TWA Hotel: A Stylish Memorial to the Jet Age

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Airports aren’t typically destinations unto themselves. Travelers want to get in and out as quickly as possible. Of course, some have made concerted efforts to transform into more-inviting places: Hong Kong International has a golf club, Dubai International offers a sprawling shopping mall, and Singapore’s Changi Airport boasts a 6-acre forest and an indoor waterfall. And while New York City’s JFK International is no one’s idea of a good time, it does have one hallowed corner where travelers should stop and stay a while: The TWA Hotel.


The Trans World Airlines Flight Center opened in 1962, just as trans-Atlantic jet service was becoming more popular. The Boeing 707 had been introduced four years earlier, and suddenly, more people were crossing the Atlantic via air than sea. Not only was this the jet age, it was also the beginning of the Space Age: That year, President Kennedy asked Congress for more money to put a man on the moon, “The Jetsons” debuted, and John Glenn became the first man to orbit the earth. With its futuristic birdlike shape, the Eero Saarinen-designed TWA terminal captured the spirit of flight and perfectly embodied the time.

Inside, the expansive lobby was abuzz with visitors oohing and aahing over this midcentury marvel — a swooping concrete shell whose contours gracefully flow into staircases and seamlessly meld into balconies.

In 2001, when American Airlines took over TWA, the iconic terminal closed down. It sat underused for years, a memorial to the golden age of flying. Then, in 2014, it was rescued from demolition and underwent a meticulous $300 million restoration. Five years later, after expanding with two additional wings, it opened as The TWA Hotel, a 512-room property that pays homage to the airline and the decade in which the terminal opened.

On a recent trip to New York City, we checked in for a brief stay. The hotel is conveniently located next to JetBlue’s Terminal 5, so it’s an easy trip on the AirTrain. As we walked the breezeway to the entrance, loudspeakers played “Up, Up and Away,” and we were greeted by a pristine 1962 Lincoln Continental convertible, which acted as a set piece for selfies. Inside, the expansive lobby was abuzz with visitors oohing and aahing over this midcentury marvel — a swooping concrete shell whose contours gracefully flow into staircases and seamlessly meld into balconies. Guests were smiling for photos next to a diminutive BMW Isetta and a doorless Fiat 500 Jolly, both painted TWA’s “dusk red”; the Intelligentsia Coffee bar and the Food Hall were serving up beverages and snacks; people were buying memorabilia at the TWA Shop; and others were gleefully walking their dogs on leads. Up the stairs, the glamorous Sunken Lounge was hosting a wedding beneath the departures and arrivals sign, which fronted massive slanted windows peering out to a retro roller rink and a Lockheed Constellation airplane that had made an appearance on the cover of Frank Sinatra’s 1958 album, Come Fly With Me. It seemed impossible to find an unhappy person. Everyone was smiling, and some even dressed the part, wearing ’60s-style clothing.

View of the Eero Saarinen terminal seen from the pool deck, TWA Hotel - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Pool overlooking the tarmac at JFK - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Vintage TWA posters line a walkway of the hotel - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
A Fiat 500 Jolly in the lobby of the TWA Hotel - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Hotel automated check-in console - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
The re-creation of a 1962 living room that is part of an exhibit within the hotel - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Inside the Lockheed Constellation plane that is now dubbed the Connie Cocktail Lounge - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
View from our Deluxe King With Historic TWA View - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Bath in our Deluxe King With Historic TWA View - Photo by Andrew Harpere editor

Unfortunately, no one was smiling at the front desk because no one was there. Check-in was via an app, which, to me, seemed like a missed opportunity. I would have loved a flight attendant in full TWA regalia to welcome us. But it portended the service that was to come. While our room was stylish, with requisite vintage touches like a red Saarinen Womb chair, tambour wood-paneled walls, TWA travel posters and terrazzo floors, it was lacking in necessities like a bath mat, tissue, lotion and washcloths. Calling the front desk — twice — got me nowhere, as no one ever answered the phone.

We had high hopes for dinner at the Paris Café by Jean-Georges (Vongerichten), but were disappointed there as well. The wall of windows, dramatic lighting and Tulip pedestal tables (designed by Saarinen in the 1950s) make for a striking space, but the menu was pedestrian. There was nothing special about my fish and chips except the price, and my Caesar salad consisted of shredded yellow lettuce and too much vinegar. The chef may have a stellar reputation, but eating there reminded me that I was not in a fine-dining restaurant at all; I was at the airport.

During our two-day stay, we experienced every rounded corner of the hotel (there are no right angles in the terminal). We had cocktails inside its Lockheed Constellation, now converted to a bar and dubbed Connie, and reminisced about the good old days of flying, noting the roomy TWA seats and — surprise! — ashtrays in the armrests. We visited the museum exhibits, one of which showcases 65 TWA uniforms from 1945 to 2001, and the rooftop observation deck where we watched planes taxi and take off — next time I’ll bring my swimsuit to take advantage of the infinity pool there.

The TWA Hotel has a lot in common with a high-design theme restaurant where the food plays second fiddle. It is essentially a theme hotel, where the rooms and service take a back seat to the atmosphere. But that’s what people come here for: immersion in a bygone era brought back to life.

- Hotel at a Glance -

TWA Hotel    85

Like

The spectacular Eero Saarinen design; being reminded of a time when flying was exciting and glamorous and few people associated planes with terrorism.

Dislike

Most of the rooms are small and service is virtually nonexistent; the surprisingly mediocre food at Paris Café by Jean-Georges.

Good to Know

The hotel is located close to the AirTrain, which means you can reach all the terminals conveniently; travelers can book a Daytripper stay for between four and 12 hours from 6 a.m. and 8 p.m.


Rates:Deluxe King With Historic TWA View, $226; Executive King Suite With Historic TWA View, $317
Address: John F. Kennedy International Airport, JFK Access Road, One Idlewild Drive, New York City
Telephone: (212) 806-9000

TWA Hotel

By Andrew Harper Editor Andrew Harper editors travel the world anonymously to give you the unvarnished truth about luxury hotels. Hotels have no idea who the editors are, so they are treated exactly as you might be.
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