Imagine the Richard Neutra-designed Kaufmann House with a 20 room hotel built over the pool. Or the Stahl House living room turned into a restaurant. No? There is iconic architecture and design that you just don’t alter. But how do you keep an unused, but iconic, mid-century airline terminal vibrant and alive? If you have the vision, passion, expertise and commitment you turn the former TWA Flight Center into a destination hotel. The TWA Hotel is as modern, exciting, vibrant and glamorous as Eero Saarinen’s TWA Flight Center was in the 60s.
Reimagining a Landmark
Completed in 1962, the Saarinen-designed TWA Flight Center was an amazing, innovative and immediate icon of architecture and design. Intended to serve as the flagship terminal for Trans World Airlines at the JFK Airport (then Idlewild), the Flight Center was nearly obsolete even as it was being built. Faster and larger commercial jets were being produced and the terminal, built for smaller supersonic transport jets, couldn’t handle larger capacity aircraft. After several modifications and expansions, and after achieving landmark status in 1994, the Flight Center sat unused for over a decade. Demolition of the building was being considered by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The building would have to take on a new life if it was to survive.
Enter our heroes. Led by Tyler Morse of MCR/MORSE Development, the New York-based project team of Lubrano Ciavarra, Beyer Blinder Belle, and Stonehill Taylor took on the exciting, and daunting, task of re-inventing the Flight Center. It was critical to the success of the project that the terminal regain its glory and vibrancy. It was determined that the highest and best use of the building and surrounding tarmac was as a hotel and events center. The TWA Hotel was born.
The Flight Center kept many of the original services and purposes. Check-in, lounge areas and restaurants were all upgraded and refreshed. But it would be ill-advised and unprofitable to shoehorn hotel rooms into the original terminal. The hotel would have to be built separately, with enough rooms to serve both travelers to JFK and MCM enthusiasts visiting the refurbished terminal. As Richard Southwick, Partner and Director of Historic Preservation for Beyer, Blinder Belle architects, related, “Tyler Morse pointed to an early conception of the hotel and said ‘This (the hotel) is going to have to pay for this (the Flight Center).’”
Beyond a Hotel
Anne Marie Lubrano, founding partner of Lubrano Ciavarra Architects, was tasked with designing the new hotel. “I had a short meeting with Tyler Morse. He said he needed 500 keys (rooms), 50,000 square feet of event space and 10,000 square feet of observation deck. And that Saarinen was the celebrity. I had to check my ego at the door. This was a commission of a lifetime.”
Lubrano and her partner, Lea Ciavarra, created space for two hotel wings by reducing the footprint of 1970s additions to the Flight Center. The goal, according to Lubrano, was to “have the buildings look like they were there from the beginning.” The overall composition of the site was key. Saarinen’s palate was concrete, metal and glass. Lubrano used contemporary technology and materials, balancing old and new. The result is two gracefully curved “bar” wings that sit lightly between the Flight Center, the JetBlue terminal and the JFK runways beyond. The ultimate build feels like it was a part of the original design, updated for the 21st century. Southwick describes it as “a hotel that is at an airport rather than a hotel airport.”
Opened in 2019, the LEED-certified hotel has 512 super-quiet guest rooms set in the two curved annexes with all of the event space underground. In keeping with the spirit of the innovative Saarinen, the airside elevations are glazed in seven layers of sound-proofing material to block out noise from the adjacent JetBlue terminal and the jets that take off and land nearby. The original flight tubes, once connecting passengers to jetways and planes, now connect visitors to the hotel. Lubrano describes punching a hole in the tubes as “one of the most terrifying undertakings. Because there really isn’t anything to them.”
Interiors: From Flight Center to TWA Hotel
Just as impressive as the restoration of the Flight Center are the 1960s-inspired hotel rooms. The rooms feel sleek and modern yet evoke the glamour of 60s air travel. Sara Duffy, Principal, Interiors Division at Stonehill Taylor said the design team “looked at the ethos of 1962 with influences by Saarinen and his contemporaries such as Florence Knoll, Alexander Girard, and Charles and Ray Eames in order to envision a guest experience that is reminiscent of the peak Mid Century Modern design.”
The airside rooms face either the Flight Center or the runways for spectacular views through floor-to-ceiling windows that are the second-thickest in the world. Outfitted by Stonehill Taylor, all rooms integrate terrazzo flooring, walnut tambour walls, mini martini bars and chili-pepper-red Saarinen-designed Womb chairs and Tulip tables as well as delightful rotary-dial telephones. Sara Duffy said that the team tried to use materials that were available in the 60s, including taupe wall coverings.
The tables and the chili-pepper-red textiles on the stools and chairs are by Knoll. Despite the adherence to 1960s sensibilities there are also modern touches, including wireless chargers and USB ports. Duffy said the focus throughout the rooms “was to create an unforgettable experience for the guests, from the vintage posters to the beds oriented toward the incredible views of the runway or original Saarinen building. However, we also needed to be mindful of the busy, transient guests and the efficiency that they require.”
Stonehill Taylor was also tasked with the conversion of a 1958 TWA Constellation aircraft into a one-of-a-kind cocktail bar parked on the tarmac outside the terminal. “Connie” was refurbished and fitted with a bar, comfy chili-pepper-red couches and Saarinen Tulip tables as well as the re-installation of a few period airline seats. MCR/MORSE purchased the aircraft in 2018 and partnered with Atlantic Models/Gog Aviation to restore it to the original condition. Duffy said the team was challenged by the tight, circular space but visually opened the space so guests would feel welcome. “The plane’s interiors were meant to reflect the designs we used in the hotel, and we wanted guests to feel as if they were really boarding a plane in the 1960s,” Duffy stated. Visitors can hang out in the fuselage of Connie for drinks and snacks or can also make their way to an outdoor skating rink.
Anne Marie Lubrano had other challenges in the hotel design. One of the requirements was to include a 10,000 square foot observation deck and heated infinity pool, which is sited on the roof of the Hughes wing and faces the runways. “It’s so mesmerizing to watch the planes take-off and land. It’s like watching fish. Like a big aquarium,” Lubrano says. The rooftop also includes a bar and outdoor dining. The roof of the Saarinen wing accommodates an innovative co-generation power plant, removing the hotel from the city power grid.
Lubrano also had to fit 50,000 square feet of event space on the small footprint. The only place to go was 29 feet underground. The event space can hold up to 1,600 people in 45 rooms. Like the Hotel, the event space is also furnished with Knoll chairs, tables and fabrics with TWA flight attendant uniform exhibits throughout the concourse.
Other surprising touches include recreations of the offices of Howard Hughes and Eero Saarinen, the world’s largest hotel gym, a room-sized Twister game and quiet, comfortable reading room. Check out the manhole covers on the property, cast as tributes to TWA, Florence Knoll and Eero Saarinen.
The TWA Hotel is a must-see experience for any MCM enthusiasts. The hotel does an excellent job of walking the line between landmark museum and practical, operational lodging. The Flight Center is just as vibrant and alive as it was in its heyday, filled with families, travelers, locals out for dinner and drinks and, of course, MCM enthusiasts. Once you spend any amount of time in the TWA Hotel you may not want to catch your flight. Read more about the hotel in Part 1. To book your stay, visit twahotel.com.
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