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TWA Flight Center’s 18-year path to a second life

April 21, 2019

When the Port Authority of NY and NJ released its “Concept Master Plan for the Redevelopment of Site 5 & 6/TWA Terminal” at JFK airport in 2001, the concluding summary noted that the plan “allows for the restoration and adaptive reuse of the terminal building.” The terminal being Eero Saarinen’s TWA Flight Center (1956–1962)—one of the most widely recognized and admired sites of Modern movement architecture in the world. The Port Authority was making no commitment to restore, repurpose, maintain or even keep the TWA Flight Center standing. It was tossing the site to the development winds, hoping someone would swoop in with a vision and plan for what the Saarinen building could be, once encircled by a new 52-gate terminal under development with United Airlines and Jet Blue. Although it had been determined eligible, the Flight Center was not listed on the National Register of Historic Places, or even formally nominated. The NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) had given Saarinen’s building interior and exterior landmark status in 1994, but the designation was largely symbolic. The LPC has no regulatory jurisdiction over the Port Authority.

On June 27, 2001, the Port Authority held a public hearing on the Redevelopment Plan. The hearing was at an aging 2-star hotel meeting room on the airport periphery; the temperature hit 90 degrees with near matching humidity. About eight people showed up. At least most were advocating for a stronger commitment to restoration and reuse, including representatives from DOCOMOMO New York/Tri-State and DOCOMOMO US. To see the Port Authority reuse the building for a sustainable, permanent airport function was our stated, ambitious objective.

2001 also brought a Memorandum of Agreement between the Port Authority, the FAA, and the New York SHPO. Another public hearing, a National Register nomination submission and a Section 104 review (triggered by FAA involvement in the new Terminal 5 project) followed. DOCOMOMO and the Municipal Art Society were given seats on the Port Authority’s Redevelopment Advisory Committee. The committee held over 30 meetings to track project progress and recommend strategies for balancing preservation with the potential for reuse. This oversight included reviewing and providing comments to developers and architects on three different RFP responses. DOCOMOMO New York/Tri-State dutifully advanced a preservation agenda at these advisory committee meetings and through other channels throughout the duration of the redevelopment project, while keeping the end goal of a viable reuse plan in sight.

Early on the Municipal Art Society, supported by DOCOMOMO New York/Tri-State and others, led efforts to produce and promote an alternative scheme for the to-be-constructed new terminal, a plan that would have saved neighboring Terminal 6, designed by I.M. Pei and completed in 1969, from demolition; preserved the “trumpet” extension to the Flight Center designed by Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo Associates, successors to the Saarinen firm; and more. (Eero Saarinen died unexpectedly in September 1961 at age 51 of a brain tumor as the Flight Center was being constructed.) The alternative plan did not gain traction with the Port Authority.

The TWA Flight Center was decommissioned in January 2002. By February 2004 it had landed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s “11 Most Endangered Places List.” Things looked up a bit however when the National Park Service listed the Flight Center on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005.

Meanwhile, the new crescent-shaped terminal was going up around the Flight Center on the flight side, with Jet Blue the Port Authority’s primary partner. The new Terminal 5 opened in October 2008. Earlier the same year, the pivotal decision of the 18-year development project was made. Having received no viable responses to a series of RFPs, the Port Authority acknowledged that it was unlikely to find a developer that could balance the potential reuse opportunity of the Flight Center with the investment required to restore the structure. In February 2008 the Port Authority Board approved a $19 million investment to restore the Saarinen building. Beyer Blinder Belle was hired to lead the work and a four-year project commenced. The Port Authority had put its weight behind saving TWA Flight Center. It deserves major praise for changing course, executing a state-of-the-art restoration and bringing the project along for another ten years—assuring Saarinen’s masterpiece a second life. As the restoration work was wrapping up in 2012, DOCOMOMO New York/Tri-State hosted a members-only tour of the Flight Center in March and a public tour as part of Open House NY in October. Over 1,000 people attended. The buzz about the future of “TWA terminal” had started, as did talk of a hotel developer being selected to build between the historic Saarinen building and the new Terminal 5, while incorporating the Saarinen building into the visitor experience.

The first hotel developer to enter negotiations with the Port Authority was André Balazs Properties. After two years of negotiations and at least one design proposal both parties were unable to reach a final agreement and the project was halted in January 2014. MCR/MORSE Development, a New York-based hotel investment firm led by CEO Tyler Morse, entered the picture in 2015. MCR/MORSE Development is one of the largest hotel owners in the US, with 94 hotels in 24 states, including a successful local adaptive reuse project, The High Line Hotel, occupying a portion of the General Theological Seminary. MCR/MORSE Development’s design proposal was shared with the Port Authority’s Redevelopment Advisory Committee in July 2015. Having also commented on the abandoned scheme from 2012, DOCOMOMO New York/Tri-State supported the new MCR/MORSE Development proposal overall, but communicated reservations on a couple of points. Between the two plans the paired hotel blocks behind Saarinen’s Flight Center had gained a story, a move to get from 300 to 500 rooms. The height of the hotel buildings, combined with their proximity to the historic structure, would create a looming wall tight behind and extending above the Flight Center. Of all the buildings that need a little breathing space, few would disagree that Saarinen’s soaring concrete shell needs sky and air field. But to have an airport-based use that would revitalize the Flight Center for a long, productive, publicly-accessible future finally outweighed these concerns.

The redevelopment of TWA Flight Center is a public-private partnership between MCR/MORSE Development, JetBlue and the Port Authority—a critical trifecta given the complexity of bringing a new use, in a landmark building, to a major terminal at one of the country’s largest, busiest airports. MCR/MORSE Development’s press materials note that its team had to navigate 22 federal, state and city agencies before breaking ground in December 2016. And they did. The TWA Hotel will open in May. After a very long journey this amazing building seems poised for a safe landing.
— K. Randall

More on the soon to open TWA Hotel

TWA Flight Center, Eero Saarinen, 1956–1962. Photo: Max Touhey, courtesy MCR.
Aerial view of original terminal with starburst boarding lounges. Photo: Ezra Stoller/ESTO from Port Authority on site exhibition.
TWA Flight Center during DOCOMOMO NY/Tri-State and Open House NY tour, October 2012.
TWA Flight Center during DOCOMOMO NY/Tri-State and Open House NY tour, October 2012.
TWA Flight Center, view from the top of the stair, tour day 2012.
One of the mezzanine lounges in 2012 before any interior renovation.