Up, Up, and Away: The TWA Hotel

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MA History of Design and Material Culture student Gabriela Schunn introduces a striking new hotel, which she recently appraised for Vintage Women Magazine.

Considered a marvel of neo-futuristic architecture, the TWA Flight Center opened in May of 1962 and was the brainchild of Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen, who is best known for designing the St. Louis Gateway Arch. It was commissioned by the Trans World Airlines (TWA) in 1955 to be built as a separate terminal at the John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK), which was still known at the time as Idlewild Airport. Idlewild was looking to court TWA, as they were known as a luxury airline in a time when air travel was already considered a luxury, so the expansion seemed eminently profitable. Renowned architect Robert A.M. Stern once referred to the terminal as the “Grand Central of the Jet Age,” as for decades following, passengers traveling out of JFK would lounge in the headhouse.

An outside glimpse of Saarinen’s building.

Unfortunately, after filing for bankruptcy twice in the mid-1990s, TWA sold its assets to American Airlines and officially closed the terminal in October of 2001, unable to sustain maintenance of the structure. The building had a brief life as host to an art exhibition in 2005, but was shut down again after guests began vandalizing the building. After this, the Flight Center was nominated as one of the 11 Most Endangered Places in America (with regards to historic architecture) and was shortly thereafter listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

However, when the JetBlue Terminal was opened behind the old Flight Center in 2008 to reutilize the lost space, restoring Saarinen’s building began to be re-considered. In 2015, it was announced that the TWA Flight Center would be turned into a hotel for airport guests, paying tribute to the era in which it was originally built. In its heyday, the airline was known for being the first choice of celebrities, servicing the likes of the Beatles, but sometimes found itself not reaching the average consumer because of its many indulgent impracticalities. The hotel has attempted to combat aspects of that legacy by working with company MCR Development to bring all hotel guests an accessible experience.

A display crafted by the New York Historical Society.

If you compare photos of the original terminal to photos of the structure at present, it is clear that they are very closely matched in their layouts. MCR kept all of the iconic features of Saarinen’s original structure, a few of which includes the following: the stark white wing-shaped thin-shell roof, the tube-shaped entrance hallways, the massive wall of glass windows facing the runways, the bright red carpeting, the spiral-staircases and thin arched bridge, and, of course, the iconic departures board that still functions, albeit purely for novelty purposes now. Saarinen said that he “wanted the architecture to reveal the terminal not as a static, enclosed place, but as a place of movement and transition,” which is reflected in the intricate winding pathways.

While Saarinen’s building itself contains the hotel lobby, shops, museum, and restaurants, his original tube-like departure corridors grant hotel guests access to the 512 rooms that are split across two attached buildings called the Saarinen Wing and the Hughes Wing, named after the architect and the famous business magnate that once controlled much of the airline’s assets respectively. All of the woodworking was completed by Amish family-run contractors, a testament to the hotel’s dedication to ethical locally-sourced production. The hotel also features a glass-walled pool and is host to the world’s largest hotel gym.

“Connie”.

Perhaps one of the most striking features of the TWA Hotel, however, isn’t located within the building itself. It is the airplane nicknamed “Connie,” known more formally as the Lockheed Constellation L-1649 Starliner airplane, which was transformed into a functioning cocktail bar. This particularly contributes to the sense of nostalgia, as many of the original features within the airplane were kept, like the signature airplane seats and Mario Zamparelli’s murals featured on the inside walls of the plane. The precise attention to details with regard to the TWA brand is notable.

For those more interested in the history of the space, one can visit the in-house museum. Crafted with assistance from the New York Historical Society, the displays scattered across the whole of Saarinen’s building highlight the history of the airline’s branding over the years. Free and open daily to the public, it showcases uniforms designed by a host of recognizable designers: Howard Greer between 1944 and 1955, Oleg Cassini between 1955 and 1960, Pierre Balmain between 1965 and 1968, Valentino between 1971 and 1975, and lastly, Ralph Lauren between 1978 and 2001.

A display of liveries designed by Howard Greer, Oleg Cassini, and Balmain.

MCR acquired over 2,000 artefacts of TWA history, including uniforms and paraphernalia from former TWA staff and their families to create these exhibits, and hope to continue such displays in the future. Some of the current wall texts feature anecdotes about TWA, like the fact that TWA hostesses in 1944 were required to wear victory rolls à la Veronica Lake because of the popularity of the film The Hour Before Dawn, that TWA hostesses were the first to show an in-flight movie in 1961, and that one of the original liveries designers Stan Herman designed the uniforms worn by current hotel staff, drawing upon all of the designs of his predecessors.

Atop Saarinen’s arched bridge in the hotel lobby.

 

In its few short months of tenure, the hotel has already been host to many midcentury-inspired photoshoots by amateurs and professionals alike, several weddings and engagements, a Michael Kors pop-up, the Louis Vuitton Resort 2020 runway fashion show, and is featured in the third season of the Amazon Prime series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. While not every element of the hotel is of the period, it is itself a living landmark to the history of travel. The entirety of the endeavour is testament to the power of nostalgia and the renewed interest within popular culture in the mid-century aesthetic.

All photographs supplied with kind permission of Ming Chen Photography

Instagram: @mingchenphotography

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