Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
It’s now a fantasy-steeped hotel honoring the airport design of a bygone era, but the TWA Flight Center at New York’s JFK Airport was never quite real.
It’s hard to imagine, but Idlewild—now John F. Kennedy—Airport in New York was briefly, in the mid-20th century, a rather pleasant place to visit. Not unlike the corporations that set up pavilions at World’s Fairs on the other side of Queens, private airlines were encouraged to design their own terminals here around a central public space, each airline declaring its brand through modern architecture. A 1955 plan for the budding airport led to the creation, initially, of seven terminal buildings surrounding a vast plaza with chapels, a see-through heating and cooling center, a reflective pool, and a fountain.
But passenger numbers soon exploded, thanks to the emergence of the wide-body jet. JFK’s annual passenger totals went from 3.5 million in 1956 to 11.5 million in 1962. By the end of the 1960s, it was the second-busiest airport in the country. Expansions, renovations, and alterations struggled to handle dramatic shifts in the industry (in particular, airline deregulation starting in the late ‘70s and tightened security after 9/11). Most of its facilities survived the century, but rarely with grace.
JFK carried 61.9 million passengers last year, and almost nothing remains of its midcentury origins. But the TWA Flight Center, the architectural star of 20th-century air travel, has survived and may finally thrive.
The new TWA Hotel opened late last month in the former terminal, its branding relying heavily on the glory years of the defunct airline, and by extension, its architecture. A faithful restoration of the building to its original 1962 appearance is anchored by two new, curved hotel towers behind it and a new conference center underneath. Its amenities and intensely curated visitor experience should give it a prosperous second life as an indulgence and curiosity for non-flying locals, and for travelers, as a less cattle-like option for killing time between flights. This new chapter for the building may now seem inevitable, but it was far from certain two decades ago.
Designed by Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen, who also designed St. Louis’s Gateway Arch and Washington’s Dulles Airport, the Flight Center’s concrete curves and swanky lounges still symbolize the glamour of flying in the 1960s, despite their almost immediate obsolescence. Other airlines at Idlewild had handsome, practical buildings, but TWA had an experience to sell.
It’s no coincidence that the most branding-savvy airline of the 1950s found its man in Saarinen. As explained in Kornel Ringli’s history, Designing TWA, the company wanted a building it could present as a consumer product in a competitive postwar market. The man who had already designed distinctive buildings for General Motors and IBM would make something that TWA could flaunt.
“Instead of minimizing costs through constructional or material efficiency,” writes Ringli, “… another kind of economy has taken place, which aims to garner an increasingly scarce resource for the benefit of TWA: the public’s attention.” Saarinen’s design was immediately compared to a bird in flight by many observers. Critic Douglas Haskell of Architectural Forum compared the design in 1958 to the recently completed Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland, with both demonstrating a “popular need … for more drama: a ‘good show,’ symbolism, even fairy tales.”
The terminal provided a workout, by the standard of today’s airports. There were an inconvenient amount of stairs between check-in, the lounges, and the “Flight Tubes,” which led to the gates. And once you were in those tubes, perhaps making a connection from another terminal in pre-AirTrain JFK, there were no moving walkways (planned but never installed).
TWA expected 7 million passengers to travel through its Idlewild terminal in its first five years, but ended up with 11 million. Even its signature Sunken Lounge was sacrificed in the airline’s later years for a generic customer-service area as it struggled to adjust. The terminal closed to passengers in 2001.
While the Flight Center had been landmarked by New York City in 1994—much to the chagrin of its struggling tenant—other terminals from the same era were demolished and replaced in the years that followed. The International Arrivals Building by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill was demolished in 2000; National Airlines’s Sundrome, by I. M. Pei, was torn down in 2011; PanAm’s WorldPort was gone by 2014.
A new terminal for JetBlue, designed around TWA’s footprint, opened in 2008 and connected to Saarinen’s tubes. The airport’s only hotel, a nondescript Ramada Plaza, closed the following year. After a request for proposals in 2007 failed to attract investors, the Port Authority undertook a $20 million landmark restoration before putting the Flight Center up for another RFP in 2012.
The original winner, hotelier Andre Balazs, did not proceed, so in 2014, the Port Authority selected MCR/Morse Development and brought in the firm Beyer Blinder Belle as the architect. (A rejected submission by the Trump Group proposed swapping the “WA” of the building’s “TWA” signs with “RUMP.”)
Multiple design firms took on elements of the renovation and expansion. The hotel, designed by Lubrano Ciavarra Architects, stages the Flight Center as the main attraction through black-tinted glass curtain walls that are just tall enough to block the view of the JetBlue terminal behind it. The hotel interiors, done by Stonehill Taylor, use hardwoods and brass details that reflect the vision of industrial-design icon Raymond Loewy, who shaped TWA’s corporate identity in the 1960s. The conference center, designed by INC, takes the same approach and includes historical TWA exhibits throughout the common spaces, which lead up to gigantic, hangar-like sliding doors. Outside, a midcentury-inspired landscape design is being installed by landscape architects Mathews Nielsen.
But the Flight Center is still the main attraction, and it functions more naturally as a hotel lobby than it ever did as an airport terminal. Hit songs from the ‘60s play gently through the speakers as employees—dressed in era-appropriate uniforms—accommodate guests and patrons. Filling the interior, an old newsstand now displays early ‘60s publications; a boutique sells stylish TWA swag for an audience that’ll also appreciate the Shinola, Warby Parker, and Phaidon commercial spaces nearby. Walls display David Klein’s colorful and expressive TWA travel posters.
What was the international check-in counter now registers hotel guests, while the old domestic check-in serves as a food hall. The original Sunken Lounge looks out onto a TWA-branded Lockheed Constellation plane, restored as a cocktail bar styled on the airline’s old lounges, where you’ll keep hearing those ‘60s hits.
Saarinen, who died one year before the building first opened, designed a fantasy of air travel that only grew further from reality over time. In 1990, Paul Goldberger wrote in the New York Times of Saarinen’s JFK contribution: “The kindest thing that could be done to this building, given how unfunctional it is today, would be to strip off all the additions and restore it as a museum of airport architecture.” That has basically come to pass. Nostalgia is the unapologetic theme at the TWA Hotel, and while it may be an insistent branding experience at times, it is also sure to provide delight to anyone passing through for an hour or a weekend.
Today, flights are cheaper, planes are safer, and most airports have crowd-pleasing places to eat and shop, yet we are more miserable than ever along almost every step of the trip. The Flight Center’s new role at the bigger, better, but uninspiring JFK isn’t just for business and consumption—it’s to provide an escape from the rest of the airport into something that was never quite real.