The Cultured Traveller steps back into the Golden Age of Travel at retro-chic Eero Saarinen-designed TWA HOTEL, which instantly became the world’s coolest airport hotel when it opened a few months ago at JFK
There was a time when flying was considered glamorous and exclusive and stepping aboard a jet cost an awful lot more than it does today.
Before airlines were deregulated in the late 1970s, carriers such as Pan Am and Trans World Airlines (TWA) flew passengers around the world in supreme comfort, their every need attended-to by flight attendants dressed in designer uniforms serving food prepared by the likes of Maxim’s of Paris.
This halcyon era of flying was a period of sumptuous design, both pre-flight and in-flight, and a time during which the flying experience – from the visual look of the cabin, to stewardess’ uniforms and even the silverware – was fastidiously fashioned by some of the world’s top designers.
By allowing passengers to purchase flights in discounted packages and offering extended payment plans, TWA was a key player in the development of commercial air travel after the Second World War, making it much more accessible to America’s burgeoning middle classes.
In 1954, with air travel on the rise, the Port of New York Authority instigated a plan to expand Idlewild Airport (JFK today), to allow the airport to handle considerably more air traffic in and out of New York City. The plan called for each major airline to design, construct and operate its own independent terminal. This included TWA.
Intending from the outset for its terminal to provide the airline with advertising, widespread publicity and media attention, in 1955, TWA approached Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen with a project to design something special for the apex of the airport’s main access road.
Capturing the sensation of flying in all aspects of his futuristic structure, from its fluid and open interior to the wing-like concrete shell of the roof, Saarinen designed much more than a functional terminal. In essence, he designed a monument to the airline and to aviation itself.
Dubbed the Grand Central Station of the jet age and epitomising the glamour and optimism of the time, the stunning mid-century modern TWA Flight Center opened to great acclaim in 1962 as the airline’s headquarters, at the very moment that the American carrier reigned supreme. Unsurprisingly, the TWA Flight Center was designated a New York City landmark in 1994.
However, since its design was largely completed before 1958, when the first jet planes began to supersede their propeller-driven forerunners, TWA’s beautiful terminal was ill-suited to support the size of modern aircraft. And despite many upgrades, the TWA Flight Center was never really able to keep pace as jet planes grew in size and number. After TWA was acquired by American Airlines amid financial struggles in 2001, sadly the terminal closed its doors.
Listed on the National and New York State Registers of Historic Places in 2005, save for the occasional tour and other miscellaneous events, Saarinen’s masterpiece building sat largely unused until conversion work commenced in 2016.
Restoring the beloved building, constructing two brand new wings behind it to house the hotel’s guest rooms and building a massive new conference center was a massive endeavour involving 22 government agencies and more than 170 firms. Around 450 tradespeople worked on site every day for more than two and a half years, to create a refined guest experience in complete harmony with Saarinen’s air travel tour de force.
Something of a time traveller’s dream, TWA Hotel has been consciously and skilfully designed to make visitors feel as if they’ve slipped through a time portal and landed back in the early days of the Jet Age, complete with all the nostalgia and glamour of the time.
Designed by New York City firm Stonehill Taylor and set in two low-rise buildings designed to defer to Saarinen’s terminal, the hotel’s 512 ultra-quiet 1960s-inspired guest rooms feature authentic mid-century modern furnishings and gleaming terrazzo-tiled bathrooms, complete with Hollywood-style vanities and bubble lights inspired by Philip Johnson’s iconic ladies’ lounge in New York City’s former Four Seasons restaurant. Accessible through Saarinen’s iconic flight tubes made famous by the 2002 film Catch Me If You Can, all guests rooms are accented with warm timber elements to soften the spaces.
Furnishings include Saarinen’s iconic Womb Chair, upholstered in red Knoll fabric, which sits beside a classic round Saarinen pedestal tulip side table. Meanwhile, an armless Saarinen executive chair, wrapped in tan leather, is tucked into a custom walnut, brass and glass desk. A walnut entryway unit includes storage, a mini fridge and a concealed safe.
Ensuring that guests can watch planes take-off without hearing them, the hotel’s rooms are separated from one of the busiest airports on the planet by full-width windows made from the second-thickest glass in the world (after the U.S. Embassy in London), comprising seven panes totalling 4.5 inches thick.
Guests can make unlimited free international and local calls on a retrofitted 1950s Western Electric 500 vintage rotary phone.
Beds are lined in brushed brass and a quilted headboard features a glass ledge to hold overnight accessories.
Being a guest at TWA Hotel goes a long way to recreating the level of excitement for and pride in aviation that travellers once felt during the rise of the industry. Staying at the hotel also provides a serene refuge from which to enjoy inimitable views of Saarinen’s terminal and JFK airport, not to mention being super-close to your next flight!
Elsewhere within the sprawling hotel, which is not unlike a 21st century global village, multiple restaurants and bars cater to the needs of busy travellers, including a food hall featuring multiple NYC culinary institutions; a café and bar helmed by Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and an original Lockheed Constellation L-1649A Starliner nicknamed “Connie”, which has been repurposed as a cocktail lounge. The last in the line of Lockheed Constellations, the L-1649A Starliner was first designed for TWA, so it is only fitting that one should sit right in front of Saarinen’s terminal today, positioned on the tarmac between the TWA Flight Center and Terminal 5.
Also, on property, is a museum focused on the Jet Age, the mid-century modern design movement and TWA, complete with vintage air hostess uniforms by Valentino, Ralph Lauren and Stan Herman on display.
A rooftop pool, 10,000-square-foot observation deck overlooking runway 4L/22R and a massive fitness center complete TWA Hotel’s range of leisure offerings, should a short layover turn into a short stay.
Conceived as a posthumous collaboration with Eero Saarinen and delivering copious quantities of high-performance nostalgia and retro glamour, the reborn TWA Flight Center delivers on every hospitality level and is almost certainly reason enough to stopover at JFK on your next visit to New York.