From being the “Grand Central Station of the jet age” to a quirky on-airport boutique hotel opened in mid-May after years of underuse, the Trans World Flight Center at JFK Airport has an interesting history. More commonly called the TWA Terminal after its operator Trans World Airlines (which closed up shop in 2001), the terminal opened in 1962 – the president whose name would soon adorn the New York airport was in office and it was “the future” in the United States.
The original design featured a prominent wing-shaped thin shell roof over the main terminal. There were tube-shaped departure and arrival corridors filled with enough red carpets to line every Hollywood movie premiere. Tall windows provided expansive views of jets coming and going on the runway. Designed by the Finnish architects at Eero Saarinen and Associates in a mostly Futurist and Neo-futurist style, the TWA Terminal was one of the first with enclosed passenger jetways, which allowed passengers to walk onto their plane without having to go outside. How futuristic – especially in the harsh New York wintertime! It was also one of the first airport terminals with a video surveillance system, a central public address system, baggage carousels and many other common airport elements that we still use today.
The architects were building something made to handle the ever-increasing amount of airline passengers. It was conceived to speed up processes. The bird-shaped design wasn’t as practical as it was important to the airline that would be housed there. It was a reference to TWA’s corporate identity, conveying their winged image to the world.
The terminal was dedicated on May 28, 1962. It was a marvel of the era. Working there was “an overwhelmingly exciting experience, and everyone around me felt the same,” said Hugh Schoelzel, who worked for TWA as a flight engineer starting in 1967.
But that type of hullabaloo wouldn’t last for too long. The flying experience changed drastically, and the TWA Terminal was unable to change with it. Jumbo jets were built and couldn’t fit at the terminal. Increased passenger traffic at unprecedented levels and security issues made things difficult. The terminal’s gates were too close to the street, making centralized ticketing and security checkpoints a challenge. An expansion in 1969 added a new departure-arrival concourse and lounge, but it certainly wasn’t enough to satisfy the other issues that the terminal had already begun to experience. The expansion did, however, accommodate then-new wide-body aircraft like the Boeing 747.
Still, it wasn’t enough. By the 1980s, TWA was experiencing financial troubles. A remodel of the terminal was planned, but nothing came to fruition. In 2001, TWA was acquired by American Airlines and the terminal returned to the care of its landlord, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. For more than a decade, it sat vacant adjacent to Terminal 5, completed in 2008 for JetBlue, the first new terminal at JFK since the attacks on September 11, 2001. That is, until talks about a unique reutilization plan started.
Preservationists and lovers of aviation history were upset at its lack of progress, and ideas continually swirled around the beloved TWA Terminal. It was simply too small to be used in a way that it once was. In any case, it was now flanked by JetBlue’s T5. What could be done to restore it to the former glory it once knew?
How About a Hotel?
An effort by noted developer Andre Balazs went south in 2013, but a year later, hotelier Tyler Morse envisioned a return to that glory. He pictured what he claims is the largest hotel lobby in the world at 200,000 square feet. A museum celebrating the building’s midcentury design, the dawn of the jet age and the terminal itself is there.
At a budget estimated to be $265 million, the TWA Terminal is back, having opened May 15 with 512 midcentury-furnished rooms, an infinity pool, lounge, observation deck on the roof, a shop from Detroit-based watchmaker Shinola and a restaurant from chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten named Paris Café.
It’s JFK’s first on-airport hotel ever, something that’s actually quite common at many airports. Unlike many, it was once a terminal itself. For those of you who are thinking the novelty will be in exchange for a peaceful slumber, don’t fret. The hotel was built with a glass curtain wall that is seven panes and 4.5 inches thick, meaning you’ll be able to see the planes taking off but not hear them.
Overnight rates start at $249, though they also offer day-stay reservations for those who need to catch a nap before a flight ($139 for four hours).
And while you’ll be able to slip into 1962 just about everywhere in the hotel, except for maybe the modern fitness center, the famous Sunken Lounge is sure to turn heads. It’s where crowds gathered to watch the Beatles arrive in the U.S. in 1965 and where visitors saw "Tin Goose" break a transcontinental record right outside the window in June 1962. Today, it’s been restored to its former glory, complete with that original bright red carpeting.