The major announcement about the redevelopment of LaGuardia Airport includes some news for JFK Airport as well: the renovation of the historic TWA Flight Center into a 505-room hotel.
The TWA Flight Center, designed by Eero Saarinen and opened in 1962, is an undisputed architectural and design gem of the Mad Men era. It has seen its fair share of redevelopment plans since it closed for good in 2001, when Trans World Airlines (TWA) ceased operations and merged with American Airlines. The latest of these plans, announced yesterday by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, involves MCR Development (the firm who redeveloped the High Line Hotel) turning the structure into the 505-room TWA Flight Center Hotel, with further additions of 40,000-square-feet of meeting space, six to eight restaurants, a museum focusing on the history of the building and of TWA, and a 10,000-square-foot observation deck, all aiming to achieve LEED certification for green building practices.
Although the plan, which involves erecting two new buildings behind the Flight Center to house all those hotel rooms, is a little fantastical, it’s a wonder the TWA Flight Center has lived to see this day at all. It was only in 2013 that the airport approved the demolition of Delta Air Lines’ Terminal 3, originally the Pan Am Worldport, for a time the world’s largest and most modern airline terminal. The I.M. Pei-designed National Airlines Sundrome (Terminal 6, most recently used by JetBlue) also met with a wrecking ball two years earlier. Although these two monuments to the dawn of the jet age lost their battles with a rapidly expanding air travel infrastructure, the same fate could not befall the TWA Flight Center thanks to its protected status on the National Register of Historic Places.
The first major re-use plan for the Flight Center came from JetBlue Airways, who cut the ribbon to open its brand new, Gensler-designed Terminal 5 (T5) in 2008. At the time it was believed that the airline, together with the Port Authority of NY and NJ (PANYNJ)—the latter of which owns the TWA structure—would redevelop the historic building into something of a welcome center for the new terminal. Passengers arriving and checking in at T5 for JetBlue flights could glance across the road and see workers from architecture firm Beyer Blinder Belle buzzing within the TWA structure, removing asbestos while painstakingly renovating the interior with respect to the original design and materials, including restoration of the millions of tiny ceramic tiles that coat the floors and walls and allow for the structure’s signature curvilinear shapes. It was work that lasted several years and cost the Port Authority $30 million, all to prep the building for its second act.
By 2011, the PANYNJ was soliciting hotel developers to take over the Flight Center. No hoteliers seriously bit until André Balazs—owner of properties including The Standard Hotels, the Chateau Marmont, and Chiltern Firehouse—went head-to-head with the Port Authority in 2013 over his vision to transform the Flight Center into a 150-room hotel and conference center named “The Standard, Flight Center.” A mutually agreeable design plan could not be reached, and Balazs backed away. Other hoteliers, like Donald Trump and Ian Schrager, were also rumored to be interested in the site as recently as 2014.
In the meantime, the Flight Center occasionally opened its doors to welcome photo and film shoots for brands (Cole Haan, Longchamp, Capital One Bank). Then, beginning in 2011, the organization Open House New York worked with the Port Authority to allow the public free entry one day, for a few hours, every autumn. The resulting buzz, including thousands of Instagram photos, raised awareness about the building, and redevelopment plans became a popular topic among New Yorkers.
Although the boarding lounge has been lost—JetBlue’s Terminal 5 sits where it once did—the remaining TWA Flight Center building contains the lobby with its iconic, elliptical departures board (it still works!), the First Class lounge with seating by Charles and Ray Eames, the Ambassador lounge with orange leather banquettes and a cocktail bar, two wings of check-in desks, the “Lisbon Lounge” and “Paris Cafe” eateries, the duty-free shop, and the aforementioned tube-like passageways (which famously appear in a memorable scene in the Steven Spielberg film Catch Me If You Can.)
Despite being one of the busiest and most prominent airports in the world, JFK currently has no on-site hotel. Transforming the old terminal would fix this problem, as the proposal promises “complete rehabilitation of national landmark to its 1962 glory.” “Whether staying the night or simply exploring, international visitors and New Yorkers alike will be able to experience the magic of the Jet Age in this extraordinary mid-century icon,” says MCR’s CEO Tyler Morse. The project will be privately funded and is due to break ground next year, with the goal of welcoming guests in 2019, assuming it bucks its history of failed redevelopments and gets off the ground at all.
As for now, The TWA Flight Center has at least lived up to the future Saarinen envisioned for it. On his last visit to the building before his death in 1961 and before it was completed in 1962, Eero was quoted as saying: “TWA is beginning to look marvelous. If anything happened and they had to stop work right now and just leave it in this state, I think it would make a beautiful ruin.”
Condé Nast Traveller