TWA Hotel Opens at JFK

John Hill
23. May 2019
All photographs by John Hill/World-Architects

Five decades after it first opened to the public, and 18 years after it closed, Eero Saarinen's TWA Flight Center at JFK Airport in New York City has reopened as the TWA Hotel.

The bird-like form Eero Saarinen designed for the TWA Flight Center became a symbol of aviation when it opened in 1962, one year after the architect unexpectedly died at the age of 51. But as Richard Southwick of Beyer Blinder Belle (BBB), the project and preservation architect for the building's restoration, explained to a group of press assembled one week after the TWA Hotel's opening on May 15, 2019, the design's inflexibility made it obsolete not long after completion. At the time, supersonic jets like the Concorde, which seated around 100 passengers, were seen as the future, not wide-body jets that can accommodate four times as many flyers. 

TWA added extensions over the years to make the terminal work with larger planes and additional passengers, but the inevitable happened in 2001, when the airline ceased operations inside the building and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates New York City's three airports, "essentially mothballed" the building, per BBB. The TWA Flight Center was in use for nearly 40 years, after which the future of Saarinen's masterpiece was uncertain.

BBB worked on the restoration of the building and its documentation for landmark status following its 2001 closure, but the aviation icon required a new use to ensure its longevity. Following an aborted attempt earlier this decade at redeveloping the building as a hotel, MCR/Morse Development put together a successful proposal to transform the TWA Flight Center into a lobby for a 512-room hotel flanking the building and a conference and event space tucked beneath the "tarmac" behind the original building. A handful of firms are responsible for the transformation of the TWA Flight Center into the nearly 400,000-square-foot TWA Hotel:

  • Project and Preservation Architect: Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners
  • Design Consultant and Design Architect for Hotel Buildings: Lubrano Ciavarra Architects
  • Conference and Event Space Interior Design: INC Architecture & Design
  • Hotel Room and Select Public Area Interior Design: Stonehill Taylor
  • Landscape Architect: Mathews Nielsen

Below the floor plans, provided for purposes of orientation, is a photo tour through the old and new buildings from this week's press gathering that World-Architects attended.

TWA Hotel floor plans (Drawing: Beyer Blinder Belle)
Once a covered walkway from the nearby AirTrain and additional landscaping (including fountains) by Mathews Nielsen are provided later this year, guests will arrive at the TWA Hotel via an approach on axis with Saarinen's masterpiece.
A few steps inside and the careful restoration of the concrete, glass, plaster, and mosaic tile surfaces is apparent.
The original departure/arrival flip-board was restored in Udine, Italy, where it was first made for the TWA Flight Center.
A restored clock and speaker sits below the meeting point of the structure's four concrete-shell roofs and above the bridge that links the mezzanines on the north and south ends of the space.
At the far end of the space is the sunken lounge with its distinctive chili-pepper red carpeting. The area was decked over by TWA for check-in counters and therefore had to be reconstructed after 2001. (Note the steps to the mezzanine on the right.)
The south mezzanine, up the steps from the previous photo, is the original location of the Paris Café; it still carries that name but is now helmed by Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
The north mezzanine, originally used as the first-class Ambassador's Club, has been restored and reconstructed to reflect Saarinen's design and that by Kevin Roche a few years after the TWA Flight Center opened.
The sunken lounge seen from the bridge beneath the clock. The "tarmac" beyond the glass is home to a 1958 Lockheed Constellation L-1649A Starliner airplane, restored by MCR/Morse and serving as the "Connie" cocktail bar.
The Connie's interior, designed by Stonehill Taylor, echoes the design of the lounges inside the Saarinen building and the "tubes" that passengers traversed in order to get to and from the planes. The cocktail bar also has restored seats and a section of the interior peeled away to reveal the plane's structure and its pre-restoration condition.
Speaking of the tubes, one of them is clearly visible in this view from the tarmac to the TWA Flight Center and the north "Saarinen Wing" of the hotel. (The south wing is called "Hughes Wing" after longtime TWA owner Howard Hughes.) The non-functioning tarmac, still to receive its painted lines, is envisioned as a setting for an ice rink in the winter and other uses throughout the year.
The famous departure-arrival tubes were restored and now connect the lobby to the hotel wings and conference center.
Lubrano Ciavarra's hotel — seen here in the gap between the north wing and the Saarinen building reflected in the hotel's gray curtain wall facade — is seven stories tall but no higher than the original TWA Flight Center.
The curving, double-loaded wings serve 512 rooms with 86 suites. Interiors by Stonehill Taylor feature more red carpeting.
The most prized rooms face the TWA Flight Center through curtain wall panels made up of seven layers of glass that weigh 1,740 pounds to make the jet engines and other sounds of JFK barely audible.
Corridors at the lowest level of the wings link the hotel to the conference center. INC's mosaic tile design uses white and red to transition between the two realms.
Although it sits beneath the concrete tarmac, the conference center is surprisingly spacious, with double-height ballrooms, meeting rooms on the upper mezzanine, and small nooks fitted out with artifacts from TWA's golden age of aviation.
One last look at the restored Saarinen building, a must-visit for any architecture fan flying in and out of JFK.

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