In 1955, Trans World Airlines commissioned the brilliant architect and industrial designer Eero Saarinen to design a new terminal at New York’s Idlewild Airport. In the 63 years since almost every proper noun in the previous sentence would be altered by some kind of untimely end: Saarinen died before his time in 1961-a year before the terminal’s eventual completion; Idlewild was renamed John F. Kennedy International in 1963, mere weeks after the President’s tragic assassination; TWA folded in 2001, absorbed by American Airlines after decades of financial struggle.
However, despite the ravages of time and the relentlessness of change, the daring heart o Saarinen’s structure remains with us, as timely as ever. The head house of the TWA Flight Centermagnificent, futuristic, and ambitious-still stands in the middle of New York’s largest airport. It’s a stubborn, elegiac landmark to a bygone idea of travel, one that transcends mere transportation.
If you’ve ever flown through JFK, you know the terminal’s sublime concrete contours, equally at home in Jamaica, Queens, and on The Jetsons. It’s simultaneously retro and futuristic.
Intended to evoke the spirit of flight, Saarinen’s building resembles a bird from above. Its thin concrete shell of a roof extends in great, symmetrical gull wings. Inside, the smooth form of the building blurs the lines between ceiling, wall, and floor, becoming pure, gestural geometry.
The building was an immediate icon. In 1994, it was named a New York City Landmark. Later, it would be added to the National Register of Historic Places.
However, changes in air travel would eventually doom the forward-facing terminal. Planes got bigger. Security clearance became more onerous and timeconsuming, creating longer lines and eventually making the terminal become less and less viable. It went on to close in 2001.
While its heyday as a terminal has passed, the TWA Flight Center is not yet a complete relic. Next year, after 18 years of disuse, the structure will know the lively bustle of crowds once again, this time as the centerpiece of a high-concept hotel devoted to celebrating the optimistic design of the Jet Age. The $265 million project, appropriately called the TWA Hotel, is the brainchild of MCR and Morse Development and will once again place Saarinen’s original vision front and center.
Connected to JetBlue’s Terminal 5 by dramatic, redcarpeted “flight tubes:· Saarinen’s main structure will serve as a 200,000 square foot lobby ( the world’s largest) containing retail spaces, eight restaurants, and six bars. The hotel’s 512 guest rooms will be housed in two separate buildings flanking the main structure, benefitting from the world’s second-thickest glass walls (seven panes!) to minimize runway noise.
The hotel’s Instagram-ready interiors are tailor-made to suit today’s Mad Men-abetted obsession with all things mid-century modern, anchored by an attention to detail that borders on the fanatical. The rooms will feature only Saarinen-designed Knoll furniture and period-perfect terrazzo tiling in the bathrooms. Retro-obsessed guests will even have the opportunity to order room service on 1950’s rotary phones. To drum up anticipation for the hotel, its owners have offered up a preview of the property’s aesthetic in an exclusive lounge installation at One World Trade Center, complete with a museum section celebrating original TWA assets.
While the building’s architecture serves as its major selling point, its high-profile provenance has added significant headaches to the hotel’s development. Its renovation required approval from 22 government agencies and drew on the expertise of 173 design firms to bring the project up-to-code, including removing asbestos and replacing the building’s many obsolete windows.
When finished, the TWA Hotel will be JFK’s only on-site hotel, attracting guests seeking convenience and accessibility. However, the building—with its expansive public space and hospitality options—will no doubt also become a destination for architecture buffs and curious travelers with long connections. One can imagine taking the train to the airport just to soak in its atmosphere—an almost unheard-of proposition in the age of the TSA and cramped economy seating.
In fact, the renovated building may help reignite a long-lost spirit of glamor and occasion in air travel, one that predates sweatpants and neck pillows, in which exquisite design and glamor are part of the journey itself. In that sense, Saarinen’s vision of an artistic and ambitious travel future was spot on. It just took us 64 years to catch up with him.
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