Airport hotels aren’t typically buildings to be praised. But one that’s attached to and helps revive a formerly untouchable, mid-century icon is automatically admirable.
The new TWA Hotel is a seven-story split structure that humbly perches behind Eero Saarinen’s Jet Age-landmark, the TWA Flight Center, and in between JetBlue’s Terminal 5 at John F. Kennedy Airport. Designed by Brooklyn-based firm Lubrano Ciavarra Architects, the glass-clad building features 512 rooms, a rooftop infinity pool, and a 10,000-square-foot observation deck that looks out over incoming international flights in New York’s Jamaica Bay. It’s these things and more that have allowed the revered terminal to reopen as the hotel’s lobby and reception after being closed to the public for over 18 years.
The 392,000-square-foot site was recently revamped partially under the helm of Tyler Morse, CEO and managing partner of MCR and MORSE Development, the company that owns The High Line Hotel, The New Yorker, and the Miami International Aiport Hotel. The airport’s current owner, the Port Authority of New York and Jersey, selected Morse in 2014 after several failed attempts to bring in a hospitality space from groups such as Related Companies, André Balaz Properties, Ian Schrager, and even Donald Trump. Morse was the only ambitious hotelier to propose a plan strong enough to give the historic site the staying power it needed to function in the 21st century.
By adding an energy-efficient hotel, 50,000 square feet of events space, and revitalizing the retail and restaurant spaces within the TWA Flight Center itself, Morse aimed to create a new economic engine to fuel the site’s future—one that’s heavily predicated upon the hotel’s sky-high goal of achieving 200 percent occupancy each day. Over the last two-and-a-half years of construction, Morse has built upon Beyer Blinder Belle’s (BBB) longtime work of restoring the flight center to its original glory.
According to Anne Marie Lubrano, design architect for the hotel buildings, envisioning the new hospitality site to expand upon Saarinen’s legacy and help make the property fiscally appealing was terrifying.
“How do you try to add to this gorgeous, sculptural building?” she said on a tour of the site. “For a small firm to be given a commission like this, you want to to do the most spectacular thing you’ve ever done in your life, but the fact of the matter was that we needed to leave our ego at the door and make our building feel as neutral and as far away from the flight center as possible.”
To achieve this, Lubrano Ciavarra decided to strip the 1970s additions by Saarinen’s successor firm, Roche Dinkeloo & Associates, in order to increase space between the new and old structures. They then recreated the look of the endless sky plane that existed behind the flight center when it opened in 1962 by designing two, low-hanging hotel buildings that read like curved wings with unassuming, all-glass facades. Simultaneously dark and slightly reflective, the curtain walls mimic the color of the sky and allow the white concrete of the historic terminal to pop like a “figure in a field,” according to Lubrano.
This was the firm’s way of restoring Saarinen’s original design intent. That same attention to historic integrity extends into the Stonehill Taylor-designed hotel rooms, which all feature walnut tambour accent walls, Saarinen-designed womb chairs, tulip tables, and eye-level views of either the flight center or JetBlue’s terminal.
Though located so close to aviation activity, the hotel’s interior is quiet. Lubrano Ciavarra enveloped the structure with a 21-inch-thick, seven-layer curtain wall system that was developed in collaboration with acoustical experts Cerami & Associates and facade consultants Front, Inc. The air cavities within the system offset the deep boom of planes taking off while the density of the glass, which weighs 1,740 lbs. per unit, prevents guests from hearing the high-frequency noises of vehicular traffic on site. All of these advanced design moves bring a sense of calm to what otherwise would be a stressful and loud place for layovers.
That serene atmosphere is also echoed in the minimalist interior design of both the hotel and flight center. Both structures, which are seamlessly connected via the original, red carpet-lined tubes that cantilever over the site and into JetBlue, have been meticulously designed to match Saarinen’s material and color palette. Even the 45,000-square-foot underground conference center that’s been built out in between the two hotel buildings is chock-full of classy nods to the midcentury modern era. Everything is respectful, and nothing is overdone.
Manhattan-based firm INC Architecture & Design designed these below-grade event spaces in response to Saarinen’s more Meisian-like orthogonal and rational work, according to Adam Rolston, creative director and managing director at INC. The 7,000-square-foot banquet hall, 45 meeting rooms, and two-story, linear pre-function space all feature warm fixtures utilizing hardwoods, terrazzo, and brass.
Within the flight center, INC also designed a junior ballroom to reference Saarinen’s more curvaceous and organic architecture, outfitting the space with red tambour panels that serve as acoustic backdrops. “We like to think of our work here as a posthumous collaboration with Eero Saarinen himself,” said Rolston. “Our contribution, along with Stonehill Taylor’s work for TWA falls into the homage category. We’ve created an aesthetic interaction with the original building.”
The famous Paris Café was also updated with a design by Thomas Juul-Hansen. The restaurant now features a menu by celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, but still maintains a timeless look with pastel color-blocking amongst the upholstery to separate seating sections.
Similarly, every detail within the flight center was executed with the utmost historic integrity thanks to BBB’s director of historic preservation Richard Southwick, who’s worked on the site for 25 years. After leading the five-year-long restoration of the terminal in 2008 and the new construction that started in 2016, he was integral in making sure everything was designed as close to the original interior architecture as possible, from the grout between the 20 million ceramic penny tiles that clad the floor and wall surfaces, to the ruby red fabric that covers all seats, carpets, and ballroom walls.
“It’s been the highlight of my career,” Southwick said. “My job was to retain the historic scene found on the inside and outside the terminal and I think we achieved that beautifully.”
Perhaps nowhere no the entire site does it feel more nostalgic than from within the iconic Sunken Lounge that looks out toward the tarmac below and the restored 1958 Lockheed Constellation airplane-turned-cocktail bar. That perspective directly references the draw-dropping, close-up view of planes that this space provided over 50 years ago—the one that people drove miles to see and gave the TWA Flight Center its world-class status. Though this vantage point is no longer available, people will still be transported to the golden age of aviation nonetheless. That’s the feeling that Morse is banking on today.
The TWA Hotel celebrate its soft opening on May 15th. A grand opening is scheduled for September, which will also feature the soon-to-be-flourishing landscape by Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects.
Header image: With zero access to natural light, the main ballroom within the flight center was designed to feel as roomy and light as possible. (David Mitchell/Courtesy TWA Hotel)