Eero Saarinen’s iconic Jet Age terminal at JFK Airport has been transformed into a truly cool hotel
After 18 years of being mostly hidden from public view, one of New York’s best and most iconic buildings is ready to welcome visitors.
The TWA Flight Center, the striking Jet Age marvel designed by Eero Saarinen, has been transformed into the TWA Hotel, a faithful restoration of the Finnish architect’s masterpiece with the addition of hundreds of rooms and modern amenities. The Saarinen head house functions as the hotel’s lobby, meaning anyone—hotel guests or curious architecture buffs—may stand under its swooping concrete shell again.
The hotel’s debut is the culmination of more than two decades of work by preservationists, architects, and elected officials to protect Saarinen’s midcentury icon, while also finding a new use for it. The building opened in 1962 but was already “functionally obsolete” by that point, according to Tyler Morse, the CEO of MCR, the development firm responsible for the revamp. It was only open for 39 years, and when the terminal stopped operations, the fate of Saarinen’s futuristic structure was uncertain. The Port Authority, which owns the building, hired architects Beyer Blinder Belle to restore the space (the firm remains on the project to this day), and other hoteliers were briefly courted, but concrete plans for its future didn’t come into focus until 2015.
That was the year that MCR won the bid to develop the property, and work on the hotel began in earnest. And from the start, Morse knew that he wanted to keep the vintage vibe of the space alive. “We’re bringing the building back to exactly as it was in 1962,” he explains.
Part of the reason for that is by design; the building is a New York City landmark and landed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005. “We have a real debt to pay to the preservationist community,” says Morse. “They saved this building.” Since MCR began the redevelopment process, the firm has met with 14 preservation groups—including the Municipal Art Society, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the New York Landmarks Conservancy—and consulted with dozens of other interested parties to ensure their restoration is sensitive. Even the Finnish embassy, seeking to protect the legacy of one of its most famous names, got involved.
But irrespective of the city and federal protections for the building, Morse is simply really enthusiastic about bringing the swooping structure back to life. “This is really a piece of art, moreso than a building,” Morse enthuses.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a better collection of midcentury treasures anywhere in the city—what Morse called “a cacophony of midcentury design greats.” Saarinen tapped his contemporaries, including Isamu Noguchi, Charles Eames, Warren Platner, and Raymond Loewy, to add their own decorative touches to the space when it was conceived. Many of those remain, including Noguchi’s marble fountain near what used to be the Ambassador Lounge.
“We wanted to stay true to Eero Saarinen’s intent, and he brought a lot of friends into this project,” Morse says. Saarinen’s own designs for Florence Knoll were also incorporated into the revamped lobby, including pedestal dining tables and Tulip chairs. (Mies van der Rohe wasn’t exactly one of the architect’s contemporaries, but some of his midcentury furniture—specifically, chairs from the Four Seasons Restaurant that MCR snagged at auction—are also found in the hotel.)
Many of the building’s most iconic elements have been well-preserved, and will come to life in new ways when the hotel opens. The Sunken Lounge, with its rich red upholstery and Solari departures board, is now a cocktail bar operated by the Gerber Group. The former Paris Café has been reborn, this time under the direction of famed French chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. And the red carpeted tunnels that connect the circa-1962 building to JetBlue’s newer Terminal 5 will also lead hotel guests to their rooms, which are located in two semicircular buildings that flank the historic structure.
There are also nods to the history of TWA, which stopped operating in 2001; artifacts from the airline’s history—including uniforms, flatware, and other tchotchkes—are on display in a small museum on the lower level, and part of the lobby is named the Hughes Wing in honor of Howard Hughes, the eccentric movie mogul who owned TWA and tapped Saarinen to design the place. The coolest artifact: a decommissioned Lockheed Constellation airplane that’s been transformed into a 125-seat cocktail bar.
But even with all the nods to the past, the amenities on offer are thoroughly modern: MCR tapped hip retailers and restaurateurs, including Warby Parker and Intelligentsia Coffee, to set up shop within the hotel, and there’ll be a food hall with vendors like beloved Midtown lunch peddlers Halal Guys. (Phaidon and Herman Miller also collaborated on a reading room, for the midcentury modern aficionados visiting the hotel.)
There’s also a 10,000-square-foot fitness center, tons of conference center space, and best of all, a rooftop pool and observation deck with runway views.
Rooms, meanwhile, are a mix of old and new. Design firm Stonehill Taylor realized MCR’s vision of 1962, which combines a few different design elements of the era: warm walnut accents (including a martini bar, of course), brass light fixtures, and terrazzo floors; Knoll furnishings that speak to the corporate modernism of the ’60s; and a bathroom vanity meant to evoke Saarinen’s ladies’ room at the old Four Seasons Restaurant.
Staying overnight costs $250, with a “day stay”—a shorter, four-hour block intended for travelers who need to crash for a few hours—priced at $150 (Morse says the hotel is on track to reach 200 percent occupancy thanks, in part, to this offering).
As for who the hotel’s clientele will be, Morse acknowledges that many will be in the “a night and a flight” category, or use the hotel primarily for its abundance of event space. (MCR anticipates that they’ll get at least 100 weddings per year in its ballrooms, also appealingly outfitted in midcentury style.) But those who’ve been clamoring for access to Saarinen’s masterpiece for close to two decades—architecture and aviation geeks—won’t be disappointed. (You can even select a “runway” or “landmark” view when booking a room.)