TWA Flight Center opened at JFK Airport in Queens, New York on May 28, 1962.
The terminal—an innovative example of thin-shell concrete-and-glass construction—ceased operations when TWA went bankrupt for a third, and final time, in 2001. In 2016, renovations began on the defunct terminal and two brand new hotel wings were constructed behind it. On May 15, thousands of people attended the opening ceremony, which took place just a few hours before the hotel officially opened its 512 rooms to guests.
I re-visited the flight center back in 2014, when it was still empty and its future was uncertain. Lovers of old New York always hold their collective breath whenever the renovation or conversion of a beloved landmark is announced—but I’m happy to report that the many agencies behind the TWA Hotel have managed to bring life back into the terminal without erasing much of what makes it so special.
Stepping out of one of the terminal’s famous red-carpeted tubes—which connect visitors to their hotel rooms and JetBlue’s Terminal 5—instantly transports you back to an era when flying was a special event. TWA Flight Center could eat at the Paris Café, have a drink at the Lisbon Lounge, relax by a Noguchi fountain, have their shoes shined, and wait for their flight in the stylish, chili-pepper red, carpeted sunken lounge.
New amenities added to the hotel include a watch bar and leather goods store, a Warby Parker Pencil Room, the world’s biggest hotel gym, a reading room, 50,000 square feet of event space with a 15,000-square-foot ballroom, a gift shop selling TWA apparel, and BLADE helicopter service to Manhattan.
The TWA Hotel has also made sure that visitors don’t miss out on everyone’s favorite ‘60s activity—drinking—by ensuring that guests are never more than a few feet from a cocktail. They’ve combined the Paris Café and the Lisbon Lounge, turned the sunken lounge into a cocktail bar, and converted a Lockheed Constellation L-1649A plane—dubbed “Connie”—into a cocktail lounge. The rooftop infinity pool is surrounded by an observation deck with yet another bar, offering views of planes arriving and departing from nearby runways.
Trans World Airlines, which operated from 1930 until 2001, was once one of the major American airlines. In 1939, Howard Hughes acquired control of the company, which flew to Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Its decline, which began with the passage of the Airline Deregulation Act in 1978, was hastened by the explosion of TWA Flight 800 in 1996. In 2001, the bankrupt company was acquired by American Airlines. “I got to witness the demise of TWA as a company, which was really sad, although I never worked for the company, I was lucky enough to walk through the flight center when it was still active.
Like any building with a history, those stains represent stories—of passengers and pilots, of bartenders and businessmen, of families and flight attendants, who for some reason or another found themselves thrown together in an airport terminal.
Buildings don’t have to be memorable to be functional, but when Saarinen designed the TWA flight center, he proved that a great architect conceives of a building that is both. Visitors to the TWA Hotel may actually forget for a moment that the golden age of air travel is very much behind us—until they need to catch their flight and are forced to take one of those time-traveling tubes back into the present.