It was the world’s most famous airport terminal 1, and the most beloved project of the mid-century architect Eero Saarinen 2. Likened to a bird taking off, the TWA Flight Center at New York’s Kennedy airport comprises four vaulted concrete shells perched lightly on the ground. There are few walls; instead, the exterior is dominated by canted banks of windows.
“Most people are blind,” Saarinen said after his extravagant design was unveiled 3. “If you get too subtle about architecture, people come in and walk through it and never notice the difference.” They noticed the Flight Center. Its form was inseparable from the thrill of transatlantic air travel. For a generation of international travelers, it was a memorable first impression of America, an Ellis Island for the jet age.
In 1962, when its opening was broadcast on national TV, the Trans World Flight Center was the most distinctive example of corporate-showpiece architecture, a movement led by Saarinen himself, with projects such as the General Motors Technical Center, in Warren, Michigan, and IBM’s research center north of New York City. “Like a good advertising agency,” the critic Reyner Banham wrote of Saarinen that year, “he bestowed status, improved the image.”
Yet even as the terminal captured the futuristic spirit of the ’60s, it was soon rendered out-of-date by the demands of larger planes and crowds. Annexes were built to accommodate the jumbo jet; as security requirements changed, a phalanx of metal detectors was added, cutting the atrium in two and creating lines that sometimes stretched through the terminal’s doors. By the time TWA went out of business, in 2001, the building suffered from a predicament common to iconic mid-century architecture: It was too useless to live, and too beautiful to die.
For the next 15 years, preservationists, developers, and the Port Authority—which manages the airport—engaged in a tug-of-war over the building’s future. Structurally inflexible and costly to restore, decaying mid-century landmarks by Paul Rudolph, Richard Neutra, and others were being demolished. If anything, the Flight Center seemed even less likely than these to survive. But in 2015, on its third attempt, the Port Authority finally found a developer willing to take a 75-year lease on the terminal. MCR Development, which owns dozens of hotels, proposed a restaurant-hotel-conference-center complex around the Flight Center; the project broke ground in December.
There are some challenges to rehabilitating 4 a structure that has more in common with a sculpture 5 than with your average transportation facility. The panels of quarter-inch-thick, nontempered glass that form the building’s windows, for example, have been dropping from their brittle, aging gaskets and shattering like ice on the ground. They must be replaced, a routine task complicated by the fact that no two of the 486 panels 6 have the same dimensions. The roughly 4 million custom-made ceramic tiles 7 that cover the terminal’s floors, walls, and steps are cracked and worn; many of them are being replaced.
“The whole world is a giant Walgreens now,” Tyler Morse, the CEO of MCR, told me when I visited the terminal recently. “When you go to Paris, London, New York, or St. Louis, it’s the same restaurant chains, the same supermarkets. As the world becomes more homogenized, people become interested in a unique product.”
This particular product will be not only unique but costly: With a budget of $265 million, it is likely to be the world’s most expensive airport hotel. Bulldozers are now digging out a 50,000-square-foot subterranean event space, which will sit below and behind the old terminal. Flanking the landmark will be two six-story buildings 8, which will hold the hotel’s 505 guest rooms (expected to start at about $250 a night), a rooftop swimming pool, and an observation deck, from which visitors will be able to watch planes take off.
But pay the new construction no mind. “These buildings are designed to be as neutral as possible,” Morse told me. He wants his hotel to be a 1962 time capsule. A fin-tailed Lincoln Continental and an Aston Martin DB4 will be parked out front, offering guests a ride to the terminals. Staff members will dress the part, in old-style uniforms and pillbox hats 9. On a 90-minute tour of the site, Morse did not mention the project’s living architects—the firm of Beyer Blinder Belle is leading the restoration; Lubrano Ciavarra is designing the additions. It was as if the ghost of Saarinen himself were undertaking the conversion.
There are some things that MCR can’t, or won’t, bring back, however. The Flight Center’s shell once loomed over the airport access road. Now it is sandwiched between a parking garage and the JetBlue terminal, which opened in 2008. The restaurants inside will be named for European capitals, just like the terminal’s original restaurants—the Paris Café, the Lisbon Lounge—but they will no longer look out on runways leading to those cities.
In 1968, at the peak of jet-age glory, TWA emphasized its efficiency with the slogan “Nobody likes to hang around airports.” Fifty years later, Morse’s big challenge is to get them to do just that.