Within the first couple of weeks there were half a dozen marriage proposals. Guys dropping to their knees in the Sunken Lounge and on the cantilevered catwalk — popping the question on the Solari split-flap departure board or in “Connie,” the 1958 TWA Lockheed Constellation Starliner parked outside on the roof of a new underground conference center, the plane’s fuselage converted into a 60’s-era cocktail lounge.
The TWA Hotel now occupies Eero Saarinen’s stupendously restored 1962 TWA Flight Center at John F. Kennedy International Airport, midcentury modernism’s great tribute to sex, adventure and the golden age of air travel. It is attracting the predictable mix of nostalgic baby boomers, design-conscious hipsters and stylish Europeans.
My wife and I caught the A train to Kennedy and stayed the other night, during what TWA’s owner is calling the hotel’s soft opening — his explanation for what has clearly been a rough start. Power outages, failed air-conditioning in the rooms, broken window blinds, televisions that don’t work, a food court shut down by the Health Department: the place is a work in progress.
There are 512 new rooms in two plain seven-story towers designed by a Brooklyn architecture firm, Lubrano Ciavarra, linked to the Flight Center via Saarinen’s red-carpeted tubular jetways, their exteriors clad in curtain walls of reflective black glass to mirror Saarinen’s building. An infinity pool, with a bird’s-eye view of planes taking off and landing, occupies the rooftop of one tower.
Saarinen’s building is the hotel atrium, with bars, shops and the latest Jean-Georges Vongerichten restaurant. Richard Southwick, from Beyer Blinder Belle, the New York architects, oversaw its restoration. He deserves a key to the city. I watched people walk around as if in a trance, snapping selfies, pointing and gazing at the thin, vaulted, soaring, twin-tortoise-shell concrete roof, breathing deeply, to inhale the building’s aura, lingering because, well, just being in that space seems to inspire happiness.
When was the last time you lingered for pleasure at Kennedy Airport? When was the last time you felt happy to be there? An architectural advertisement for the thrill of air travel at the sunny dawn of the jet age, Saarinen’s reincarnated terminal is an unavoidable reminder of just how sad and degrading the experience of flying has become, if you’re not rich.
Some history: In 1955, the architect Wallace Harrison came up with a master plan for what was then called Idlewild Airport. It prescribed stand-alone terminals built and run by competing airlines encircling a traffic loop. The plan was a kind of recipe for architectural scene-stealing. During its early years, Kennedy boasted the world’s longest continuous cocktail lounge (in the since-demolished American Airlines terminal designed by Kahn and Jacobs), and Tippett-Abbett-McCarthy-Stratton’s (now also sadly demolished) 1960 Worldport for Pan Am, the architectural analog to Marilyn Monroe’s billowing skirt in “The Seven Year Itch.”
The 1950s and 60s were the days before airline deregulation, when the government still set ticket prices. So airlines competed not over who could offer the cheapest, no-frills fares but over who could offer the best-dressed flight attendants, the most scrumptious Chateaubriand on the plane and the best terminal experience. Back then, Howard Hughes’s TWA was the nation’s glamour carrier, the Veronica Lake of airlines. Hughes is said to have spent his five minutes with Saarinen demanding something truly out of this world — money being no object.
Saarinen earned his spurs conjuring up a raft of rectilinear behemoths for big companies and swooping spectacles of sculptural engineering like the St. Louis Arch, Ingalls Hockey Rink at Yale and Dulles Airport in Washington. He was a chameleon and a master of corporate branding.
For TWA, he seems to nod both toward Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp Chapel and the Las Vegas Strip. The building, an amazing feat of technological improvisation in the days before computer design, was a populist proto-emoji for flight, all free-flowing, liquid curves, improbably poised on four slender buttresses like a winged bird on skinny legs.
Its sheer formal poetry kept the aviary and female allusions from tipping into kitsch. This was high modernism at its most seductive and crowd-pleasing.
Opened a year after Saarinen died, at 51, the terminal was also obsolete from day one. Conceived while the biggest of those Constellation jets carried just 105 passengers, the Flight Center was born into a decade that introduced the 747, which could haul 660 souls in its maw. Notepad and stopwatch in hand, Saarinen had spent hours analyzing how people moved through airline terminals. He invented the jetway to funnel passengers more efficiently from check-in to plane, and an automated baggage carousel to return luggage quicker.
But he hadn’t anticipated the wide-body jet, for which the terminal became a useless Lilliputian. TWA’s baggage carousel had been conceived to handle only a few suitcases at a time. Between 1955 and 1962, the volume of passengers shuffling through Kennedy skyrocketed from 3.5 million to 11.5 million.
In 2002, that number reached 30 million, by which time TWA was defunct and Saarinen’s terminal, mothballed.
It sat empty while the banal Terminal 5, scaled to the jumbo-sized misery of contemporary air travel, was constructed around it, landlocking the Flight Center. Serving JetBlue, Terminal 5 spoiled what had been Saarinen’s carefully orchestrated tarmac-and-blue-sky views through the Flight Center’s huge, inclined windows.
Then in 2015 MCR, a New York development company led by Tyler Morse, won the right to lease the disused Flight Center and turn it into a hotel. Mr. Morse’s business owns and operates the High Line Hotel in Manhattan along with dozens of midrange chain hotels around the country. He saw TWA as a shrine for architecture buffs and a potential retreat for transients power-napping between flights. It lets guests rent rooms for the day as well as overnight.
The room designs by the interior design firm Stonehill Taylor are crisp, compact and clean — pretend time capsules from 1962 — with brushed-brass fixtures, walnut paneling and floor-to-ceiling windows of 4.5-inch glass to keep out the sound of jet engines. Maybe I missed it, but I failed to locate a USB port. Each room is stocked with pole lamps, Saarinen tulip tables and womb chairs, martini glasses, cups of bright red TWA-embossed pencils and copies of Life magazine. Guests have apparently been stealing pencils and magazines by the bushel.
The economy and logic of the site suggested a large full-service airport hotel with a 21st century conference center, a ballroom and event space to compete with the Marriotts and Hyatts at major airports in other big cities.
Mr. Morse says he envisioned another audience too. Millions of people live east of the airport, in the opposite direction from Manhattan and Brooklyn. And a virtual city of employees — baggage handlers, TSA agents, pilots, flight attendants, shopkeepers, maintenance personnel and air traffic controllers — work at the airport each day. These were also potential customers.
And, in fact, locals seem to be checking the place out. Rooms start at under $200. Ours cost $179 before taxes. When I came down from our room to the lobby for a morning coffee, I ran across an older man in a baggy tank top, Jordans and gym shorts, toting flaming red shopping bags packed with TWA swag he had bought at the new TWA store. “I can’t get enough of these!” he announced, waving a thick wad of compression socks with the TWA logo on them. He told me that he was a mover on his day off. He had taken the B15 bus to the airport and stayed overnight. Kennedy was near where he had grown up, he said. For him, the hotel was the latest attraction in his old neighborhood.
Mr. Morse plans to install a skating rink next to Connie this winter, with the expectation it will entice Queens residents. I’m reminded of the days when families went to the airport just for the joy of watching planes take off.
It’s a pity that the hotel’s opening was rushed to make the deadline for a ribbon cutting by New York’s governor, and others. The infinity pool wasn’t finished when we were there. Service was friendly but a mess.
A little teething pain is understandable, of course, but the scrupulous attention paid up front to architectural restoration doesn’t seem to have been paid to hotel operations and customer service. Had we been jet-lagged travelers desperate for sleep, not carefree New Yorkers with an evening to spare, I doubt we would have felt as copacetic when told to kill time by buying ourselves drinks and dinner because our reserved room would not be ready until two hours after it was supposed to be.
And my wife and I weren’t the only ones whose blackout curtains — obligatory if you don’t want to be on display at night from the Flight Center — didn’t work. We spent the hour it took for a repairman to arrive thumbing through ads for Bridget Bardot bras and Plymouth Valiant cars in our copy of Life magazine from 1960.
I called Mr. Morse. He acknowledged the hotel has handed out more than a few refunds. As a designated city landmark at the airport, the building has required approvals from some 22 government agencies, Mr. Morse told me, “all with different wants and needs and restrictions and comments.”
He described the trials of finding grout to match exactly the original penny tile floor that isn’t slippery and doesn’t stain and discolor when it gets wet.
“We’re back to the drawing board on sealant number nine,” he said. “We’ve been at this for weeks.”
Mr. Morse pointed out to me that 1962 was the year Sean Connery starred in “Dr. No,” the year John Glenn circled the earth, the year “The Jetsons” introduced color to prime time television. It was the year President Kennedy challenged America to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.
A period Lincoln Continental is stationed outside the hotel’s front door. Cans of Tab stock the mini-fridge at the newsstand. The soundtrack is 24-hour Connie Francis and Frank Sinatra. There’s a display of TWA uniforms by Balmain and Valentino in the Ambassador Lounge, and greeters, wearing the outfits, roam around pretending to be characters from 1962.
Nineteen-sixty-two was also the year riots erupted on the all-white campus of the University of Mississippi when a black Air Force veteran named James Meredith tried to enroll, and U.S. aircraft started spraying Agent Orange over guerrilla-occupied areas of South Vietnam.
Saarinen’s TWA was obviously selling a mostly white middle-class fantasy, the upbeat 60s, the airline beloved by Elizabeth Taylor and the Pope, who got his own gold-painted hideaway, with its own oculus, carved into a corner of Saarinen’s Ambassador Lounge.
The hotel is a theme park for that fantasy version of 1962, though I have trouble picturing a busy corporate traveler today attending meetings at the conference center feeling charmed when a costumed employee responds with a blank stare to a request for directions to CitiField or for the hotel’s Wi-Fi passcode because there was no such thing as CitiField or Wi-Fi in 1962.
“The place will evolve,” Mr. Morse said, “like all things in the built environment. Our objective is to continue to experiment within this extraordinary piece of art.”
Here’s hoping the experiment succeeds. It’s exhilarating to find this extraordinary piece of art back in all its glory.
But its future now depends on the hotel finding its groove.
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