Eero Saarinen’s landmark JFK terminal has been transformed into the new retro-styled TWA Hotel, writes Kya deLongchamps
If there's one thing that 21st-century security requirements inevitably grounded, it was the public observation decks overlooking the runways, once such an integral part of any international airport in the 1950s — Dublin and Cork included. Well, taking off in John F Kennedy International Airport (JFK), the most celebrated, surviving mid-century terminal of them all, now offers a nostalgic overnight stay with unimpeded views of arrivals and departures without a hint of roaring jet noise.
The Trans World Airlines (TWA) terminal circa 1962 with its bone-white, crouching avian outline, hums at every turn with come-fly-with-me design exhilaration. The new hotel is an empathetic development with its amenity areas encompassing Eero Saarinen’s lush organic masterpiece, added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2005.
The Sunken Lounge in the original Saarinen terminal ‘head-house’ retains its original white ‘penny’ tiled floor and TWA Chilli Pepper Red velvet carpeting against the white soaring glazing, arcing walls and complex ceiling-scapes under a shell roof. Its architecture and inclusions are just aching with cool.
This is where the Beatles took shelter when they first arrived in what was then Idlewild, New York, in 1965. The old building with its lobby and signature ‘flight tubes’ was more recently used in the Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me if You Can starring Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio (DreamWorks 2002).
The authenticity has been carefully guarded and a vintage, mechanical, split-flap departure board by Solari di Udine, is still operating, fanning out messages and destinations in the lounge.
The TWA Hotel utilises the thickest building glazing available by manufacturer Fabbrica (seven panes sandwiched as one) to deliver 512 whisper-quiet rooms set in two new, detached wings which look out on the original futuristic terminal building and the runways. The luxuriant 1960s styling is a hymn of praise to architect/designer Saarinen, utilising many of his domestic set pieces, some of which have remained in production for half a century.
Every suite includes a retro cocktail bar in walnut, fused with elements of glass, mirror, brushed brass and crystallised glass, with furniture by Knoll. The crisp architectural edge is softened with tambour walls in walnut accenting, a wood-faced sliding barn door to the bathroom together with a quilted leather headboard edged in brass.
The en-suites include a Hollywood vanity mirror/basin inspired directly by Philip Johnson’s much-loved Ladies’ Lounge in New York City’s Four Seasons restaurant circa 1959 — closed and eviscerated of its contents in 2016. Terrazzo entryways to each room area echo in the floor and wall finish to the bathroom too.
Infused with the optimism and excitement of the golden age of jet travel, who could resist slipping into an A-line skirt or neatly tipped Fedora, for an Old Fashioned in the head-house before beddy-byes. There’s even a wittingly renovated 1958 Lockheed Constellation (Connie) L-1649A airplane also staged as a mid-century bar. The cockpit has been lovingly restored and is open for visitors to explore. Every detail is delivered at TWA — from the swizzle stick in your Martini to the branded red pencil to stab the numbers out on your rotary dial Western Electric 500 telephone set on the Saarinen Pedestal tulip side table in your room.
The Paris Café by Jean-Georges has been expanded to include all of the chic fantasy of the original Paris Café and Lisbon Lounge originally designed by Raymond Loewy (1909-1980). He was the man who put the girly curves in the 1955 Coca-Cola contour bottle in 1959.
The artwork around the complex includes David Klein prints commissioned by TWA, including Klein’s ‘New York Fly TWA’ (1956) on loan from the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. The departure hall, still within the embrace of the Saarinen spaces has a clutch of high-class eateries in a glitzy food court.
There’s a small museum showcasing groovy TWA hostess and pilot uniforms (amazingly bright fabrics) — the girls’ skirt lengths flirtatiously short for the times. The hotel staff were outfitted by designer Stan Herman who tailored early designs for TWA crews in the 1970s.
The infinity pool and 10,000-square foot rooftop observation deck hovers over the taxiing planes containing the wrinkled, exhausted commonplace passengers of JFK, zipped up in their aircrafts. Even with the TWA symbol pulsating in tile beneath the turquoise waters, I’m not entirely sure I want a great lungful of that less than ‘rarefied’ petrochemical air while gasping through the butterfly stroke. Still, it’s a fascinating, modern American view with New York City studding the horizon of the three-mile-long Bay Runway.
You can reach the TWA Hotel including Saarinen’s 1962 head-house, by using the airport’s AirTrain from JFK terminals. The common spaces which make up the World’s first enclosed passenger jetways with views of the runways are free to wander (obviously be respectful and buy something to eat or drink). Make a reservation for the Paris Café and Connie Airplane/Cocktail Lounge or any formal dining.
The pool can also be booked by non-residents until 8pm. Prices per night start from $255, with a four-six-hour day stay from $186 if you want to have a look around, eat, freshen up and rest between flights or meetings. Retro heaven on earth.