Photos show an abandoned JFK airport terminal's transformation from a futuristic, 1960s icon into a new luxury hotel that sits right on the runway
Lehnartz/ullstein bild via Getty Images
- JFK Airport's long-abandoned Trans World Airlines (TWA) Flight Center in New York has been transformed into a luxury hotel, complete with over 500 rooms, starting at $249 a night.
- The TWA Hotel had a soft opening on May 15, 2019. The project includes countless amenities like restaurants, bars, shopping, and a rooftop infinity pool.
- The budget to transform the TWA terminal amounted to $265 million, making it perhaps one of the most expensive airport hotels in the world.
- But the terminal's past life is significant in its own right.
- The TWA Terminal was built in 1962 and has long been associated with the golden age of flying, known as the "Jet Age," when Trans World Airlines was one of the most iconic airlines in the world and the jet engine was revolutionizing how Americans traveled.
- Here's a look at the terminal in its heyday.
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Today, the Trans World Airlines terminal just outside John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens, New York, is now part of the $265 million TWA Hotel project.
Before construction on the hotel project began, the terminal sat vacant and abandoned for 18 years.
But in its mid-century heyday, the TWA Flight Center was known as the "Grand Central of the Jet Age" for its status as the epicenter of the golden age of air travel.
It served as a loading dock for Trans World Airlines, which was one of the most iconic airlines of the 20th century along with Pan American World Airways.
The terminal was built in 1962 during the Jet Age, a period when the introduction of the jet engine to both military and commercial air travel meant that planes became bigger, faster, and cheaper to manufacture.
The jet engine impacted commercial aviation specifically, ensuring that air travel was no longer a luxury for only the upper class.
The construction of the TWA Terminal helped the Jet Age expand around the world — and established New York as a forerunner of the aviation era.
in 1963, the New York Jets football team even changed its name from the Titans of New York to reflect the city's role in the revolutionary Jet Age.
The terminal's designer, renowned Finnish-born architect Eero Saarinen, wanted his neo-futuristic structure to mirror the shape of a bird with its wings spread.
Inside, the terminal is known for its cavernous arched white ceilings, winding staircases, and mid-century mod style.
"We wanted the architecture to reveal the terminal not as a static, enclosed place," Saarinen said in a lecture in 1959, "but as a place of movement and transition."
Glass walls lean away from the building, "as if intended for viewers to imagine looking out from a plane to earth below," according to Arch Daily.
There were closed-circuit televisions and a food court in the building.
And the flight schedules were displayed on an electronic board, which was as futuristic as it got back then.
Saarinen's designs diverged from the typical airline terminal of the time, which was oftentimes more minimal and business-like. His concept evens stands out amongst modern-day designs.
"Today's airports put the people in the middle, away from the light and any sense of exterior orientation," said architecture critic Alexandra Lange in Design Observer in 2011. "The bulk is given over to ticketing and security, baggage and shops, so that people get only a narrow path. It's the opposite at TWA: the perimeter is for humans."
For decades, the building was a successful terminal for flyers and remained an architectural marvel.
Later in 1994, the terminal would even be designated a New York City landmark.
But in the 1980s, a shift in management and a series of financial losses at TWA spelt the airline's eventual downfall.
The airline went bankrupt twice, first in 1992 and then again in 1995.
It was finally acquired by American Airlines in 2001.
As for the terminal, built decades before, it couldn't accommodate the much larger aircraft of modern-day air travel.
And the layout of the terminal didn't meet modern-day security guidelines either — installing metal detectors, for example, proved to be too difficult for the space.
So with that, the TWA terminal stopped serving passengers and closed in 2001.
The terminal was deemed so unadaptable that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey proposed building a new terminal behind it, though still leaving the main TWA Terminal alone.
But the proposal did include destroying two boarding gates that were attached to the main building by connector tubes, a plan that didn't go over so well with the public.
The main issue was that this new terminal would overshadow the historic TWA building. The proposal also didn't include plans for how the TWA building would be used, and there wasn't any financial backing to renovate it, which it needed at the time.
The potential neglect of the terminal prompted the National Trust for Historic Preservation to include it in its 2003 list of America's 11 Most Endangered Places.
But the Port Authority's proposal was eventually put through a review process, which resulted in revised designs that limited the new terminal's infringement on the decades-old TWA building and tossed out the demolition plans for the connector tubes.
The terminal was also placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005, further ensuring its preservation — even if just the exterior of it.
The new terminal at JFK was completed in 2008. The historic connector tubes were used to connect the TWA building to the new terminal, which was dubbed Terminal 5 upon completion and houses JetBlue Airlines to this day. The cost to build the new JetBlue terminal amounted to $743 million.
On top of having its initial proposal revised, the Port Authority agreed to shell out $19 million needed for repairs on the TWA building.
The renovated TWA Terminal opened to the public for the first time in ten years in 2011, when Open House New York, an annual festival that welcomes the public into typically off-limit design sites, added it to its roster.
Over 1,000 visitors ventured to get a look inside the mid-century marvel.
In 2015, the historic terminal again hosted throngs of visitors for that year's Open House New York festival.
Thousands of history, architecture, and aviation buffs alike flocked to JFK Airport to journey back to the Jet Age for just four hours.
Some visitors went all out, even donning vintage flight attendant uniforms.
But 2015 was the last time the building would be open to the public before being transformed into the 500-room TWA Hotel.
Construction on the new hotel, led by MCR Development and JetBlue Airways, which operates out of the attached Terminal 5, began in 2016.
The hotel rooms won't be in the TWA building, but in two brand new towers built around it.
There will be 40,000 square feet of meeting spaces, six restaurants, eight bars, a spa, and a 10,000-square-foot observation deck. The budget for the project amounted to $265 million.
And a rooftop infinity pool will be available for guests overlooking the runway.
The building's historic status kept its exterior from being redeveloped.
But an interior restoration was completed, though rest assured: much of the terminal will look as it always has. The hotel lobby will exist in this main building.
In fact, some of the terminal's most famous amenities have been restored, like its original cocktail bar known as the "Sunken Lounge" decked out in the building's signature red cushioned seats.
The terminal's iconic Ambassador's Club will also be revived.
It's known for its orange seats, seen pictured below.
Other well-known features like the Lisbon Lounge and the Paris Cafe will also be restored.
The trademark departures notification board was updated with a new mechanism that allows staff to display the messaging of their choice through an app.
And a 1958 Lockheed Constellation L-1649A plane, called "Connie," was renovated into a cocktail lounge. It'll sit on the tarmac, where guests can book two-hour reservations and sip cocktails.
The TWA Hotel's soft opening was slated for May 15, with a grand opening planned for this fall.
For $249 a night, the starting rate for a room at the new TWA Hotel, you can travel back to the golden age of air travel.
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