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At Least One Airport Terminal Is Worth Preserving—and Staying at Overnight

QUEENS, N.Y.—The appeal of airport hotels rests firmly in the realm of last resorts, an inviting place only compared to a night on a concourse floor. Until this summer, that is,  when the new TWA Hotel opened at New York’s JFK Airport—likely becoming the worlds only hanger-side accommodations that make it worth taking a flight in its own right. Architect Eero Saarinens staggering 1962 TWA Terminal, unused since 2001 and having survived multiple threats of demolition or mutilation, has been reborn in a state of tremendous polish. 

Ironically, this modern icon was outmoded almost as soon as it was built. Scaled to accommodate a smaller range of planes (such as the Lockheed Constellation L-1649A, now turned into a stationary bar outside), the terminal was overwhelmed by the leviathans of the jet age, which strained its capacity both inside and out. 

Prior commercial airliners generally carried about 100 passengers—today, jets routinely quintuple that. While cars have grown larger, they occupy basically the same amount of space that they did in 1950. Imagine the nightmare of retrofitting every single road and driveway for cars many times their size. 

Even with plane sizes a bit more stable since then, airports tend to be terrible: human-scaled places seem to become almost impossible with requirements of moving masses of passengers remotely efficiently between structures that are as high as a six-story building (the Boeing 747 tail) and about as long as the Statue of Liberty. When thats rarely achieved, its usually soon torn down for something else. 

The 1961 TWA Annual Report, showing Eero Saarinen’s TWA Terminal, New York (Todd Lappin/Flickr)

TWA Hotel, with new wings added for accommodations.

The haphazard additions and repurposings that were part of the effort to keep the TWA terminal useful in the jet age have now all happily been shorn, in an exceedingly elegant renovation by architects Beyer Blinder Belle. Its good that the building is being asked to do less in its second career; the former ticket counters had literally buried the terminals wonderful conversation pit, and a former baggage room is now a ballroom.

The renovation was also eased by the fact that the programmatic functions of hotels resemble airports, only at lower voltage. The Arrivalsarea is now the check-in desk, the former Paris Cafeis now run by Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and the Lisbon Loungeis still for lounging. The duty free shop has given way to hip retailers such as Warby Parker and Shinola, and even a Phaidon bookshop. 

Carpeting colors are impossibly crisp, legendary designer Raymond Loewys timeless TWA logo is everywhere, and furnishings by Saarinen, Noguchi, and Lowey fill the space. (Some chairs were purchased at the Four Seasons restaurant auction.) There are elements of time-capsule kitsch, including stewardess uniforms that might try the patience of those who arent devotees of the era, but the structural accomplishment is tremendous. 

TWA, for years a white elephant, or more of a white cormorant, has long defied easy description, largely due to its singular vault, 6,000 tons in four wedges, varying between seven and eleven inches thick, and supported only at four points. The concrete, when poured, took weeks to harden. Avian analogies are most popular, and Richard Southwick, restoration architect at Beyer Blinder Belle turned to one in explaining the feat of this massive structures slender foundation: Birds have two very thin legs but theyre in perfect balance—half the weight forward and half the weight back. Saarinen himself denied that birds ever entered his thinking: he in fact likened it to a more prosaic inspiration—a halved grapefruit, pressed such that the rind splayed. (Im not sure if grapefruits are on the menu but hopefully so.)

Information desk, Trans World Flight Center, c. 1962 (Library of Congress)

The restored TWA Hotel (Max Touhey)

In any case, the terminal roof is captivating, as is the orchestration of all ramp and stairway-laden space beneath. The vault, and just about everything else about the terminal, are emphatically excess to mere functional requirements. Its as far from ascetic modernism as you can get: the concrete structure swirls between the Gaudiesque magmatic and delicacy and back again with an ease that can only be the product of intense design (and mind-boggling engineering calculations). 

But where in this new hotel, you might ask, are the rooms? These have been exceptionally skillfully placed in two new structures flanking the original terminal, designed by Lubrano Ciavarra Architects. These are designed to be demure, creating a stable backdrop to the direct view of the terminal (and blotting out the JetBlue Terminal that partially encircles it) without obscuring any view from within. Anne Marie Lubrano noted that “It was an effort to be as quiet as possible so you respect the legibility of Saarinen’s sculptural form.” These also provide an additional wrinkle of appeal, with intensely thick (four-and-a-half inches, triple glazed) and intensely reflective glass with aluminum mullions, an unmistakable nod to other Saarinen office projects. The word is that airport noises dont register inside. 

The new TWA Hotel has made what might seem a braggadocious claim that it will achieve 200 percent occupancy—you wont find a stranger in your room, but you will find stays available for four-hour blocks for briefer refreshment. Just a stroll through Saarinen’s vaults will revive anyones spirits—now as easy as an AirTrain shuttle ride away—in an oasis among the bustle of one of the world’s busiest airports.

Anthony Paletta is a journalist based in New York.