The Historic TWA Terminal and Lockheed Consellation at JFK

The Historic TWA Terminal and Lockheed Consellation at JFK


As I passed the curb-parked convertible and entered the doors of the Eero Saarinen-designed TWA Terminal with its winged, flight-suggesting roof at JFK International Airport on a mid-September day, gold coast clear carts nothing, I noted, had changed, except that the passenger check-in counters flanking either side were refreshingly devoid of lines. Perhaps that should have been a hint.

Mounting the dozen stairs and then redescending those that led to the familiar Sunken Lounge, I eyed the Solari split-flap arrivals and departures board, its panels periodically flipping and clacking like stacking poker chips, but they only revealed blank squares. There were no flight numbers, no times, and no destinations.

Yet by views of the vintage airliners on the ramp through the floor-to-ceiling angled glass displaying TWA’s red-and-white livery, but lacking a single jet engine, my destination today could only be labeled “history” or, cheap guns for sale even “aviation history.” Perhaps that was appropriate for the “luggage” I brought: a carry-on consisting of a clipboard and a pen.

The scene before me was a suspended one. The period music and the announcements echoing through my head transported me to the one I was not in.

“TWA Starstream Flight 802 to Paris, now boarding at gate one,” they said.

My eyes, scanning past the location of the once famous and familiar Brass Rail Restaurant toward the dual, main terminal connecting tubes still covered with chili red pepper carpeting to the departure area, I fully expected to take in one or more Boeing 707-320Bs with their bluntly pointed, radome noses,Vegan leather bags 35-degree swept wings, and Pratt and Whitney JT3D-3B low bypass ratio turbofans.

Yet the Lockheed L-1649A Starliner Constellation, representing the pinnacle-of-piston development, indicated that the era preserved and depicted “out there” was not the one my mind tried to convince me still existed “in here.” Instead, it was two decades earlier, of the 1960s, and I had entered a preserved pocket of time.


As an expression, representation, and development of the post-World War II-fueled, technology-facilitated commercial airline industry and the then-named Idlewild International Airport whose evolution resulted from it, the TWA Terminal was and is an architecturally aesthetic symbol of it all. It captures the sensation of flight with its wing-resembling shell and the fluid, more site visit:- open interior beneath it.

Unlike many of today’s single-building, multiple-airline facilities, it traces its origin to 1954 when the Port Authority of New York devised its terminal city concept. Anticipating the need for infrastructure to cater to increasing travel demand, it implemented a plan in which each major carrier would design, build, and operate its own terminal, fostering, in the process, brand identity. Although the TWA facility was the architectural response to the Port Authority’s masterplan, its airline-association was one of its intentions from the start, as stated by the project commission, which first sought an efficient ground operations infrastructure, but secondarily wanted “to provide TWA with advertising, publicity, and attention” with it.

That the chosen site for it was at the apex of the airport’s access road, fashion tape cemented the intention almost as much as the hardened substance which formed it, and that it still does today, despite the two-decade interval since the airline’s demise, serves this post-carrier purpose.

Eero Saarinen, a Finnish-American architect and designer and sometimes considered a mid-century master, was chosen to transform both Idlewild’s and TWA’s vision into concrete reality in 1955. Tracing his own genealogical roots to his father, Eliel Saarinen, an architect, and his mother, Loja Saarinien, a textile artist, he could claim that the talent ran through his veins just as freely as did his blood when he was born in 1910. After studying sculpture in Paris, architecture at Yale University, and design at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, he transformed material into aesthetic function in such creations as the St. Louis Gateway Arch and Washington-Dulles International Airport.

Although Eero Saarinen achieved his goal of crafting an abstract representation of flight in the TWA Terminal, its inspiration was never definitely determined, some suggesting that a thumb depression into a hollowed grapefruit rind resulted in the eventual curved, concrete, symmetrically positioned roof sections that seamlessly flowed from the piers that supported them and were only separated by narrow skylights. The four met at a circular pendent center point.

The roof’s wing surface curvature or camber continued in the crimson and white interior by means of the upper walkaway supported columns that merged into both floor and ceiling as if they were integral to them. Its lack of rectangularity was evident in its other features. The stairways, for instance, were curved and its terminal and departure lounge connecting corridors were more like cylindrical tubes.

Its overall expression was one of 1960s neo-futurism and space-age Googie architecture.

Despite what ultimately proved to be Saarinen’s architectural achievement, it also became his legacy, since a year after he inspected its superstructure in 1961, he passed away at 52, never having seen his finished product.

While it was intended to serve small piston airliners whose capacities never exceeded a hundred, it was not suited to TWA’s narrow body jets, such as the 707 and the 727, much less its widebody ones, including the 747, the L-1011 TriStar, and the 767, requiring the addition of jetbridge-connected boarding satellites.

After the carrier’s 2001 demise, its signature terminal awaited purpose or preservation. Its demolition, at least, had already been spared. In 1994, it was designated a New York City landmark, at which time then Chairwoman of the Landmark Preservation Commission, Larie Beckelman, commented in “The New York Times,” “This is perhaps the quintessential modern form, expressing movement and the whole concept of flight.”

Eleven years later it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. With its presence at least assured, it still awaited the two “p’s”-preservation and purpose.


Preservation and purpose, in the event, became two sides to the same coin-that is, restore the 392,000-square-foot terminal to recreate its 1960’s splendor and serve as the anchor and lobby to another two sides-in this case, two rectangular, black glass buildings with 512 hotel rooms developed by MCR/MORSE and four architectural firms at a $250 million-plus cost.

Architect Richard Southwick, who oversaw the project’s restoration, noted of the TWA Flight Center, “(It was) the perfect symbol of post-war optimism, the magic of flight, and the elegance of mid-century modern architecture.”

Its first guests were accepted in May of 2019.

As a “lobby,” it contains the Sunken Lounge with the Solari flight board; a cocktail lounge; a Sundries Shop with vintage copies of “Life,” “Time,” “Good Housekeeping,” and “Family Circle” magazines; an old-fashioned shoe shine station tucked in the corner (of course); a TWA Gift Shop whose every item, one way or the other, displays the airline’s logo; a 10,000-square-foot fitness center with a cycling studio, treadmills, ellipticals, a spa section, and personal trainers; and the Paris Café by Jean-Georges, which occupies the footprint of the original one, along with that of the Lisbon Lounge, on one of the two mezzanines and serves cuisine inspired by TWA in-flight menus. There is also 50,000 square feet of meeting and event space.

The two cylindrical tubes-the “Saarinen” to the left and the “Hughes” to the right-lead, by way of midway, originally nonexistent cutouts, to the two seven-story glass, metal, and concrete hotel structures, which were required to be complimentary to, but distinguishable from, the landmark terminal.

Seven layers of triple-glazed, 1,740-pound, insulated, floor-to-ceiling glass ensure in-room silence, despite the fact that ramp-taxiing aircraft are only yards away.

Rooms, which either overlook this scene or the terminal, rent for $250 per night, with lower priced intervals bookable for transit passengers who only seek a short sleep and a shower.

The roof features the Infinity Edge Pool and observation deck, along with a bar.

Only the “Saarinen” tube, back on the main level, leads out-or, in the reverse direction, in-to this preserved pocket of time, as expressed by the two floor designations-or eras-on which the elevator at its end alights: “1960s TWA Hotel” and “Present Day JetBlue,” according to the two buttons the passenger can press to travel there.


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