This Architect's "Perfect Building" Takes Flight Once Again
There’s new wind under the wings of Finnish American architect Eero Saarinen’s iconic midcentury Trans World Airlines Flight Center. Once a groundbreaking airline terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport (then known as New York International Airport), its sleek, sloping concrete has been preserved for a new era as the lobby of the TWA Hotel, which opened in mid-May of 2019 as Kennedy Airport’s new on-site hotel.
“It’s probably Saarinen’s perfect building,” says Richard Southwick, the project architect and a partner at Beyer Blinder Belle, the architecture firm that oversaw two phases of the Flight Center’s restoration. “It’s a symbol of this terrific postwar optimism. It’s a symbol of the coming Jet Age. It’s very, very expressive—it’s unlike any other building he’s done. And it also, like a lot of his corporate work, was a great vehicle to convey the corporate identity of TWA.”
Its dramatic, arching concrete wings are a pioneering example of thin-shell construction, and Saarinen focused intensely on guest comfort and experience inside the building. The building as a whole was a cutting-edge advancement in aviation: TWA’s terminal was one of the first with jetways and baggage carousels, among other features. Although Saarinen died at 51, months before the terminal opened to the public, the TWA Flight Center became one of his most recognizable designs and won him a posthumous AIA Gold Medal.
For decades, the terminal dutifully connected travelers with their planes. But despite acclaim and landmark status in 1994, as security and capacity needs changed with the advent of jumbo jets, TWA and the building struggled to keep up. When TWA filed for its third (and last) bankruptcy in 2001, American Airlines acquired it—but in the wake of 9/11, laid off many of its employees and ended operations at the TWA Flight Center.
The building sat vacant from 2001 onwards, though the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey made sure to keep it secure, heated, and lit. “They realized this building was too iconic to be demolished and looked around for a new use for it,” Southwick says. In fact, Beyer Blinder Belle’s first involvement with the flight center began in 2002, when the Port Authority hired them to help stabilize the building and think about future uses. It hosted small gatherings and events over the intervening decades—for example, it was used as an exhibition gallery in 2004—but was otherwise left alone. “Any building, historic or otherwise, that’s vacant and has no viable use, is dying. This building was dying for 18 years,” Southwick explained.
But JetBlue—the current occupant of Kennedy Airport’s new Terminal 5—and the Port Authority had long been contemplating a future use for Saarinen’s head house. Terminal 5, completed in 2008, wraps around the head house and cuts it off from the airfield—a decision that “effectively saved” the building, Southwick said, as it could no longer be used as an airline terminal. The Port Authority solicited proposals for adaptive reuse in 2012, and hotel use was a leading contender. A hotel would fill a need, as Kennedy was one of the few major international airports without a hotel on site—and importantly, the transition from airport building to hotel would not be a disruptive one. “The needs of a hotel are not that different than the programmatic needs of an airline terminal,” Southwick explains. “The only thing the terminal had that the hotel lobby does not need is the baggage claim area, and the baggage area was one long-span space that was converted into a long-span ballroom. All the other uses are site-specific and really stayed where they are.”
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In 2015, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo confirmed that the TWA Flight Center would be developed as a hotel in a public-private partnership between the Port Authority, JetBlue, and MCR Development, the hotel’s owner. Beyer Blinder Belle was chosen to lead a second phase of restoration in the 1962 building. The exterior work aimed to return the building to its original 1962 appearance. An immediate worry was the condition of the thin-shell concrete that adorns the exterior. Luckily, after a series of non-destructive tests, it became clear that the roof shell was in fairly good condition—some of the elastomeric coating had bubbled, but water only pooled in a few places. “We did some concrete repair in some local areas, but the quality of the concrete work and the strength of the concrete really preserved it, and it was in much better shape than we thought,” Southwick says. The concrete on the low-lying flanks, however, was lower quality, and required more intense reconstruction work.
Turning the long-vacant flight center’s interior into a hotel lobby was a painstaking process that began with dedicated research. “We went to the Saarinen collection up at Yale,” Southwick says. “We actually found the original sample boards for a lot of the materials stashed away in old file cabinets.” Those materials were used to restore the intact parts of the building, like the Ambassadors Club, to Saarinen’s original intent. Additionally, those materials, along with historic drawings and photographs, inspired the new interventions in the building. Beyer Blinder Belle and its collaborators would conference about each decision, working to “channel Saarinen,” Southwick says. “We were very cognizant of the design intent Saarinen utilized when he did the original designs for this building.” The new interventions were intentionally located in areas where the building had already been substantially modified and made to be “in the spirit of” the original construction—yet distinguishable from Saarinen’s work.
Today, Saarinen’s crown jewel is the TWA Hotel’s lobby, reception, and restaurant area. 512 guest rooms were built in new seven-story towers tucked in the curve behind the head house. They take inspiration from Saarinen’s materials and forms, with walnut tambour accent walls and Saarinen’s famous Womb Chairs and Tulip Tables. The original "flight tubes" that once led passengers to planes and were used to connect the head house to the JetBlue terminal now also take guests from the lobby to the hotel rooms. “The hotel buildings are designed to be a neutral background—like a backdrop or a back curtain to the stage,” says Southwick. “The main show really is the Saarinen flight center.”
Bringing a new use to a vacant gem of midcentury architecture has been a positive for the building and airport as a whole, Southwick explains. “It provides a use that’s really required at the airport that would not have been considered 50 or 60 years ago when the airports were being designed,” he says. “I think the significance of this building as part of the legacy of Kennedy Airport is being recognized and being retained.”