HM on location: TWA Hotel lands at JFK Airport

QUEENS, NEW YORK—After years of anticipation, the TWA Hotel at New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport has opened, giving new life to a long-abandoned airport terminal that was once an icon of the 1960s Jet Set.

Amid scores of dignitaries, politicians, former flight attendants and musicians, opening day found New York State Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the project's key executive, Tyler Morse, CEO/managing partner of MCR and Morse Development, cutting the ribbon to the 512-room hotel that yesterday welcomed its first guests.

As a Beatles tribute band sang classics from the Sixties, models displayed vintage uniforms and guests hoisted classic red carry-on bags, the day celebrated the reimagining of a space that once seemed doomed to fade into aviation—and architectural—history.

The only hotel on the airport’s grounds is an adaptive reuse of the historic Trans World Airlines Flight Center, which opened in 1962 via noted architect Eero Saarinen and entrepreneur Howard Hughes and was designated a New York City Landmark in 1994 before closing seven years later. Today, it sits across the street from Terminal 5, its iconic tunnels stretching over the roadway below to the JetBlue check-in area. 

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

“Eero Saarinen’s cathedral to aviation has always looked toward the future,” stated Morse. “We restored and reimagined his landmark with the same care that he devoted to his design. No detail went overlooked—from the millwork by Amish artisans to the custom font inspired by Saarinen’s own sketches to the one-of-a-kind manhole covers. Starting today, the world can enjoy this mid-century marvel for many years to come.”

At the opening, local leaders also shared insights on what the project meant to them. 

“The TWA Hotel is an amazing symbol of how ingenuity and inspiration can help fuel the continued growth of Queens as a destination for New Yorkers and visitors from around the world,” said Queens Borough President Melinda Katz in a statement. “The TWA Hotel is a welcome addition to our borough that has revitalized a landmark structure while also creating jobs for hundreds of Queens residents.”

Rick Cotton, executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, said the preservation and conversion of the landmark would attract international visitors and New Yorkers alike. “As we celebrate this one milestone, we look forward to many more, as this is just the beginning of JFK’s transformation.”

The re-creation, overseen by Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners, not only turned the historic terminal into a hotel lobby but added two wings (designed by Brooklyn-based Lubrano Ciavarra Architects) for the property’s guestrooms (interior design from Manhattan’s Stonehill Taylor) and added a 50,000-square-foot events center (by Manhattan-based INC Architecture & Design). In total, the project involved 22 government agencies and more than 170 firms. Turner Construction Co. began work in the fall of 2016, and the company estimates 450 union workers were on site every day, renovating the flight center, building the hotel, excavating space for the event facilities and installing the 63-foot by 20-foot infinity-edge rooftop pool (inspired by the pool at the Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc in Cap d’Antibes, France)

“The opening of the TWA Hotel, after being dark for nearly two decades, is a momentous event in the life of this true modern icon,” said Richard W. Southwick, partner and director of historic preservation at Beyer Blinder Belle. “My 25-year professional involvement with the preservation of the TWA Flight Center and the opportunity to lead the architectural effort with our talented design partners has been a highlight of my career.” .

The Flight Center also includes the Paris Café by Jean-Georges, the Sunken Lounge cocktail bar (a reuse of the historic red-carpeted lounge), grab-and-go dining, a coffee bar, a 10,000-square-foot fitness center (reportedly one of the world's biggest hotel gyms), historic split-flap boards, a Shinola custom watch bar and leather goods store, a reading room (outfitted with Mid-Century Modern furniture supplied by Herman Miller), the TWA Shop and a museum celebrating the airline and its legacy.

A Unique Space

Erik Palmer, the hotel’s managing director, called the opening one of the “most unique” he had ever been involved in and expects the hotel to occupy a unique space for the city. Unlike most airport hotels, where guests only stay for a few hours before early-morning flights or rest after late-night arrivals, current reservations at the TWA Hotel are for two nights on average, said Palmer.

“Most airport hotels are not destinations,” he told Hotel Management. “They're pass-throughs.” This property, however, has a story that can bring in different demographics. “So many people that have traveled through this building or have somehow connected to the TWA brand. So people want to come. You have your architectural [fans], you have your aviation fanatics, you have your looky-loos. People are actually coming to make a staycation out of it right now.”

While the opening buzz won’t last forever and the team expects steady business from passengers seeking a quick connection to their hotel (“People are willing to pay more for convenience,” Palmer said), the team already has a plan in place to keep revenue coming in: Guests will be able to book half-day stays for a discount on the standard room rate. “We're having a lot of interest in day stays where they come in the morning and they check out halfway through the day, whether they come at seven and check out at one or come in at 10 and check out at four, which gives us the ability to flip the room and then resell it again.” In the next few years, Palmer hopes to get the hotel to 200 percent occupancy.

The event space also is expected to bring in meetings and conferences, both local and fly-in/fly-out, adding to the revenue stream. 

Creating and Recreating

Bringing a building from the 1960s up to 2019’s standards also presented its challenges. For example, said Lea Ciavarra of Lubrano Ciavarra Architects, not only were handicap-accessible ramps not required when the Flight Center first opened, but railing heights were much lower. Asbestos had to be removed from the walls. The floor-to-ceiling windows in the lobby were replaced with solid individual panes of glass. (The angle of the truss made multiple panes impossible, but the glass still keeps most of the noise at bay.) 

Lubrano Ciavarra Architects came on board to build the two new guestroom wings when Anne Marie Lubrano and her partner/co-founder Ciavarra met with Morse almost five years before the new hotel opened its doors. Morse already had a development plan in mind to make the project profitable, Lubrano said—a plan that would require at least 505 guestrooms and 50,000 square feet of event space, and would allocate at least $60 million for the flight center restoration alone. “‘Have a crack at it,’” she recalled Morse telling her. “It was literally a handshake and off we went.”

Related: Defunct TWA flies again as a hotel at JFK

Lubrano and Ciavarra started by focusing on Eero Saarinen’s original design as sculpture, and looking at how the world had moved on around it, with elevated roadways and new terminals surrounding the space. The terminal had been expanded in the 1970s, and now touched the edges of the available space. “Our proposal was to shave off the old pieces of the building and take it back to its 1962 original, the way that Saarinen had envisioned it, so we get that beautiful form again,” Lubrano said. “And that gave us a little bit of breathing room to push our buildings away from the Saarinen building and recreate a backdrop, a neutral backdrop, which really is like a presentation of the sky plane so that you can see that figure again.” By creating a neutral facade, the original building stands out in the middle of the airport.

TWA Design Lubrano Ciavarra
In creating the hotel wings, Lubrano Ciavarra Architects let the original TWA Flight Center stand out.
Photo credit: TWA Design Lubrano Ciavarra Architects

Sarah Duffy, senior interiors associate at Stonehill Taylor, came on board three years ago, also eager to take a crack at creating something new out of something historic, especially something that evokes the Kennedy Administration and the Mad Men era. The Stonehill Taylor team researched Saarinen's work and the breadth of his work for inspiration. “If he were designing that room, what would he be doing?” she said. The rooms got Saarinen-designed Mid-Century Modern Knoll furnishings and 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. Classic bar carts in each guestroom offer cocktails or Tab sodas, further evoking the 1960s. “We did everything custom except for the very obvious nods to Saarinen—the womb chair, the executive chair and the tulip table,” Duffy said. “But everything else was designed by us with him in the back of our minds, trying to figure out what he would think about that.”

Stonehill Taylor also helped turn a retired  Lockheed Constellation “Connie” L-1649A plane into a cocktail lounge. The Connie bar, operated by Gerber Group, maintains many original details, including the cockpit, some chairs and a small skylight, which would help flight crews navigate by stars.

The most important element of the project’s design and redesign, said Ciavarra, was respecting the symmetrical design of the Saarinen building as 21st-century elements were added. “Visitors and guests to the hotel will be able to enjoy the experience of the Saarinen building as it was really originally designed and then move through the flight tubes into our new hotel buildings.”

TWA Hotel
Arriving at the TWA Hotel from the AirTrain
Video credit: Jena Tesse Fox

Photo credits: David Mitchell, Jena Tesse Fox, TWA Hotel