• Dante Mazza

TWA Flight Center at JFK Airport

Updated: Sep 27, 2020


The TWA Terminal in Summer 2019

The former TWA Flight Center at New York City's John F. Kennedy International Airport is one of the finest examples of mid 20th century modernist architecture in the United States. Built in the golden moments of the Jet Age for Trans World Airlines by the renowned architect Eero Saarinen, this iconic New York City Landmark is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is significant for its architecture, engineering, and status as an enduring symbol of American air travel.

In May of 2019, after being vacant for years, the terminal reopened to the public as the centerpiece of the new TWA Hotel, a 1960s-themed airport hotel catering to passengers traveling through JFK and the first and only hotel located fully within the boundaries of the airport.

 

Trans World Airlines and the Jet Age

American air travel became commercially viable only after the Second World War when the United States enjoyed one of the most prosperous periods in its history. By the time the flight center opened in 1962, over 11 million passengers a year were passing through JFK, up from just 3.5 million a decade or so earlier.

The increase in passenger traffic had an effect on the design of airline terminals. Originally, airlines had operated much like railroads. Passengers gathered in a large central waiting room and boarded their flights as they arrived at the building. In some cases, passengers even purchased their tickets at storefronts in cities before being transported out to the airport to await departure. In the postwar era, the idea of modern flight gates with separate waiting areas was developed.

The TWA Flight Center had such gates, known as "flight wings", connected to the main terminal building by long, projecting tubes. The tubes remain today, but the rest of the boarding area, which was originally designated as a landmark along with the main terminal, was demolished in the early 2000s to make way for the modern Terminal 5, which houses the operations of JetBlue Airways.

It was also during this postwar jet age that the air traffic control tower was separated from the terminal building, arrival and departure areas were separated from each other, and baggage conveyor systems were developed.

In the midst of this air travel Renaissance, Trans World Airlines was coming into its own. Born of a merger between the Transcontinental Air Transport and Western Air Express airmail companies, TWA was originally called "Transcontinental and WesternAir, Inc" but adopted the "Trans World" title in 1950.

A Lockhead Starliner L-1649A, the last of the Constellation models, built in 1956 and used by TWA now sits behind the Flight Center and is used as a hotel bar

TWA launched nonstop jet service between New York and Los Angeles in 1953, followed by a New York-London-Frankfurt route in 1959. In this period, the preferred aircraft of TWA was the Lockhead "Constellation" model, also used by Pan American World Airways and as Air Force One by President Dwight Eisenhower.

Pan Am was TWA's principle rival, and the two airlines dominated the market during the middle of the 20th Century. By the time the Flight Center was being built, TWA operated flights between 65 US cities and 23 destinations abroad, second only to Pan Am, which had just completed its own iconic terminal at JFK, known as the "Worldport", in 1960. (The Worldport was demolished in 2013).

Though the two airlines were the dominant carriers of their time, neither ended up being destined to last. Pan Am folded in 1991 and sold its remaining assets to Delta, while a weakened TWA was crippled completely by the industry downturn following the September 11th Attacks in 2001 and sold to American Airlines. Precisely because neither carrier exists today, they are considered to be the ultimate symbols of a bygone, golden era of air travel.

It is essential to note that between 1944 and 1966, the history of TWA was dominated by its largest shareholder: the eccentric celebrity billionaire, film producer, and pilot Howard Hughes, who would later become the richest man in America. Hughes played an outsized role in the airline's operations. For instance, he personally financed the airline's first purchase of Constellations. When he was forced to sell his stock in the airline, he took home over half a billion dollars from the investment. Despite the fact that Hughes never had an official position with TWA, his name has become inextricably linked to the brand.

 

History of JFK Airport

JFK sprawls along the shore of Jamacia Bay in southern Queens

TWA had a long history in New York City. It was one of the first carriers to operate from LaGuardia Airport, which had replaced Floyd Bennett Field, located across Jamaica Bay from JFK, as the city's primary airport in the 1930s. TWA flew both passengers and cargo from LaGuardia to Europe for many years. Eventually however, LaGuardia became too crowded for its small space and its namesake, New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, set his sites on building an even larger airport to serve New York City. (The Mayor had no intention of allowing the large and heavily used Newark Airport in neighboring New Jersey to become the primary gateway to the City).

In 1941, the city purchased a swath of land in Southern Queens which included the Idlewild golf course, an old resort hotel, and a seaplane landing strip. The area was transformed into an airport, named Idlewild after the golf course it had replaced. Responsibility for the massive project was passed from the city to an independent airport authority to the Port of New York Authority, now the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which currently controls the three major New York area commercial airports and all infrastructure connecting the two states.

Idlewild Airport opened to passenger traffic in July 1948.

A large, publicly funded government agency could not keep up with the rapid pace of change in the airline industry at the time, so for the first several years of its existence, passengers at what would become JFK boarded flights railroad-style from a single, crowded, temporary terminal while the Port Authority decided on a master plan.

In 1955, the "Terminal City" concept was announced. The plan provided for a central cluster of terminals, arranged in a style similar to that of a suburban office park, set around a central landscaped area of reflecting pools, fountains, and parking lots. Airlines were allowed to design their own terminals, and while they were supposed to do so within an overall design scheme, each enlisted their own architects and designed with their own needs in mind, so Terminal City became an eclectic collection of architecture. Each terminal represented not only a different architectural style, but a unique approach to the logistics of airport operations as well.

The TWA Flight Center was the last terminal in the complex to be completed, and following the 2013 demolition of the Pan Am Worldport, is the sole survivor of the original Terminal City.

JFK received its current name after the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963. While the airport has grown and developed in a myriad of ways since the Terminal City era, its general layout today is similar, and the terminals occupy the same area as they did originally.

 

The Architect: Eero Saarinen

Saarinen photographed in 1958

Eero Saarinen was born in Finland in 1910. As the son of a textile designer and a noted international architect, he was doubtless blessed with great creativity and artistic ability from birth. The family moved to the United States when Eero was just 13. His father designed many buildings at the Cranbrook School and Academy of Art, located north of Detroit. Eero assisted his father by designing furniture for the project.

After completing his education at Yale University and the Parisian Academie de la Grand Chaumiere, Saarinen toured the architectural wonders of the Old World on a fellowship to Europe and Egypt. Having been sufficiently trained for life as an architect, he first made waves in the industry as a furniture designer, collaborating with the great Charles Eames on an award-winning design for a molded plywood chair. When his father passed away, Eero took over and rebranded his family firm.

Building off this foundation, Saarinen developed a reputation for being hardworking and precise with his designs. He believed that each project needed a unique design to fit its intended function, and once stated that "each building should be as distinctive as each person should."

Saarinen's works have certainly lived up to his beliefs, for they include some of the most iconic and celebrated architectural landmarks in the United States, from the Gateway Arch in St. Louis to Ingalls Hockey Rink at Yale, Dulles Airport in Virginia, and the CBS Headquarters building in midtown Manhattan.

The TWA Flight Center was one of the final projects that Saarinen designed. He died young, at age 51, in 1961 during its construction. The project was finished by his longtime associate Kevin Roche. Saarinen and his work were celebrated during his lifetime and have continued to be well-appreciated through the years.

 

Design, Construction, and Engineering


Saarinen's intention with the Flight Center was to design a building that would be visually stunning and distinctive, but also function properly and efficiently. TWA needed a terminal that could handle over 1000 people per hour at peak travel times. The airline had been assigned a wedge-shaped terminal site that was the deepest into the airport, a visually prominent yet geometrically challenging position in Terminal City which required unique design and impressive style.

The design process was painstaking. Saarinen and his team researched flight and passenger data, toured existing terminals, and crafted model after model out of clay, wire, and cardboard.

Saarinen intended for the design to "express the excitement of travel" and craft a building that would "reveal the terminal as a place of movement and transition." With such soaring ideals in mind, Saarinen turned to a medium that would allow his lofty goals to be realized, one that was having a worldwide "moment" in the middle of the 20th century: thin-shell concrete.

The architect himself had experimented with the material when he designed the Ingalls Rink at Yale. He had also endorsed its use by helping select the winning design for the now world-famous Sydney Opera House, which also features iconic soaring shells, in 1956.

For the Flight Center, Saarinen's design consists of four separate concrete vaults interlocking with each other and supported by four well-spaced piers to create a large open space beneath. The four shells are separated by skylights but connected by a central plate which is held in place by the competing stresses created by the tilts of the four shells. The engineering firm for the project was Ammann & Whitney, whose principals had extensive experience engineering some of the nation's most prominent and complex bridges and were experts in the use of reinforced concrete.

Because there was so much open space to cover and relatively little support for the concrete roof, a special blend was created for the Fight Center, meant to be light and malleable for the soaring roof shells, while regular concrete was used for the load-bearing piers.

The construction process was a feat all of its own, conducted by a team that included 14 engineers and 150 craftsmen. The most important step in construction was the pouring of the concrete, a 120-hour long process that was briefly interrupted by the arrival of Hurricane Diane and its heavy rains. Ten million pounds of concrete were used for the shells alone.

When the forms were finally removed, the Flight Center could stand on its own, as a monument to the brilliance of its engineers, the integrity of its builders, and the creativity of its designers. All aspects of the design and construction process came together beautifully to create an instant American Landmark.

 

The Architecture: Exterior

The Flight Center as viewed from the JFK AirTrain in the summer of 2019. The two dominant features of the building's exterior are its soaring concrete roof and massive green-tinted glass windows.

Saarinen crafted one of the most iconic expressions of mid-Twentieth Century modernist architecture in the United States. Each unique exterior feature unites with the others to create a building truly unlike any other.

The Flight Center consists of four concrete vaults that interlock at the centerplate of the roof. The vaults are divided by a band of skylights, visible in the upper right corner of the above photo, and supported by massive concrete piers, such as the one seen here just below the skylight. The vast window walls like the one seen above were originally covered by grey plastic blinds that were removed in the renovation.

A large oval window wall sits between the two piers on the "airside" of the terminal, facing what would have been the taxiway. The scene has been recreated with the Connie airplane and luggage vehicle. The backlit red TWA letters on the roof are original.

The "landside" of the terminal, where passengers arrive by car, features a similar, smaller wall of glass with the main entrance doors inset.

A view of the rear window wall in daytime also includes one of the projecting concrete tubes that connected the terminal building to the original gate area. Today they act as a bridge between the modern Jetblue terminal and the hotel, which is fully and firmly set in the 1960s "Jet Age" era.

The imprint of the forming boards used during the concrete pour can still be seen on the interior side of the front support piers. The departures wing (and arrivals wing on the other end) tapers into a concrete peak that is reminiscent of Saarinen's other work, especially the Ingalls Rink at Yale, and also echoes the gravity-defying weightlessness of flight.

The imprint of the forming boards can also be seen on the underside of the front shell which overhangs the main entrance and tapers into the spoon-shaped drainage scupper seen above.

The critical reaction to the exterior design of the Flight Center has been overwhelmingly positive since its completion. After the building opened in 1962, Architectural Forum praised Saarinen's work as "truly fantastic" and declared he had "won" the informal design competition that the Terminal City plan had created. Famed New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable called the building a "tour de force."

Twenty-first-century critics have echoed these sentiments. Suzanne Stephens of Architectural Record called it a "singular temple of flight" and Stephanie Stubbs, the managing editor of AIA Architect, wrote that “the great, swooping concrete bird captured the essence of flight poised on the threshold of the Jet Age."

Though the Flight Center has always been likened to a bird, Saarinen himself insisted that, though he was inspired by flight, any ornithological similarity was purely coincidental, "the last thing we ever thought about."

 

The Architecture: Interior

Though best known for its celebrated and iconic exterior architecture, the Flight Center's interior has also received its own well-deserved heaps of praise.

The terminal belongs to an elite group of New York City buildings that have been landmarked both inside and out. When the interior was designated by the Landmarks Preservation Committee in 1993, the body called it "among the chief works of one of the most highly-regarded architectural firms of the modern era".

The four concrete shells of the building, painted light brown on the inside, are divided by skylights but come together at the center plate of the roof. A custom-built clock and public address loudspeaker hang from that central point of the roof. The skylights, along with the terminal's massive window walls, provide "striking and controlled" natural light throughout the day and have inset canister lights that replace the sunlight after nightfall.

The information desk and the large Solari Datavision board behind it are the dominant features of the lower level. The board and its twin across the terminal display departure and arrival destinations and times with the precision of a Swiss timepiece. The desk and board appear as striking sculptural elements in an interior that itself seems carved out from a single block of marble.

That remarkable sense of such impressive unity and cohesion was no accident. Saarinen was adamant that his design team remain faithful to the "family of forms" it had selected for the project, and that each detail inside and out be of "one consistent character".

The result was, as Saarinen himself described it, that "Wherever you are, inside or outside, the building sings with the same message."

A closer look at the desk reveals it is topped with marble and sheathed in the same gray-flecked "oyster" colored ceramic tiles with marble accents that cover the floor and are seen throughout the building, making it appear to rise up seamlessly from the floor itself.

One of the two "air fountain" ventilation ducts on the main floor. The ducts are another striking sculptural element of the terminal.

The wide central staircase connects the lower two levels of the Flight Center, guiding departing passengers from the check-in desks to the main waiting area and then through the tubes to the gates, and arriving passengers from their flights to the baggage claim area. The stairs are covered in the same ceramic and marble tiles as the floor and feature freestanding curved aluminum pipe railings. Above, the vaulted concrete ceiling is bathed in light at night to replicate the flood of natural light the terminal receives during the day.

The window walls are 1/4-inch thick tinted glass. Upholstered, curved bench seats face the windows. Grey plastic blinds originally covered the windows. The carmine-red the designation says was used "sparingly" for carpeting has been used extensively throughout the new hotel for its bold style and association with the period. The lounges and restaurant on the upper-level feature open floor plans surrounding tile-clad, smooth-walled central service cores.

The wall-mounted telephones are period-appropriate and still kept in the original booths, separated by sheets of perforated metal.

At the time the interior was designated a City Landmark, the sunken central waiting area had been filled in, but it was restored during the hotel conversion. Today it operates as the "Sunken Lounge" one of the hotel's many bars. The designation report calls the area "a modern reinterpretation of the main railroad station waiting room that celebrated the act of waiting."

Aluminum railings surround the balconies and feature alternating thin and thick verticals. A bridge of reinforced concrete connects the two balconies. The upper level provides a vantage point from which to take in the full expanse of the terminal and observe the flow of passengers through the space, and in the operational days of the terminal, the planes passing on the tarmac.

The large tubular walkways connected the Flight Center to the original gate areas. Their interior is one of the most dramatic elements of the design. The enclosed nature of the tunnels contrasts greatly with the open, airy space of the main terminal. The floors slope gently upward and concave walls rise to meet the long flat roof of acoustic tiles with florescent lights above. The dark carpeted floors and light-colored walls match the original color scheme, though the carpets used to be grey. The interior of one of the tunnels was featured prominently in the 2002 film "Catch Me If You Can".

Architectural critics have always been enamored by the superb nature of the Flight Center's interior. In 1973, John Morris Dixon quite correctly noted that the Center was "the only air terminal I know where the threat of a delay is offset by the prospect of watching the movement of aircraft passengers and ground traffic from a variety of comfortable vantage points.”'

In 1994, New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp called the interior “the most dynamically modeled space of its era.”

Edgar Kaufmann, Jr, who created the furniture design contest won by Saarinen and Eames and cared for the Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece Fallingwater for decades after inheriting it from his parents, said the building was "one of the few major works of American architecture...that reaches its full stature as an interior."

 

Hotel Redevelopment

Plaque commemorating the restoration and redevelopment of the Flight Center

After TWA sold its remaining assets to American Airlines in 2001, operations at JFK were consolidated and the Flight Center was closed to the public. Protected by its Landmark status, the building was never truly in danger of being demolished. Even so, it was glaringly apparent that the iconic structure could no longer meet the needs of a modern airport and its heavy traffic.

Recognizing this, the Port Authority announced plans to build another, more modern terminal surrounding the historic Flight Center. That plan was met with fierce opposition from many, including noted architect Philip Johnson, who said such construction would "make the building invisible."

Despite the opposition, the new terminal was built, cutting the Flight Center off completely from the airport tarmac. The original gate wings, the oldest of which had also been Landmarked both inside and out, were demolished completely.

The present Terminal 5 at JFK was opened in October 2008 and is the home base of JetBlue Airways. When the new building opened, the Flight Center remained closed to the public and unused.

That all changed in the fall of 2015, when New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the launch of a nearly $300 million project to renovate the Flight Center and convert it into JFK's first on-site hotel. As part of the effort, the Port Authority signed a 75-year lease with an operational holding company owned by MCR/MORSE Development. JetBlue also has a minority stake in the operation.

Over 450 construction workers were on-site every weekday for three years to get the job done. Two new six-story hotel wings were added to either side of the terminal building. One wing is named for Howard Hughes and features a rooftop swimming pool, bar, and observation deck overlooking one of JFK's busiest runways. The other wing is named for Saarinen.

Workers also dug under the Flight Center to construct a 50,000 square foot meeting and events space. A large hotel gym was built belowground as well. The arrivals wing of the building was naturally converted to the hotel check-in desk, while the departures wing is now a food hall.

Because the hotel caters to travelers with long layovers at JFK, rooms are available to rent for just the day or even only a few hours. The hotel is accessible from any JFK Terminal via the AirTrain system.

While the project has received praise from its earliest customers and media reports and seems likely to reward its investors financially, it has also most importantly given this American Landmark a new life and once more allowed the public to enjoy its beautiful design up close.

 

Significance

The TWA Flight Center was added to the National Register in 2005, nearly a decade before its 50th birthday. Since 50 years is considered in the field of historic preservation to be the minimum amount of time in which a building or site can reach historic, let alone historically significant, status, such an "early" induction should be considered a rare honor and a testament to just how special Saarinen's work truly is.

In a 2005 letter supporting the nomination to the Register, Senior Program Officer of the National Trust for Historic Preservation Marilyn Fenollosa called the Flight Center “the mid-20th- century counterpart of earlier transportation landmarks such as Grand Central Station" and noted that "And as one of Saarinen’s last works, it is a fitting memorial to the memory of this great 20th century architect."

The similarity of the building to the grand railroad terminals of old has certainly not been lost on many professional observers. The City Landmark designation report notes how "The grandeur of older railroad terminals is recalled in the TWA Flight Center with the procession through a series of spaces that is reminiscent of the movement through passageways and large ticketing and waiting rooms."

This similarity was likely no accident. Saarinen's wife Aline has pointed out her husband's familiarity with the famous Helsinki Railroad Station and has quoted him as wanting to design terminals "as great and appropriate" as that masterpiece for his mid-century high flying clients.

Yet, it is one man cited in the designation report, Ken Macrorie, who identifies an even more poignant connection between the Flight Center and its railroad counterparts: "that 1962 may be remembered as the year New York City lost Pennsylvania Station and gained the TWA terminal."

It was the demolition of Penn Station that lead to the creation of the New York City Landmarks Commission and helped jump-start the modern historic preservation movement. These were very same organizations that helped protect the Flight Center, even as it fell behind the times. It is comforting then to recognize that thanks to such efforts in the decades that followed its construction, this iconic American treasure is poised to meet a quite different fate, and will be admired and enjoyed by many for decades more to come.

 

For Further Information

TWA Hotel Official Website

TWA Flight Center City Landmark Designation (pdf)

TWA Flight Center Interior City Landmark Designation (pdf)

Download the Flight Center's file from the National Archives

(includes both above designations plus NRHP Nomination, letters, photos, maps, and more)

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