TWA icon has last tour before construction begins

By Sadef Ali Kully

Thousands of visitors flocked to the last tour Sunday of the iconic architecture of the TWA Flight Center at Kennedy Airport before its renovation and expansion into a hotel.

A national historic landmark, the terminal was built in 1962 by famed Finnish-born designer Eero Saarinen. He was given the directive to capture “the spirit of flight” in his design, which features a wing-shaped roof over the main terminal, round departure-arrival corridors and expansive windows with the view of the runway.

The terminal’s curvilinear architecture will be renovated to reflect its original state, including bringing back the Lisbon Lounge, Paris Café and the Constellation Club while adding a conference space and observation deck. It will be surrounded by two hotel buildings, according to the new developer MCR Development, a hotel owner-operator. The 505-room hotel is expected to create over 3,000 jobs.

The terminal was the first with enclosed passenger jetways, closed circuit television, a central public address system, baggage carousels, electronic schedule boards and baggage scales, and the satellite clustering of gates away from the main terminal.

Trans World Airlines Flight Center remained open until the airline went bankrupt in 2001. It was renovated over the years and was opened for events such as tours.

“I think more than anything it is a real celebrity. The experience inside is extraordinary,” Gregory Wessner, executive director of Open House New York, a nonprofit that organized the tour, said.

Wessner said historically, 1959 was the first year that air travel became popular and TWA Flight Center defined what travel could be for the 21st-century passenger.

In September, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the approval of a $265 million hotel project, funded by JetBlue Airways Corp and MCR Development.

“I have never seen anyone come to this property who hasn’t walked away with a huge smile on their face. Essentially all of the space here will be re-lifed back to the period of historical significance,” Jim Steven, manager of JFK’s Physical Plant and Redevelopment of the Port Authority, said.

Former TWA employees wore their old uniforms and visitors dressed in ’60s-era attire were among those who attended the tour of the neo-futuristic building.

“The last time I was in this building was 2001,” Marlene Zupke, a former TWA flight attendant, said. “It is so unique and we didn’t realize what we had until much later.”

Tyler Morse, chief executive for MCR Development, said the two hotel towers will be designed to blend into the seminal building.

“We are dedicated to remaining respectful to the mid-century modern design,” he said.

The ground-breaking for the project is expected to take place in the summer of 2016 and the hotel is scheduled to open in 2018.

Reach Reporter Sadef Ali Kully by e-mail at skully@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4546.

More from Around New York