Mid-Century Time Travel at JFK Airport


(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 2 2019)

Inspired by 1962 - a year when the Jet Age began to shape the history of aviation, where John F. Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy governed in the White House, where the Beatles’ “Love Me Do” was released - an architectural masterpiece has now been awakened from its 19-year long, Sleeping Beauty slumber.  The famous Trans World Airlines (TWA) terminal at JFK Airport in New York has been transformed into a modern hotel and, in the future, will spirit its guests into the glorious era of the Jet Age. The spectacular building was designed by Eero Saarinen, one of the best-known designers and architects of the 20th century, and opened in 1962. The outward appearance of the TWA Flight Center evokes a large bird with its wings outspread – or, some say, a flying dinosaur. 

After TWA was taken over by American Airlines in 2001, the terminal was closed due to its operational shortcomings. The departures hall had proved unsuitable when, beginning in 1970, the first jumbo jets had to be boarded and the ranks of passengers increased more and more. The TWA Hotel officially opened its doors on 15 May of this year. We spoke with Richard Southwick, the architect in charge of the restoration work on the TWA Flight Center.

Will the TWA Hotel bring back the golden age of „Travel in Style“?

The glamour of the 1960s jet age is the inspiration for both the restoration and the new design.

The iconic TWA Flight Center – now a hotel! – will this be the most anticipated hotel opening of the year?

I think so. Its a long time coming. The TWA Flight Center has been dark for 19 years.

How did you get involved into the project?

I was first hired in 1995 by the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, the airport operator, to advise on historic preservation issues when the building was first landmarked. I helped to ensure that the Flight Center would be preserved, not demolished, and my firm guided the building through its initial restoration. I worked with the Port Authority for 20 years and then, in 2014, was engaged by the hotel developer as the lead architect for the redevelopement.

What do you think is so exciting about this project?

It is exciting to think that this old iconic terminal has found new life, after being dark for almost two decades, as a new iconic hotel.

The old TWA terminal had been abandoned since 2001. What was the biggest challenge for the restoration project from an architectural point of view?

The terminal was designed in the 1950s according to a building code that dates back to 1938. It was a challenge to adapt the building to the 2014 building code to meet current requirements of life safety, accessibility, and energy compliance.

Please tell us about the design guidelines and how Eero Saarinen’s design has been taken into consideration during the restoration process.

All design decisions were deliberately considered in relationship to Eero Saarinen's original design intent. That does not mean that everything is a Saarinen replication. It means that whether a part of the project is referential or in contrast, it was done for a specific reason.

In order to maintain the iconic Saarinen design and the 1960s style, all new products to furnish the rooms must also have a suitable design (for example, furniture, lamps etc). How did you find the right designers and products? Was all custom made for the hotel?

Mid-century modern design is experiencing a new wave of popularity. Furnishings, carpets, fabrics and light fixtures are available to outfit this hotel.

Some of the hotel employees’ uniforms are created by Stan Herman, the longest serving president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (from 1991 to 2006). Why Stan? 

Stan Herman is the grandfather of classic and stylish uniform design. He, in fact, designed uniforms for TWA during its heyday. He said he made his first uniform for TWA in 1974. It was exciting to have him involved, as we wanted the operation to look very ‘60s and Stan knows best how to do this. He may also be the most famous ready-to-wear designer to trade the runway for the uniform world. 

What designer or other design companies have participated in the refurbishment of the hotel? 

Lubrano Ciavarra Architects as design consultant and design architect for the hotel buildings. Then we have Stonehill Taylor for the interior design of the hotel rooms, select public areas, and Connie – the restored Lockheed Constellation. INC Architecture & Design was responsible for the conference and event space interior design, and Mathews Nielsen for landscape architecture. Some of the other employees’ uniforms were designed by Ralph Lauren, Oleg Cassini, and Valentino.

So do you think the hotel has something to offer for the fashion world?

Absolutely. Louis Vuitton recently held his Cruise Collection Show 2020 in the TWA Flight Center and transformed it into a catwalk. The LV Resort Show has in the past always taken place at very design-orientated venues like the I.M. Pei-designed Miho Museum in Kyoto, Japan, and the Oscar Niemeyer-designed Niterói Contemporary Art Museum in Brazil.

How many rooms will the hotel have and what categories?

There are 512 rooms, including 24 junior, full, and presidential suites. TWA Hotel’s glass curtain wall by Fabbrica is the second-thickest in the world after the wall at the U.S. Embassy in London. The Sound Transmission Class (STC) rating of the glass of nearly 50 ensures the floor-to-ceiling, full-width windows cancel runway noise.

What are the main “retro” features in each room? Any special gimmicks?

Saarinen furniture, including the womb chair and the tulip table, have been installed. My favorite detail is the built-in, and furnished, martini bar. Guests can make unlimited free international and local calls on a 1950s Western Electric 500 phone retrofitted with a pulse to tone converter by Old Phone Works.

What is your favorite feature at the hotel?

The restored Sunken Lounge in the upper lobby of the Flight Center with its views out to the tarmac plaza and the restored Lockheed Constellation is my favorite feature.

The JFK airport was often voted among the worst airports in the US. Do you think the TWA Flight Center and the hotel will change the image of the airport?

This hotel will be an important factor in the reinvention of JFK International Airport, and will be the keystone of the new development plan recently announced.

In your personal opinion, what are the essentials for a good airport hotel?

Any airport hotel can provide a place to sleep and a meal to eat. A great hotel provides an environment to transport one to a magical or transcendent place. The TWA Hotel will do this.


Richard W. Southwick, Partner, Director of Historic Preservation at Beyer, Blinder, Belle, is inspired by the time-honored qualities of historic design, materials, and craftsmanship. He has dedicated his career to finding new life for older structures. A specialist in preservation, Richard has guided the revitalization of many of New York’s most celebrated historic buildings and sites, as well as international sites of cultural significance. Much of his work involves civic and institutional projects that provide lasting and meaningful public benefit.

Picture credit © Balthazar Korab

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