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TWA Hotel opens mid-May with Saarinen’s Flight Center as its centerpiece

April 21, 2019

Eighteen years ago the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey held a public hearing on its concept master plan for the redevelopment of the TWA Flight Center at JFK. Eero Saarinen’s celebrated terminal, opened in May 1962, would soon be decommissioned. For the preservation advocates represented, seeing that Saarinen’s fabulous wing-like thin-shell concrete structure be restored and returned to a permanent, airport-related function was the ambitious objective. The TWA Hotel, opening May 15, delivers on that aspiration with a cool reverence toward TWA and its Flight Center and a swagger recalling the excitement jet travel conjured in 1962.

After a rather non-committal start in 2001, the Port Authority turned its redevelopment project around in 2008 by investing over $20 million in a four-year project to restore the exterior shell and primary interior spaces of the Flight Center before fielding a new call for partners. MCR/MORSE Development, a New York-based hotel investment firm with 94 hotels in 24 states, was chosen in 2015 and has been jet streaming its TWA Hotel project ever since. The design team includes Beyer Blinder Belle, Project and Preservation Architect; Lubrano Ciavarra, Design Consultant and Design Architect for the hotel buildings; INC Architecture & Design, conference and event space interior design; and Stonehill Taylor,  hotel room interior design.

The TWA Hotel takes Saarinen’s landmarked headhouse as its centerpiece—that alone lifts it from the traditionally suspect lodging class “airport hotel.” Reception, restaurants, bars, retail and more will be under “the wings” in the space that made white penny tile modern and glamorous. More than 10 million of the little round tiles were custom fabricated for the Port Authority’s restoration and they are not all the same size. As Richard Southwick Partner and Director of Historic Preservation at Beyer Blinder Belle, shared during a 2012 DOCOMOMO tour, some are ever-so-slightly smaller diameter to take on the complex curves of Saarinen’s interior.

TWA Hotel’s 512 guest rooms are in two six–story glass curtain-walled buildings set at the left and right flanks of Saarinen’s structure, between it and Terminal 5. Architect of the hotel, Lubrano Ciavarra, has described the hotel volumes as providing “a deferential yet complementary backdrop.” From a preservation purist standpoint this is a non-starter, as Saarinen designed the Flight Center first and foremost to open up to and showcase the flight side activity—planes and runways. Jet Blue’s Terminal 5 put an end to most of that view. Today’s travelers are certainly less excited about watching jets than their 1962 peers, but architectural observers may find the proximity of the new construction to Saarinen’s structure jarring. Saarinen’s alluringly arced flight tubes remain, connecting to Terminal 5 instead of starburst-plan boarding lounges. The view from the Flight Center’s dramatically pitched windows will not be devoid of planes. MCR/MORSE Development purchased and restored “Connie” a 1958 Lockheed Constellation L-1649A Starliner, the super fast, super elegant prop airliner that made TWA’s Jetstream fleet the gold standard of flying—until the Boeing 707 jetliner arrived on the scene in 1960. “Connie,” converted to a cocktail lounge, will be parked on the tarmac between the Flight Center and Terminal 5. If you’ve never seen a passenger plane fuselage travel on a trailer through Manhattan this video is for you.

The guest rooms feature floor-to-ceiling windows with views back to the Flight Center or of planes lifting off beyond Terminal 5. But no planes will be heard. The curtain wall is seven panes, equal to 4.5 inch-thick glass. That’s the second thickest in the world, exceeded only by the U.S. embassy in London. (That would be the new embassy, not the one designed by Saarinen, completed in 1960, now decommissioned and also slated to become a hotel).

Inside, guest rooms will be loaded with the authentic Knoll versions of furniture designed by Saarinen—a Womb Chair, Executive Chair and Pedestal Side Table for every room. Not to mention a retrofit rotary phone and in-room martini bar. The bathroom vanities take their cue from the Ladies Lounge at the former Four Seasons restaurant, a Philip Johnson designed favorite from 1959.

Data reveals that there are over 20,000 flight layovers of 3+ hours every day at JFK. You can’t have too many bars and restaurants. When fully built out, the TWA Hotel will have six restaurants and eight bars. Within the restored Saarinen head house the mezzanine-level Paris Café restaurant, originally designed by Raymond Loewy, is returning, this time under the eye of restauranteur Jean-Georges Vongerichten. The Sunken Lounge, which will debut in the main waiting area—Saarinen’s largest ever conversation pit—will lean heavily toward retro cocktails. An array of swizzle sticks is planned. Listen for the classic Solari split-flap departures board, its original mechanical operation once again in working order.

Raising the bar for one-of-a-kind boutique properties, the TWA Hotel has its own collection of historic artifacts and a custom font. Over the course of the project MCR/MORSE Development accessioned more than 2,000 items related to TWA’s history and Saarinen’s designs for the Flight Center. The Port Authority has donated the original blueprints. These artifacts will come together in regular on-site exhibitions developed by curators from the New-York Historical Society. And the font? Flight Center Gothic. When the Flight Center was originally being designed, letterforms for signage were hand-drawn by architects or graphic designers in architectural firms—digital fonts did not exist. This is supported by drawings in the Eero Saarinen archive at Yale University, which include precisely detailed measured drawings for every sign. MCR/MORSE Development hired the design firm Pentagram to turn the Saarinen team’s drawn letterforms—with their extreme italic lean—into a modern digital type font. Read more on that process from Pentagram partner Michael Beirut.

Saarinen’s “TWA Terminal” is one of the most widely known (and loved) buildings to emerge from the Modern movement in the U.S. At the time of its landmarking in 1994, Laurie Beckelman, chair of the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission, called it the “most important building ever built for flight in the entire world.” Having the Flight Center return as a building that can again be experienced, not just a shell viewed from the AirTrain, will give millions the opportunity to arrive at this same conclusion or their own.

The DOCOMOMO crowd may be the harshest judges when it comes to maintaining a site’s Modern movement integrity. Wholly new uses come with inevitable, often significant, compromises. MCR/MORSE Development, led by CEO Tyler Morse, is putting an impressive level of thought and creativity into the details and the experience of the TWA Hotel. The Port Authority has played a critical role in bringing about this long-awaited transformation. As have hang-in-there preservationists. Whether staying the night or simply passing through to a JetBlue flight, you can again experience what the 1962 promotional brochures promised: Saarinen’s “Winged Gateway to the World of Flight…designed to add pleasure to all your journeys.” The hotel and signature bars and restaurants open May 15. But you can book rooms now.
— K. Randall

A light recap of the 18 intervening years can be found here.

TWA Flight Center, Eero Saarinen, 1956–1962. Photo: Max Touhey, courtesy MCR.
TWA Flight Center, Eero Saarinen, 1956–1962. Photo: Max Touhey, courtesy MCR.
"Connie," a 1958 Lockheed Constellation Starliner, being lowered into place at TWA Hotel.
Mock up of TWA Hotel guest room
1962 view of TWA Flight Center main waiting area. Photo: Balthazar Korab, courtesy MCR.
Post-restoration view, TWA Flight Center main waiting area. Photo Max Touhey, courtesy MCR.
Detail, original TWA project drawing, Eero Saarinen archive, Yale University.
TWA Hotel under construction at JFK, March 2019. Photo: Max Touhey, courtesy MCR.
TWA Flight Center, Eero Saarinen, 1956–1962. Photo: Max Touhey, courtesy MCR.