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Taking Wings Again - The TWA Hotel at JFK


On May 28, 1962 TWA opened their new Terminal at the then named New York Idlewild airport to great media attention. Nearly 57 years to the day the very same building opened its doors as a hotel. Just before the world went into hibernation I visited to find out more about this iconic buildings past and present.

During the regulated era of airline operations in the USA, airlines had to differentiate themselves in the eye of their prospective customers in ways other than cost. Service, uniforms and the aircraft operated, in TWAs case most notably the Constellation, were all obvious choices.

When Idlewild airport in New York gave the opportunity to Americas’ largest airlines to build their own terminals, TWA took this opportunity with both hands and tasked architect Eero Saarinen with the job of creating an architecturally significant building aimed at boosting the profile of TWA.

Saarinen had already created award winning statement buildings using the ‘Concrete shell’ design type for The General Motors Technical Centre in Missouri and the Kresge Auditorium for MIT in Boston, the design of which was quite fundamental to the design of the TWA Flight Centre.

Design phase.

The TWA Flight Centre as it was called, was tailored specifically to its clients needs. Including standing out amongst the others at Idlewild with the size of the budget enabling this.The extraordinary external design look, reminiscent of a giant bird flexing its wings prior to flight, something which Saarinen said was “coincidental”, had to make a statement to the public at large that this was TWA. In fact even the axis of the building was aligned with the access road to maximise impact. Internally though, it had flexible floor space enabling changes in use to optimise what was then a very fast moving industry in terms of passenger flow operation, into an organised and efficient process.

Saarinen said of the choice of aesthetics over budget decision: “if you get too subtle about architecture…people come in and walk through and never notice the difference”. TWA most definitely wanted everyone to notice!

This intrinsic connection to the overall corporate image was highlighted with use of the buildings form in corporate literature and advertising.

The goal of this building operationally was to have a speedy ground handling system which had as few doors as possible. Passengers would face only one door from curbside drop off to the threshold of the waiting aircraft.

Immediately after entry passengers could gain information from the central Solaris display board and information desk before checking in a few yards away before moving a short distance to the sunken lounge waiting area or straight to their waiting aircraft. The system was different to the norm of a pier extending into the airfield ramp.

The main building was in two wings, one each for arriving and departing passengers with two detached circular satellite piers each accessed by curved tube like corridors which mirrored the curved nature of the building as a whole.

This split of departing and arriving passengers made an efficient use of the buildings footprint as did the satellite piers providing the greatest number of aircraft stands on the available ramp space.

This desire to have an uninterrupted flow of passengers was taken to a level not seen today as restaurants, shops etc were all situated on the upper, gallery level thereby removing any potential blockages or interruptions to the flow.

The building was ahead of its time due to a desire to have as little human intervention as possible. The check in process was partially automated. For example, at check in, a computer determines if a bag is overweight and will print out a receipt accordingly. Furthermore the centre had its own ops room where gate information etc could be displayed on the two flight information boards

Construction begins.

The first design idea was presented to the TWA board during 1956 and changed little before these plans were unveiled to the press on November 12, 1957, with construction starting June 9, 1959, Mid September 1960 sees an interesting point in the construction process. As the structure is to look like one seamless piece, the concrete casting must be performed without interruption. It took 22 hours just to pour the first form with around a further 100 hours of continuous work to complete the remainder of the building.

1961 was a difficult year for the construction process. With the building relying on the design as a whole to work effectively, cost cutting measures implemented by TWA resulted in the moving walkways on the connecting tubes being cancelled creating a longer walk as well as just one wing being constructed initially. This affected the overall efficiency considerably, a decision later admitted internally by TWA as ‘wrong’.

More important was the tragic death of Eero Saarinen from complications during an operation to remove a brain tumour, diagnosed just days beforehand.

The project had to move forward of course and on March 19, 1962 trial operations begin, albeit with passengers arriving from the existing terminal.

In the run up to the grand opening on May 28, 1962 TWA hosted a number of glittering events starting with the airline flying in around 175 press and media representatives from around the country followed by a grand charity ball and viewings for both invited guests and the general public.

The second satellite is opened in 1970, in doing so, combined with the expansion of both wings, almost doubled the floor space of the Flight Centre.

In 1981 the terminal becomes purely International as TWA takes over National Airlines Terminal, opening it as the TWA Domestic flight terminal - Terminal B with the Saarinen building renamed TWA International Terminal - Terminal A.

The beginning of the end?

What might be seen as the beginning of the end occurs in 1992 when TWA first files for bankruptcy, this is one of three ventures into chapter 11 protection.

Declared a landmark in 1994 the flight centre was inked in the history books as one of the most iconic architectural and historical buildings in the country, one that fascinates even today.

Ironically this building is often considered to be an icon of the jet age, however, in reality, built for the Constellations 99 passengers its operational abilities suffered with the introduction of jets, in particular the 747. It was this and the takeover by American Airlines, having their own terminal at JFK, that forced the decommissioning in 2001.

Initially destined for demolition, despite the 1994 landmark designation, professional circles succeed in a rescue attempt. In 2002 the building feels its aviation roots again with scenes from Steven Spielberg’s ‘Catch me if you can’ filmed there.

Following on though the building remains largely empty, unused and derelict over the next 15 years.

The satellite piers were the first to go, making way for what is now the jetBlue terminal opening on October 22, 2008.

A new life.

The first foray towards its current use as a hotel came in February 2011 but this eventually came to nothing. Owners of the building, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey issued a further request in August 2014 for proposals to turn the building into a luxury ‘high quality’ hotel.

This was a more successful process with the new operators starting construction work on December 12, 2017.

To make the terminal have a useful life as an hotel it quite clearly needed to have rooms, which is something there simply was not enough space for in the flight centre building. To accommodate rooms in the building would fundamentally change its look, something the new operators were keen not to do to any significant degree.

With a 75 year lease in hand, the buildings operator MCR, commissioned Lubrano Ciavarra architects to design two curved annexes, one either side the original flight centre. This construction not only fitted well with the available space around the old terminal but maintained the curves that were so important to Eero Saarinens original design. Both these buildings are completely clad in glass front and back, providing a view of the old flight centre which are now the reception and common areas of the hotel or with views towards the airports apron system. Central rooms on the upper floors having the best view over the busy comings and goings at JFK.

The process took, on average, over 450 tradespeople a day around three years to construct the new 512 room annexes and refurbish the original landmark building. Construction benefited the local area with excavated sand from construction of the underground Event Centre stabilising the Jamaica Bay shoreline devastated by hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Arrival.

Getting to the Hotel (The only on airport hotel at JFK) is really easy. All the terminals at JFK are linked by the free to use Airtrain. Directions are printed on the platform at the Terminal 5 station. If you are arriving on a jetBlue flight then all you need to do is take the lift which has rather novel floor designations. Rather than 1,2 etc it has ‘1960s TWA Hotel’ and ‘Present day jetBlue’ as your options.

If you have never seen the building before then arriving at the front is just breathtaking. No square box shaped building but a flowing work of art which, after the recent renovation, shines in the winter sunshine.

A sign of things to come are the 1960s vehicles dotted around. On entry what turns out to be actors dressed in original TWA uniforms are ready to help.

Checking in is done at the original flight check in desks, still with the baggage conveyer belt running behind, although now just for show.

Using a tablet, you check yourself in using a credit card, authorising your own key card before making your way to your room in either the Saarinen or Hughes wings.

These wings are the two newly constructed curved buildings either side of the old flight centre and are accessed by taking one of the old flight tubes originally taking passengers too or from their aircraft. There is a choice of rooms all having floor to ceiling windows varying from Standard through Deluxe rooms from $161 plus taxes through to either the Howard Hughes or Eero Saarinen Presidential suites at just under $700. Many of the rooms have either a view of the historical flight centre or out onto the ramp and runways of present day JFK. The hotel claims that the windows are the second thickest in the world and have electrically operated blinds to preserve your privacy when not enjoying the view.

A spectacular view.

Having arranged a room with a runway view I still was not prepared for the wonderful sight when I entered the room. Being next door to the jetBlue terminal there were many of that airlines Airbus and Embraer aircraft on display alongside airlines from around the world at the next door terminal 4. Further over to my right were rows of Delta aircraft of many different sizes including the new A220-100s.

Further out there are the taxiways and runways of JFKs massive operation meaning views of arriving and departing aircraft from all the terminals are visible.

The room is a mix of 1960s and modern day tech with a rotary style telephone, from which you can make free phone calls anywhere in the world, to a wireless charger and authentic Saarinen designed furniture to 50” HDTV. There was also a Time magazine from the sixties near a walnut and brass cocktail minibar. A real mix of eras but one that works very well.

The rooms are also available for day rent so if your time or budget is limited and just want a short experience, this is possible option.

The best view of all, particularly if you are a photographer as the windows do tend to distort photographs to some degree, is the rooftop pool and observation area complete with a Pool Bar. Food and drink can be sampled while you soak in the warm year round infinity pool or just enjoying and photographing unfettered views of all the runways at JFK.

Flight centre rejuvenation.

Going back to the central part of the hotel, the old Saarinen designed flight centre, the views here are no less spectacular, they are just of a different nature.

Everything is curved from the ceiling to the corridors giving a never ending impression to the building as well as creating many nooks and crannies which provide seating areas, like rooms originally for VIPs and even the Pope, after which one room was named.

The central area consists of the entrance hall with an iconic Solaris flight information board over the information desk. In one wing is the check in area, whilst the other is home to a number of food and beverage outlets.

Up a short flight of open stairs you come to the famous sunken lounge, a positively radiant TWA red area now used as a seating area for one of the food and beverage outlets, all of which are franchised. Here there is another Solaris board although this one has been modified to produce different ‘images’ such as ‘TWA’, ‘1962’ or the US flag.

This area was originally the waiting and viewing area where, through massive floor to ceiling windows, there were views out on to the TWA ramp. Today there is still a waiting aircraft in the form of a Lockheed L-1649A Constellation in beautiful period TWA livery.

This aircraft (N803H) actually flew with TWA, delivered new in 1958. Once her days of transporting the rich and famous were over she had a considerably varied life. Hauling cargo, initially with TWA and later with an Alaskan operator shuttling supplies to Prudhoe bay.

After a period of inactivity the aircraft was bought and restored but only to end up sitting in the weeds in Chandler, Arizona. The next stage in her life was not perhaps up to the stature of such an elegant lady, as in 1983 she found herself air dropping marijuana out of South America. This, however, was also short lived as a landing accident in Colombia required a new prop with the aircraft then being ferried to Honduras where again it languished until making what turned out to be her last flight to Auburn-Lewiston in Maine.

A new home.

Even though 803H donated some parts to the Deutsche Lufthansa Berlin-Stiftung Super Star project aircraft, the Connie was restored to its present condition and transported by road to its new, and hopefully, permanent home. The cabin now serves as a cocktail lounge with a near complete cockpit and period seating alongside more functional bench seating. Nearby stands a vintage TWA luggage tug and carts.

Back inside in the upper areas of the building are more restaurants and bars as well as a collection of actual period uniforms, original TWA travel posters (copies of which are in the guest rooms) and other period items. These exhibits along with others around the building were, in the main, donated by the TWA museum in Kansas City and former TWA employees and their families.

There are also three replica rooms situated at the end of the curved flight tubes, one of which is a ‘typical’ sixties living area whilst the other two are replica rooms belonging to the two most important people in the buildings history. One is Howard Hughes desk and office whilst the other is Eero Saarinen’s design office complete with drafting table.

These flight tubes also provide access to not only the rooms and the jetBlue terminal as previously mentioned but to the gym and the 50,000 square feet events space which incorporates meeting rooms and function hall complete with Hangar style doors. This area is brand new having been excavated below the existing level of the flight centre.

A never ending work of love.

Work is still going on to provide as much authenticity as is possible. For example there is an original small three jet fountain which hasn’t produced water in decades. This is due for refurbishment just as soon as it can be worked out just how to do it!

Before leaving this most extraordinary hotel a visit to the TWA shop is a must with everything from TWA branded badges, t-shirts and phone cases to robes slippers and towels with much more in between.

My time here was much too short, it is a one of a kind, truly unique building that needs time to take everything in and to experience it to the fullest. In its time TWA was unkindly said to stand for’Try Walking Across’. Now I prefer ‘Taking Wings Again’. I know I want to!

A longer review of spotting at the TWA Hotel can be seen at www.airportspotting.com

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