Resurrection: A new life for JFK airport landmark

Upon arriving in the U.S. for the first time in 1978 to study architecture at Harvard University, Mina Marefat walked off of her plane at New York's JFK Airport into the most stunning building she'd ever laid eyes on.

She found herself in the TWA Flight Center, the sweeping, birdlike airport terminal that was designed by Finnish architect Eero Saarinen. It opened in 1962, a symbol of the dawn of the Jet Age.

TWA lost her luggage that day, but that did nothing to dim her enthusiasm for the building's sunken lounge, swooping lines and crimson-and-white color scheme.

"I'm walking around thinking this is the most magnificent building I've seen in my life," said Marefat, a Washington-based architect and Georgetown University professor who was later inspired to curate a traveling museum exhibit based on Saarinen's work. "I was totally blown away."

One New York-based hotel developer is aiming for a similar reaction the next time the now-shuttered building is opened to the general public. MCR Development, whose 90 owned and managed hotels include Manhattan's High Line Hotel, will redevelop the terminal as the TWA Hotel, a 505-room, "four-plus-star" property that will include 50,000 square feet of meetings space, a 10,000-square-foot observation deck overlooking the airport's runways and on the tarmac, a Lockheed Constellation, a classic four-engine prop plane, that will be converted into a lounge near the building's two pedestrian tubes.

Custom-designed Charles Eames furniture in the former first-class lounge of the TWA Flight Center.
Custom-designed Charles Eames furniture in the former first-class lounge of the TWA Flight Center. Photo Credit: Johanna Jainchill

The fully restored terminal, which broke ground on its redevelopment last month, will house as many as eight restaurants and six bars, while the hotel rooms will be in two newly built, six-story towers behind the existing building. The former first-class lounge will be converted into a restaurant called the Admirals Club, while the ticket-counter area will be rebuilt as a food hall featuring yet-to-be-identified purveyors from the New York boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens. MCR will also preserve and restore the custom-built furniture designed by midcentury designer Charles Eames as well as a sculpture created by Isamu Noguchi.

JetBlue Airways, whose Terminal 5 is adjacent to the site and will be connectable via one of the tubes, has a 5% stake in the $265 million project, which is slated to open in 2018.

"We opened the building a couple of weeks ago for a couple hours and 10,000 people came," MCR Development CEO Tyler Morse said in an interview earlier this month. "It's a spectacular building. You have to see it to believe it."

The hotel, which will be the first within the confines of JFK since it opened as Idlewild Airport in 1948, will compete in the Queens market that, while not as lucrative as Manhattan's, generates occupancy and room rates that far exceed the national averages.

For the first 11 months of last year, hotels closest to the airport, which range from upper-upscale properties such as Sheraton and Hilton to more budget-oriented hotels such as Howard Johnson and Rodeway Inn, had an occupancy rate of 87% while commanding a nightly room-rate average of $147, or about $100 a night less than New York's overall average, according to research firm STR.

In addition to its location, the TWA Hotel's size will provide another competitive advantage, said Mark VanStekelenburg, New York-based managing director at CBRE Hotels Consulting. While the Hilton New York JFK Airport and Sheraton JFK are both within two miles of the airport, the former hotel has 356 rooms while the latter has 150, compared with TWA Hotel's proposed 505 rooms.

One of two tubes that connects the Flight Center to Terminal 5.
One of two tubes that connects the Flight Center to Terminal 5. Photo Credit: Johanna Jainchill

Morse said that the hotel's architectural pedigree, cachet and full-service amenities will enable it to fetch nightly rates in the $250 range while competing against hotels in Manhattan, which can be accessed by rail in about 45 minutes via the TWA terminal's AirTrain stop nearby, which offers a connection to the city's subway line.

A far cry from the branded, select-service properties that surround most major U.S. airports, the TWA Hotel is envisioned as part of a newer crop of higher-end, architecturally significant on-site airport hotels that are built to be destinations in their own right.

That includes the 519-room Westin Denver International Airport, which opened in November 2015; the 433-room Hilton Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, which opened the following month; and the 350-room Grand Hyatt San Francisco International Airport, which is scheduled to open in 2019.

"It's a game changer for JFK, and there's certainly a need for it," said VanStekelenburg, adding that Manhattan's high room rates have enabled markets such as northern New Jersey and Queens' Long Island City to flourish. "While Manhattan has had certain challenges over the past two years, a lot of this new development outside of Manhattan has held its own."

With that in mind, MCR is banking on a future for the TWA Hotel that's more stable than the building's 39-year history as a functioning airport terminal. Then owned by Howard Hughes, TWA commissioned the site in 1956 amid a battle against Pan Am for international aviation supremacy and tapped Saarinen, whose works included the St. Louis Gateway Arch and Washington Dulles Airport. Both of those landmarks and the TWA Flight Center were completed after Saarinen's death in 1961 at the age of 51.

The wing-shaped TWA Flight Center at JFK, designed by Finnish architect Eero Saarinen, is said to be devoid of right angles.
The wing-shaped TWA Flight Center at JFK, designed by Finnish architect Eero Saarinen, is said to be devoid of right angles. Photo Credit: Max Touhey

The building, which is said to be devoid of right angles, was designed to accommodate a fleet of 55-passenger Lockheed Constellations, which in 1956 was considered the world's most advanced passenger plane.

The aviation industry was surging at the time, as U.S. commercial-airline capacity jumped 81% between 1955 and 1960, according to the Air Transport Association of America.

But prop planes were not to be the future. By the time the building opened, six years after being commissioned, Boeing's first passenger jet, the 707, with twice the passenger capacity, had replaced "the Connie" as major airlines' aircraft of choice.

As a result, Morse said, "The building was overwhelmed the day it opened."

After Hughes sold off his TWA shares in 1966, the carrier subsequently took on more debt, especially following the airline industry's 1978 deregulation. It filed for bankruptcy for the first time in 1992 and was ultimately acquired by American Airlines in 2001. That same year, the TWA Flight Center shut down. In 2005, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Reimagining the building as a potential hospitality site, the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey reached an agreement in 2013 with Standard Hotels founder Andre Balazs (who now owns New York's the Mercer, London's Chiltern Firehouse and West Hollywood, Calif.'s Chateau Marmont) to redevelop the building into a hotel and conference center.

That deal ultimately fell through, and Rick Garlick, global travel and hospitality practice leader at J.D. Power, said the current developers could face further challenges and find it difficult for the prospective hotel to avoid a fate similar to that of the defunct terminal.

Part of the problem is that JFK, which accommodated a record 60 million passengers last year, has a reputation as one of the least user-friendly airports in the country. According to the J.D. Power 2016 North America Airport Satisfaction Study, JFK finished 24th out of the 31 ranked airports -- though it did finish ahead of both of the metropolitan New York area's other major airports, Newark Liberty and New York LaGuardia.

"When you look at the area around JFK, there's a bazillion hotels, so there's going to be competition from every single level," Garlick said. "And JFK has been consistently rated among the poorest airports."

The bigger challenge, however, might be getting domestic travelers, especially time-crunched New Yorkers, to change their travel habits enough for people to regard the TWA Hotel as either a lodging option or a food or entertainment destination and allow for extra time to explore the landmark.

The sunken lounge of the TWA Flight Center will be a centerpiece of the hotel.
The sunken lounge of the TWA Flight Center will be a centerpiece of the hotel. Photo Credit: Max Touhey

"Unlike international terminals in Rome, London and Hong Kong, where people see airports as a destination, we don't see any example like that in the U.S.," Garlick said. "You're talking about a fundamental change in the way people utilize airports."

The New York state government is pledging to do its part to make JFK more user-friendly. Earlier this month, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo unveiled a plan that will include improving pedestrian connections between terminals, redesigning airport roadways into a "ring road" and investing as much as $2 billion to improve the roadways leading into JFK.

The state, which estimates that its improvements will generate as much as $7 billion in private-sector investment in airport improvements, is also mulling a plan that would reconfigure the local rail network to eliminate the need to transfer between AirTrain and the subway line and offer a "one-seat" rail option between the airport and Manhattan. Morse estimates that such a move would shave about 15 minutes off the typical commute time between the airport and Manhattan.

Such improvements would complement MCR's. As it is, Morse said, 35,000 people, on average, experience layovers of at least four hours at Kennedy Airport every day.

With that in mind, Morse said his company is "talking to the best food and beverage guys in the U.S." about operating outlets at the project. He declined to disclose which hospitality companies MCR has contacted.

Additionally, with more than half of JFK's passengers flying international routes, Morse estimated that the hotel will further benefit from being a five-minute walk from Terminal 4, which serves more than 30 domestic and international carriers.

Morse added that the TWA Hotel will be the only facility at the airport with meetings spaces, enabling business executives to fly into New York and hold conferences without having to leave the airport.

VanStekelenburg agreed that the TWA Hotel's location would be a draw for both business and leisure meeting planners, estimating that the Newark Liberty International Airport Marriott hosts about 30 weddings a year.

"If we can provide a terrific experience through food and beverage, guest rooms and architecture, for a conference or wedding, and you can do that without taking the hour or 45 minutes to get into Manhattan, why wouldn't you do that?" Morse said.

The Flight Center’s departures and arrivals information board.
The Flight Center’s departures and arrivals information board. Photo Credit: Johanna Jainchill

As for the TWA Flight Center's use as a hotel, architect Marefat has mixed feelings about the prospect, wishing that the building still had use as an airport terminal. She said that Saarinen's early death deprived him of the opportunity to achieve the architectural notoriety of contemporaries like Frank Lloyd Wright, who completed notable works such as Pennsylvania's Fallingwater and New York's Guggenheim Museum after the age of 60. He died at 91.

Marefat said Saarinen "was very aware that the building had a dual function of being viewed from both the ground and the air. That represented the best of flight, and now it's considered no longer useful."

Still, she said that the redevelopment is preferable to tearing down the architectural landmark, and she is pleased that the TWA Flight Center is slated to join the ranks of Union Station in Denver and in Washington among travel sites that either have been or will be redeveloped and expanded to include travel facilities beyond their original use instead of being demolished.

When the original terminal was constructed, she said, "Travel was much more of a leisurely experience than we have today. It wasn't as hectic, and [the TWA Flight Center] functioned as a more loungelike experience. So maybe having it be a hotel isn't such a bad idea. Buildings go through multiple lives, and maybe this is the next life."


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