Defunct TWA flies again as a hotel at JFK

If any one word describes the old TWA terminal at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, it is “cool.” Constructed in 1962, under the auspices of architect Eero Saarinen and Howard Hughes (the film maven dubbed “The Aviator”), the TWA Flight Center evoked every element of 1960s style and the dawn of the jet age with its soaring ceilings and pedestrian tubes that let guests walk over the street to or from their gates. The terminal was designated a New York City Landmark in 1994, but closed just seven years later, unable to accommodate newer planes and the needs of modern air travel. JFK’s new-build Terminal 5, supporting JetBlue Airways, opened across the street decades later, and the historic building fell into disuse for more than a decade.

Now, it's getting dusted off. Next year, MCR and Morse Development will reopen the Flight Center as the TWA Hotel, and while the project is set to restore the building to its original aesthetic, the hotel will specifically avoid being “cool.”

“By definition, ‘cool’ is ephemeral, and it's fleeting,” Tyler Morse, CEO of MCR and Morse Development, said after unveiling the hotel’s first model rooms to the press. “What's cool today is not cool tomorrow.” Hotels adhering to a fad can find themselves abandoned—just like the Flight Center was for nearly 20 years. “Instead, we're trying to create a great product that has a timeless attraction to it,” Morse said.

From Terminal to Hotel

The building’s designation as a New York City Landmark and its place on the National Register of Historic Places proved to be both limiting and liberating. “We're dealing with 22 government agencies and we have a 173 different firms working on the project,” Morse said. “It takes a village to put a project like this together, but it's a spectacular building—one of the most important buildings in America—and the opportunity to bring it back to life was a very enticing.”  

The project is a public-private partnership between MCR, JetBlue, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, but the redevelopment was privately funded with no government subsidies.

Morse Development and design firm Stonehill Taylor are bringing the TWA Terminal back to exactly how it was when it first opened, Morse said, but the building codes from 1962 are decidedly different from those of 2018, which has required some serious gut renovations. “The building, when we first got there, was filled with asbestos and lead paint and an old HVAC system that was never really properly designed,” Morse said. “The beautiful windows all had to be replaced because they were made of non-tempered glass. We had to temper the glass and replace all the windows. So it'll look the same as when you saw it in 1962, but all the windows will be new.”

In total, the team had to spend about $65 million just to bring the existing building up to current code before they could start building any of the new structures. Beyond that, Morse estimates ongoing construction costs to be about $20 million per month.

Keeping The Peace

Airports are, by nature, busy and noisy, so from the outset, an airport hotel needs serious soundproofing to make sure guests don’t wake up every few minutes to the roar of a jet engine. The TWA Hotel’s glass curtain wall by Fabbrica—the second-thickest in the world after the wall at the U.S. Embassy in London, Morse noted—uses seven panes of glass to keep the guestrooms quiet.

“It's normal glass,” Morse explained, but the engineering of the material is unique. “It's a triple-glazed system, so it has three pieces of glass laminated together, then an air gap, then two pieces of glass laminated together, then another air gap, and another two pieces of glass laminated together.” The air gaps, he said, are what deaden the frequencies. All of the pieces of glass—and those gaps—are less than five inches thick, but have proven very effective. The company tested the curtain wall in York, Pennsylvania, where it got a Sound Transmission Class (STC) rating of nearly 50.

In total, each of the curtain wall’s 2,055 panels weighs 1,740 pounds. “It’s the heaviest curtain wall unit that you can lift with one of the spider cranes and apply it to the building,” Morse said. “Any heavier than that and it becomes too cumbersome to apply to the side of a building.”

21st Century Meets Midcentury

The hotel takes up two low-rise buildings that can be reached directly from Terminal 5 through those iconic tubes. The lobby has maintained its 1962 look with some classic midcentury touches, such as an authentic Solari split-flap departures board with its original mechanical operation. (Only one factory still makes these boards, Morse noted, and they have to brought in from Udine, Italy.)

A Lockheed Constellation “Connie” L-1649A Starliner has been repurposed as a cocktail lounge and will be positioned on the tarmac between the TWA Flight Center and Terminal 5. The hotel will also have six restaurants, eight bars, a rooftop pool and a 10,000-square-foot observation deck overlooking a runway as well as a 10,000-square-foot fitness center and a 50,000-square-foot event center that can host up to 1,400 people. Behind the scenes, the property also has a first-of-its-kind hybridized microgrid, an entirely off-grid cogeneration plant that helped get the hotel LEED certified.

The hotel’s 512 guestrooms, designed by Stonehill Taylor, have Saarinen-designed midcentury modern Knoll furnishings and plenty of retro touches, like rotary 1950s Western Electric 500 phones, retrofitted with a pulse to tone converter by Old Phone Works and high-tech VoIP technology. “You don't notice [the technology] because you just pick up a rotary-dial phone,” Morse said. “But it's a nice vintage piece.”

The terrazzo-tiled bathrooms have custom-designed vanities with bubble lights inspired by Philip Johnson’s ladies’ lounge in New York City’s former Four Seasons restaurant (from the same era as the original Flight Center).

The rooms are lined with warm walnut wood in the ceiling trim, tambour wall and the sliding barn door for the bathroom, and a custom walnut entryway unit includes storage, a mini refrigerator and a hidden safe. Saarinen’s Womb Chair, upholstered in red Knoll fabric, is next to a 16-inch round white Saarinen Pedestal tulip side table, while an armless Saarinen Executive Chair wrapped in tan leather goes with the custom walnut, brass and crystallized glass desk.

Each room also has a custom-build bar made of walnut, glass, mirrors, brushed brass and crystallized glass. (Think of the drink trolleys in Mad Men.) In a model room toured by invited press, Moët & Chandon Impérial Brut Champagne and Hennessy V.S.O.P Privilège Cognac were displayed with the essentials for mixing an official Belvedere 007 Martini with Belvedere Vodka.

The bed, meanwhile, is lined in brass and has a custom quilted leather-look headboard with a custom brass sconce and a crystallized glass ledge.

“There are just so many characteristics to this that make up the feel of 1962,” Morse said as he described the details. “We're bringing back 1962, but without the cigarette smoke.”

Flight Center photos courtesy of Max Touhey. Guestroom photos courtesy of David Mitchell.