The Bird Flies Again

9 min read

Masterpiece TWA terminal will be a dramatic hotel

The year 1962 saw the opening of the two most exhilarating architectural symbols of the dawning jet age: Dulles International Airport, serving Washington, DC in Chantilly, VA, and the Trans World Airlines Flight Center at Idlewild (now John F. Kennedy) Airport in Queens, NY. Each project was evocative of flight in a unique way, and both were described as “soaring.” Both were designed by the same individual: the brilliant Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen, who had died the previous year at the tragically young age of 51 from a brain tumor. And despite their instantly iconic status, both facilities were soon deemed inadequate for the needs of the rapidly expanding international commercial aviation industry.

Dulles has undergone multiple modifications and improvements over the years, including doubling the size of the terminal, three expansive concourses and a subway tram to bring passengers to them. The TWA Flight Center, meanwhile, has lain empty, decaying and in danger of the wrecker’s ball since 2001 when its declining eponymous airline went out of business, bought out by American Airlines. That all changes next year when Saarinen’s landmark glass, steel and concrete structure reemerges as the 512-room, modern, yet ultra-retro TWA Flight Center Hotel; the result of an imaginative developer, a willing and persistent landlord, another airline and Federal and State Historic Tax Credits.

The redevelopment plan is a public-private partnership between MCR—a leading hotel developer—Jet Blue Airways and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The redevelopment was privately funded with no government subsidies.

The History
Bold design was in Saarinen’s DNA. A generation before, his father Eliel had designed the celebrated Helsinki Central Railway Station, a terminal for then state of the art form of intercity transportation. Eero’s dynamic and cutting-edge engineering projects included the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, corporate complexes for IBM, General Motors and John Deere, the CBS tower in Manhattan and innovative buildings at Yale, MIT and the University of Pennsylvania, as well as his universally recognized furniture designs, such as the pedestal and womb chairs.

Despite its spread-wing, birdlike sculptural design and Saarinen’s stated aim for TWA “to design a building in which the architecture itself would express the drama and specialness and excitement of travel,” he denied any conscious intent toward literal avian representation.

Rather, Saarinen and his Bloomfield Hills, MI-based firm, which included such future architectural luminaries as Kevin Roche, Robert Venturi and Cesar Pelli (he also collaborated with design giants Norman Bel Geddes and Charles and Ray Eames), said they were attempting to solve problems of complex, high-volume, multi-stage passenger movement and baggage handling, from curbside to airplane, in as quick and efficient a manner as possible through a visually stimulating, vaulted-ceiling, open-span floorplan encompassing numerous swooping ramps and levels, and dramatic sweeping curves.

Ironically, by the time the terminal building opened, it was already out of date. The idea for the building had been conceived in the mid-1950s by Howard Hughes, then TWA’s principal shareholder, as a model depot for his pet aircraft, the Lockheed Constellation, the workhorse airliner of the 1940s and ‘50s. Though Hughes resisted the advent of jets for years, by the time the TWA Center was opened, the Boeing 707 was the standard for long-range flights, and the new building’s gates could not easily accommodate the size of the new planes, meaning fewer could be processed each hour.

Still, passengers were excited by the dynamic space, which many said got them into the mood for travel. Architectural historian Henry Russell Hitchcock dubbed it “a vital new creation” and critic Allan Temko wrote that it was “one of the most electrifying [designs] of the late 50s.”

“He wanted to provide a building in which the human being felt uplifted, important and full of anticipation,” the architect’s widow, art critic and television journalist Aline Bernstein Saarinen, told author George Scullin several years later.

As the jet age progressed though, the compromises became more pronounced. Annexes had to be built on to the two concourses for the new wide-bodied planes, and when security regulations mandated metal detectors and passenger screening, the atrium area was effectively cut in two and lines often stretched out the door. Its most recent use may be as an interior location for Steven Spielberg’s 2002 movie, Catch Me If You Can.

The land on which JFK sits is owned by the City of New York, but the airport is administered by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, making it the empty Flight Center’s landlord. To its credit, the Port Authority was anxious to preserve the building, if only a proper use could be found for it, now squeezed between a parking garage and the JetBlue terminal, which opened in 2008.

“Too Beautiful to Die”
“It was too useless to live, and too beautiful to die,” Henry Grabar wrote in The Atlantic. And despite the fact that there was no obvious immediate use for it, no one wanted to repeat the blunder and suffer the public outrage that had occurred when McKim, Mead and White’s magnificent Pennsylvania Station was razed in the 1960s to make way for the new and architecturally inconsequential Madison Square Garden.

The Port Authority issued two rounds of requests for proposals (RFPs), and by 2013 it looked as if hotel developer Andre Balazs (operator of Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont, among other hotels) would turn the building into a small hotel and conference center, but that plan fell through. But by the time the Port Authority had issued its third RFP, MCR Managing Partner and CEO Tyler Morse felt the hotel management company he cofounded in 2006 was now big enough to take on what all concerned conceded was a daunting and overwhelming project. MCR is currently the seventh largest hotel operator in the nation, with 92 properties in 23 states, including the adaptive reuse of the High Line Hotel in Manhattan. The company will have a 75-year lease on the airport property.

Noting that there was no place to stay on-site in the JFK terminals area, Morse envisioned a 500-room hotel, with the Flight Center itself serving as the reception area, lobby and conference center and two guestroom wings built where the boarding gate concourses had been. Not only was a complete asbestos and lead paint abatement necessary, 486 non-tempered glass panels—no two with the exact same dimensions—and four million ceramic floor and wall tiles had to be replaced. Not only that, 22 government agencies had authority over some aspect of the project.

“Having the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] heavily involved with a building project triggers a rigorous compliance procedure,” observes Bill MacRostie of MacRostie Historic Advisors, LLC, of Washington, DC, who consulted on the project and has high praise for Morse’s passion and commitment to the project. “Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, gauges the effect of federal agency involvement with a historic building, and Morse went through a long and complex 106 compliance process.” The Flight Center was designated a New York City Landmark in 1994 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005.

Compromises had to be made along the way, such as reducing the height of the two guestroom wings and extending their length.

An Icon Reborn
When it opens in 2019, the TWA Flight Center Hotel will evoke the era in which Saarinen’s midcentury masterpiece opened, when flying was still fun, and an adventure in the positive sense. The departure and arrival boards will be of the old split-flap type. Fashion designer Stan Herman is creating staff uniforms that resemble flight attendant uniforms from the 1960s, and there will be a museum devoted to the jet age, the history of TWA and the Midcentury Modern design movement. Furniture, décor and vintage travel posters will be of the period.

The two modernistic passenger arrival tubes that used to connect the terminal to the gates will now connect directly to the JetBlue terminal. The two guestroom wings promise “exhilarating views of JFK’s runways.” The 200,000-square-foot Flight Center terminal itself reportedly becomes the largest hotel lobby in the world, featuring eight restaurants, six bars and retail. Behind it, on another part of the former tarmac, is a 50,000-square-foot underground conference and event center. Sitting on the ground above it on the “air side” of the building will be an actual Lockheed Constellation L1649A, purchased by Morse from Lufthansa, one of the four such planes still in existence, which will be repurposed and renovated as an upscale cocktail lounge. A 10,000-square-foot observation deck will hearken back to generations-old excitement of watching jets take off and land. The air train will connect to other airport terminals and there will be 3,700 parking spaces on-site. The room rate is projected to start at about $250 per night. Suites will also be available. The entire facility is LEED Silver-certified. Energy will be supplied by an off-grid cogeneration plant. The total cost has been widely reported at $265 million.

The Beyer Blinder Belle architectural firm redesigned the Flight Center for its new use, careful to maintain the integrity and legacy of Saarinen’s original structure. The two guestroom wings were designed by Lubrano Ciavarra Architects. Turner Construction is the building contractor.

“JFK Airport’s new iconic TWA Hotel is an invaluable investment in the borough of Queens, and the progress in its construction and transformation in just the past year is remarkable,” Melinda Katz, Queens borough president, was quoted in Metropolitan Airport News. “As travelers enter New York City’s gateway to the world, they will soon witness the magic of the Jet Age in one of the world’s most famous mid-century architectural masterpieces, right here in Queens.”

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has been solidly behind the project and said at the 2016 groundbreaking, “The conversion of the TWA Flight Center into a new state-of-the-art hotel will preserve this iconic landmark while cementing JFK’s status as a crown jewel of aviation.”

And Tyler Morse says, “The passion for this incredible building and the outpouring of support for our plan to preserve Saarinen’s masterpiece and permanently reopen it to the public as a 512-room hotel has been astounding.”

Story Contact:
Jeorge Cymon
[email protected]