Imagine that you are sitting at the TWA Hotel on a chili pepper red banquette at the bottom of a pool of Cool. Crisp light washes over you while above you the ceiling flies away. You are immersed in everything you know and feel about architecture, style, design, color and form. For you to be sitting in the sunken lounge of the most unique hotel lobby in America required a herculean effort by architects, historic preservationists, developers and designers. The rebirth of the Saarinen-designed 1962 Trans World Airlines Flight Center at Idlewild Airport into the destination TWA Hotel at JFK spanned decades and the result is stunning.
Saarinen’s TWA Design and History
The original Flight Center, completed in 1962, was designed by Eero Saarinen following successful and acclaimed design projects such as the General Motors Technical Center in Michigan and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri. The Flight Center was yet another iconic project for Saarinen and an opportunity to explore unprecedented design and construction innovations. The thin-shell roof design, made with 3,200 cubic yards of concrete weighing 5000 tons, evokes winged flight and was meant to function as an organic whole. Saarinen described it as “a fully designed environment, in which each part arises from another and everything belongs to the same form-world.”
The design of the Flight Center was new, fresh and innovative with sinuous curves, sweeping staircases and soaring spaces punctuated by interior accents in TWA red.
Saarinen wanted a terminal that would reflect the freedom of flight and inspire the public to fly. To do so he pushed the boundaries of architecture and construction. The Flight Center was ahead of its time in many ways even as it was immediately challenged to meet the advancement of the Jet Age. Completed for $15 million in 1962 ($134 million in 2021) it is hard to imagine an airport today that doesn’t have covered jetways and baggage carousels, both Saarinen innovations that are now staples of airports around the world. The Flight Center was designed to meet traveler needs and included the Ambassador’s Club, the First Class lounge with furniture designs by Charles Eames and fabrics by Knoll as well as a fountain by Isamu Noguchi, and several restaurants and bars. It was an iconic building from the day it opened in May, 1962.
Unfortunately, Eero Saarinen died in 1961 and did not live to see the completion of the terminal. The terminal was nearly obsolete even as it opened. Sized to handle around 100 visitors at a time, the “head-house” couldn’t handle the larger capacities of the newer passenger jets. “The Flight Center was actually built to handle the highly anticipated Super Sonic Transports,” says Richard Southwick, Partner and Director of Historic Preservation for Beyer, Blinder Belle architects. The SSTs were designed for capacities of 80-100 passengers and would have fit perfectly into the terminal. But the US government phased out support for development of an American SST in the late sixties. The fate of the Flight Center was sealed.
The Flight Center was declared a landmark in 1994 after several modifications and expansions but was eventually closed in 2001. Talks for the future of the terminal began, with an eventual demolition likely. In the meantime Jet Blue built a new terminal between the Flight Center and the Idlewild runways, landlocking the small terminal. It saved the Flight Center. “The original Flight Center property was wedge shaped on the tarmac side, meaning you had more frontage on the side where you need it. When the Jet Blue terminal was completed it cut the head-house off and devalued the property. It was what saved the Flight Center from demolition by the Port Authority,” said Southwick.
The terminal sat empty, but protected, until 2017 when Jet Blue, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and the State of New York decided to breathe new life into the Flight Center by planning to turn it into a hotel and event center.
Preservation and Renovation
To the rescue came several New York-based management and design companies to create what would become the new TWA Hotel and event center.
Led by MCR/MORSE Development and Lubrano Ciavarra Architects, with Beyer Blinder Belle (BBB) handling the project architecture and Stonehill Taylor the hotel interiors, the Saarinen-designed Flight Center was reimagined as a grand entrance into the TWA Hotel, catering to both airline passengers and MCM enthusiasts alike. The team repurposed and upgraded the entire building while retaining the character of the check-in, restaurant and the iconic Sunken Lounge.
This project is remarkable for the extent to which the terminal was preserved and restored with recreated furniture, finishes and fabrics from the original designs. The form and function of the space is nearly identical to the original Flight Center while the addition of the hotel wings frames, rather than overwhelms, the winged centerpiece of the terminal.
Southwick says the redevelopment was critical. “Nothing kills a building faster than disuse. There is always the philosophical question of preservation. How far do you push the envelope of new use? It’s recreation versus redesign. All the old buildings survive because they have new uses.” The terminal had extensive repairs to the finishes, including the penny floor tiles. Plumbing, electrical and fire-detection systems were all brought up to code.
The Sunken Lounge, reception and restaurant and bar areas, as well as the sweeping staircases and boarding tubes, were all retained and restored to their original intent. Millwork, including the martini bars and tambour walls, was custom-built by Amish woodworkers in Ohio. The original baggage claim area was transformed into a ballroom and the Solari split-flap departure/arrival boards, a new innovation in the 1950s and 60s and still used for announcements, were restored.
BBB handled the renovation of the Flight Center building, including the iconic Sunken Lounge, while Lubrano Ciavarra designed the new wings of the 500-room hotel which flank the tarmac-side of the head-house. Stonehill Taylor conducted the selection and installation of the Saarinen-inspired hotel furnishings. Museum exhibits on TWA, the Jet Age and the Mid Century Modern design movement are spread throughout the former terminal.
Sitting in the TWA Hotel’s Sunken Lounge you can’t help but feel a connection back to Eero Saarinen and 1962. He is everywhere, in every surface you touch and in the air you breathe. The heroes of this story, the architects, designers, artisans and contractors of the 21st century, followed their passions for Saarinen to save this masterpiece and make it possible for you to once again experience the vibrancy, glamour and excitement of his genius. Whatever your reason for being at the TWA Hotel, you will be awed, inspired, surprised and transported.
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