on anything new on the site: that it be complementary to, but distinguishable from, Saarinen’s original building.
“That’s a tall order; I consider this the sexiest building on the planet. How do you add to this gorgeous sculptural, figural building?” asked Anne Marie Lubrano, the firm’s co-founder, on a site tour. “For a small firm to be given a commission like this, you want to do the most spectacular thing you could ever do in your life, but we needed to leave our ego at the door.”
Casting the Saarinen masterpiece as a “figure in a field,” Lubrano and her partner, Lea Ciavarra, conceived the an ultra-compact pair of seven-story buildings and positioned them as far back from the Saarinen building as possible, so as not to overwhelm it. They took pains to maintain the Flight Center’s exact material palette, rendering concrete, glass, and metal in contemporary ways.
“In no way would you ever confuse that these buildings were built simultaneously,” Lubrano says. “There are no straight lines in Saarinen’s building. Our buildings—though they may read as curved—are actually faceted and they are all straight lines.”
Floor-to-ceiling glass windows—seven layers of triple-glazed insulated glass weighing 1,740 pounds apiece—overlook either the flight terminal or Runway 4L/22R. Thanks to innovative soundproofing solutions, though, you won’t be awoken by an Airbus A380. It’s hard to believe until you’re actually there, nose pressed against the window like a little kid, watching a meditative parade of airplanes while hearing not so much as a peep from them.
No matter where you stand in the 392,000-square-foot TWA Hotel today, Saarinen is right there with you. For starters, Chili Pepper Red—the fiery hue he developed for the Flight Center—is everywhere, from the upholstery in the Sunken Lounge to the hallway carpeting in the hotel buildings.
In the rooms themselves—426 doubles and kings and 86 suites divided among the two new buildings—the NYC-based interior design firm Stonehill Taylor swept in Saarinen Womb chairs and Tulip tables. Beds are comfortable; bathrooms are capacious. A martini station, a mini-bar with retro touches like a mini Etch A Sketch (born in 1960), and vintage rotary phones are additional midcentury touchpoints.
“We focused on two major sources of inspiration: the Saarinen building itself and the cultural climate in the year it originally opened: 1962,” Stonehill Taylor’s Sara Duffy tells Curbed over email. “We looked at the ethos and the meaning of the year 1962 in order to envision a contemporary guest experience: intuitive, refined, and in communication with Saarinen’s work.”
Saarinen’s love of hardwoods, terrazzo flooring, and brass details, as well as his more orthogonal works, inspired much of the underground Conference Center, overseen by INC Architecture & Design. The lighting in the main ballroom, for instance, took cues from the General Motors Technical Center in Detroit and the Irwin Conference Center in Columbus, IN. Just outside massive double-height hangar doors—studded with a total of 12,304 hand-screwed rivets—a 207-foot-long pre-function space has interpretive exhibits showcasing info and artifacts from the architect’s life, vintage TWA ads designed by David Klein, retro flight attendant uniforms, and other archival materials curated with assistance from the New York Historical Society. The Paris Café, the Jean-Georges restaurant on the mezzanine, is a sea of custom Saarinen furniture from Knoll.
MCR has also leaned hard into TWA-as-a-selling point, all while dutifully avoiding sandtraps like the “Foreign Accent Flights” that the airline launched in 1968—which, per an ad, included “four styles of hostesses to match: Italian (see toga), French (see gold mini), Olde English (see wench). And Manhattan Penthouse (see hostess pajamas—after all, hostesses should look like hostesses, right?).”
Instead, the hotel offers an excerpted version of history—fresh-and-cool this, fresh-and-cool that. The hotel’s logo—an adaptation of the airline’s, designed by Pentagram—adorns everything from the side of Connie, a restored Lockheed Constellation that’s been retrofitted as a cocktail bar, to the pencils and notepads in the guest rooms. A lobby shop stocks all manner of TWA-branded red-and-white merch, including cashmere sweaters ($249) and Gola sneakers ($65).
The graphic branding, combined with the photogenic nature of the Saarinen building, has been social media catnip. TWA Hotel is so flooded with requests from influencers that (word has it) its various publicity firms can’t keep up. Travel writers who count on complimentary stays will be disappointed to learn that the property hasn’t extended anything of the sort to anyone. According to this writer’s Inbox, it’s easier to get a free trip to a 45,000-square-foot castle-turned-luxury hotel—including airfare, accommodations, food, and activities—in the Loire Valley than it is to get a free $250 hotel room at JFK Airport.
In that 1994 New York Times column, Muschamp, the former architecture critic, noted that “T.W.A. symbolized more than a flight from an airport.” But the project also “represented a flight from history—or, at least, into another chapter of it. For in retrospect it is clear that T.W.A. stands at the threshold of an era when increasing numbers of architects would see themselves primarily as image makers, packagers of corporate identities.”
On a recent Thursday evening, a stylish woman clad in a white-and-black maillot poses in the TWA-branded rooftop pool as her husband dutifully contorts himself to take her photo. Uniformed pilots stroll around the lobby. European tourists perch on the edge of the Sunken Lounge, sipping drinks from one of the mobile Intelligentsia carts that were custom designed for the hotel by Stonehill Taylor. A few shoppers roam around the glass-fronted Shinola boutique. That Solari split-flap board is still doing its thing: a reflection, perhaps, of the constant, ceaseless motion of any hotel—and any airline terminal—on earth.
“As a practicing architect, if I had a building that was unoccupied and unused for decades, I would be thrilled that it came back,” says Southwick. “It’s alive again.”