“TWA was the Marilyn Monroe of the airlines: an American icon done in by powerful men who wanted a piece of its magic. Glamorous, tragic, gone before its time,” wrote Elaine X. Grant, just five years after Trans World Airlines (TWA) was absorbed by American Airlines in 2001. Indeed, it was. TWA rose to prominence at a particularly revered time in the history of aviation, and — for a while — it was its shining star.
Founded in 1930, guided by Howard Hughes (1905 — 1976) between 1939 and 1960, and plagued by serious financial issues throughout the 1980s and 1990s, TWA appeared to be fading into obscurity by 2001, only to emerge again in 2019 — but, not as an airline. May marks a new chapter in the revived saga of the popular cultural icon; New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport opens the TWA Hotel, with its former Flight Center at the heart of the enterprise.
This is not an average hotel. Eero Saarinen (1910 — 1961), architect and industrial designer noted for his neo-futuristic style, dreamt up what was to become one of the most recognizable and beloved flight centers in the world. “In questioning the presuppositions of early modern architecture, he introduced sculptural forms that were rich in architectural character and visual drama unknown in earlier years,” and TWA's 1962 Flight Center is one of his best works.
“Saarinen's original design featured a prominent wing-shaped thin shell roof over the head house or main terminal; unusual tube-shaped red-carpeted departure-arrival corridors; and tall windows enabling expansive views of departing and arriving flights.” Although portions of the original complex have been demolished, the head house has since been renovated and is currently partially encircled by the 2008 JetBlue terminal building.
Over the last few years, more than 400 architects, craftspeople, and historians joined forces to restore the famed landmark to its former glory as well as add some modern twists. One of the main goals behind the project was to preserve the unique attributes, forms, and design elements that made the Flight Center famous in the first place. This involved digitally scanning the space and figuring out the best ways of building new structures that would fit the world-famous aesthetic.
“New York-based firms Lubrano Ciavarra Architects and Beyer Blinder Belle contributed to the vast renovation and extension to the structure. Inside, INC Architecture & Design designed the event spaces, while Stonehill Taylor designed the guest rooms. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ), which operates JFK Airport, hotel owner-operator MCR and developer Morse were also involved in the efforts to revitalize the iconic landmarked building.”
Today, Saarinen’s 200,000-square-foot Flight Center features eight bars, six restaurants, coffee stops, and a number of retail outlets — all of which are specially styled to preserve and align with the aesthetic of the ultra-glam and super swanky 1960s. The two hotel wings sit behind the historic TWA terminal and contain 512, exquisitely fashioned guest rooms facing the busy JFK runways.
Although it’s hard to imagine trying to sleep with airplanes flying past the windows at all hours of the night, incredible precautions have been taken to ensure that this isn’t a problem; the window is actually a floor-to-ceiling, full-width wall that’s seven panes wide and 4.5 inches thick. Apparently, the TWA Hotel’s glass curtain wall is the second-thickest in the world, after the one at the U.S. Embassy in London.
But, the TWA Hotel is not just a hospitality business venture. After partnering with the New York Historical Society, it's also a museum that contains over 2,000 rare TWA artifacts. Former crew members supplied many of their personal items for exhibition, including “a flight attendant’s log detailing five years of airborne adventures, vintage furniture from the TWA headquarters,” and in-flight amenities, such as gilded playing cards, silver serving ware, vintage cabin crew uniforms, and more.
While the TWA Hotel is mostly definitely an awesome architectural gem, one its coolest amenities is actually found just outside its sprawling windows. "Commissioned in 1939 by TWA's eccentric owner, Howard Hughes...the Lockheed Constellation ‘Connie’ broke the era's transcontinental speed record on a flight from Burbank, California, to New York in 1946. The plane also served as Air Force One (top) for President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1950s.”
The 1951 Connie N8083H is almost as iconic as the TWA Flight Center itself. Although she was an active part of the company's passenger fleet from 1958 to 1960, she still managed to earn a special place in the airline's history. After a two-year stint as a cargo plane, and then an Alaskan bush plane for another five, she returned to TWA only to be sold for $150 at a 1979 auction. She was restored by her new owners and eventually flown down to Chandler, Arizona in 1981.
“Connie’s career went up in smoke by early 1983, when she was modified to airdrop marijuana, then got stuck in the mud with a damaged propeller at a remote landing field in Colombia. Outfitted with a new prop, she flew to San Pedro Sula, Honduras, where she was abandoned.” In 1986, however, she was rescued and transported to Florida, where Connie was once again sold at auction in 2007. She was significantly stripped down so that her parts could be used for another plane.
“After purchasing the dilapidated Connie N8083H (she was missing a nose!) in early 2018, MCR/MORSE Development partnered with Atlantic Models/Gogo Aviation to restore her to her original condition. The painstaking work — which included tracking down authentic parts, installing flooring and windows, and outfitting the cockpit with controls — was completed at Maine’s Auburn-Lewiston Airport,” in 2018.
The revived Connie is parked on the tarmac just outside the glass walls of The Sunken Lounge, the premier bar inside the landmark Flight Center. And the Starlight Lounge, a pre-dinner spot for cocktails and canapes with gold leather banquettes, is stowed away inside the historic aircraft. Its walls are adorned with eight-by-four-foot murals created by artist Maric Zamparellit; they depict 25 beautiful destinations around the world and, we’re pretty sure, she’s seen them all.