Inside JFK's Newly Remodeled TWA Flight Center
Much has been written about the glory days of aviation—from the crisp, detailed design of flight attendant uniforms, to delicious, full-course meals (with real cutlery), to the crafted airline cabins, to the swooping architecture of modernist terminals. One of the best examples of this era of design, recently revived for a new audience, is the Eero Saarinen TWA Flight Center at JFK.
Commissioned in 1955 and opened in 1962, Saarinen and his Detroit-based firm designed the Flight Center with the intention of speeding up and streamlining the process of flying. According to Fast Company, its bird-in-flight construction was “one of the first with enclosed passenger jetways, closed circuit television, a central public address system, baggage carousels, an electromechanical, split-flap display schedule board, baggage scales, and a satellite of clustering of gates away from the main terminal.” The Flight Center also provided travelers with food and beverage options at the Constellation Club, Lisbon Lounge, and Paris Café.
With the advent of the jumbo jet in the 1970s, the number of passengers traveling in and out of JFK doubled and the Flight Center had difficulty handling the demands of increased passenger traffic and security. Coupled with TWA’s financial losses in the 1990s (and eventual sale to American Airlines) the Flight Center closed in October 2001.
After 18 years, MCR and Morse Development brought the Flight Center back to life as a modern 512-room hotel. The open spaces, vaulted ceilings and sweeping windows breathe again, inviting visitors to experience a slice of mid-century elegance, without dwelling too much on the nostalgia that makes us resentful of today’s perfunctory (albeit efficient and safe) travel experiences.
Upon arrival to the hotel, the architectural beauty takes your breath away. Hosts in period-costume welcome you and direct you to locations in the hotel. The soundtrack throughout the hotel is music from the 1960s and is a mix of jazz to pop.
Checking in at the hotel is done quickly on a tablet, with help from attendants. There is plenty of signage to help you get to your room, in one of two towers (the Saarinen or the Hughes), that you get to from the jetway tubes. One refreshing aspect of the hotel is that there are no screens (no blaring televisions or digital ads) to distract you from the enormity and peace of the Flight Center.
The rooms are spacious and well-appointed with some nostalgic twists that highlight good design and craftsmanship. With the extra thick windows you don’t hear any airplanes, and the blackout shades guarantee you won’t wake up until you want to.
The food and beverage options are ample and delicious. Operated by the Gerber Group, they include:
- The Sunken Lounge: Located in the center of the Flight Center, it is the primary gathering spot. You can enjoy signature cocktails and bites while watching the enormous flip-board display “Welcome” in different languages and fun airplane-themed tile art. The spacious, comfortable seating is upholstered in TWA-red and makes you wish that you had room in your apartment to replicate it.
- The Paris Café: Run by Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the Café is located in the footprint of the original Paris Café. The décor is stunning with its mix of soft grey and pink-hued chairs and booths. The menu, inspired by TWA in-flight menus from the ‘50s and ‘60s, is not extensive but each dish is delicious, carefully prepared and worth traveling for.
- The Rooftop Pool Bar: Located on top of the Hughes Wing, it’s a great place to spend a sunny afternoon watching the planes come and go. It has same menu as the Sunken Lounge, but with a few more hearty options like salads, fish tacos and a hamburger.
- Connie: Tucked away inside TWA’s most celebrated decommissioned airplane, it’s a 125-seat cocktail bar with vintage TWA upholstered seats and a fully decked out cockpit.
While not fully operational, yet, there are more casual food options in the Departures Food Hall. There is also an Intelligentsia coffee bar near the check-in counter.
The best part of the hotel is wandering around to discover the hotel’s vintage treasures, which include:
- A display of flight attendant uniforms designed by arrange of designers including Valentino, Oleg Cassini, Stan Herman, Howard Greer and Ralph Lauren, to name a few;
- TWA posters;
- 10-cent pay phones—if you dial 5, you can hear a message from TWA;
- A Noguchi fountain where the Ambassador Lounge used to be;
- A small Eames-designed room that was reportedly where Popes, who flew on TWA, would relax after flights (it’s behind the fountain).
Other features of the hotel that make the visit worthwhile are:
- The rooftop infinity pool that looks over the runways where you can while away the hours sipping rosé;
- The downstairs 10,000-square-foot fitness center that includes every weight and machine you’d ever want, including a Peloton room.
Also worth stopping by are Shinola and Warby Parker, the latter of which is actually a pop-up where you can buy pencils and postcards (all the proceeds go to charity). On the lower level (though not ready when I visited), there will be a reading room curated by Phaidon and Herman Miller.
Is it worth visiting? Absolutely, yes. As a weekend getaway or a pre-flight treat, the TWA hotel is a welcome space where you can learn about the old and experience the new. The success of the restoration comes not from dwelling on nostalgia, but rather through taking what’s best about our romance with aviation and making it modern once more.
Images courtesy of Adriana Estrada & Christian Svanes Kolding
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