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TWA Hotel at JFK airport feels straight out of the ‘60s

Pearls Daily wears a vintage TWA stewardess uniform while greeting visitors to the TWA Hotel at New
Pearls Daily, an entertainer on hand for the opening, wears a vintage TWA stewardess uniform as she greets visitors to the TWA Hotel.
(Mark Lennihan / Associated Press)

“West Side Story” won the best picture Oscar. “The Jetsons” made its debut. Pat Brown defeated Richard Nixon in the California governor’s race.

And in New York, Eero Saarinen’s TWA Flight Center opened at JFK airport, then known as Idlewild Airport.

That was the world in 1962. Now, the Flight Center has returned after two decades, reincarnated as the TWA Hotel, JFK’s first on-airport hotel.

Tyler Morse, chief executive of MCR/Morse Development, brought together nearly two dozen government agencies and state and federal landmark commissions to bring the gull-winged flight center, which he describes as Saarinen’s “cathedral to aviation,” back to life.

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I toured this homage to the Jet Age last month to see how well it serves modern-day travelers; early reviews on TripAdvisor and Yelp have cited the nostalgia of the experience, but as one TripAdvisor reviewer said, “Nostalgia isn’t enough.” Some noted that the hotel opened before it was ready, citing staff training, lack of signage and mechanical problems, including outlets and elevators that didn’t work.

Larry d. of New York wrote on Yelp, “Basically it’s an amusement park attractions without the amusement.”

W. Green was harsher: “It may have worked as an iconic terminal,” Green wrote on TripAdvisor, “but it totally fails as a hotel.”

Not everyone agrees, citing the convenience (“wonderful to check in, enjoy a cocktail in the Sunken Lounge and sleep well with no worries about rushing off to the airport the next day,” Paul B wrote on TripAdvisor) and the beds won almost universal praise.

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Hotel management, responding to TripAdvisor reviews, assured unhappy guests, some of whom were annoyed and others of whom were irate, that it was working to correct the issues.

The design

The layout is set up as ever-spreading wings. The wing on the right is Departure Hall dining, offering the city’s best food-truck cuisine (without the trucks). The left wing houses reception, where front-desk kiosks take your credit card and program your room key.

Wide center stairs open into the Sunken Lounge, re-created in chili pepper red. It’s part of the 200,000-square-foot lobby and the center point for seven other bars, retail outlets, a reading room and a 10,000-square-foot fitness center.

The incredible Connie

Outside the Sunken Lounge is one of the few remaining Lockheed L-1649A Constellation Starliners, an airplane turned cocktail lounge. The Connie, commissioned by Howard Hughes in the ’40s, was already being replaced by jets when the terminal opened in 1962. The small, backless, Saarinen-designed stools couldn’t have been more uncomfortable, although the retro coach seats proved popular.

To the left of the lounge is the Saarinen Wing and, to the right, the Hughes Wing, recognizing Hughes’ role as president of TWA and as the nexus between the entertainment capitals of Hollywood and New York.

The twin hotel buildings behind the Flight Center are also smooth, gentle arcs and, for soundproofing, are wrapped in a seven-pane, 4½-inch-thick glass wall.

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The Flight Tubes, which once led to the gates, now are entrances to the 512 hotel rooms. At the end of the Saarinen tunnel is the elevator to JetBlue’s Terminal 5.

TWA Hotel
Vintage TWA uniforms are displayed in the new TWA Hotel at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.
(Kevin Hagen / Getty Images)

A 10,000-square-foot observation deck, pool bar and a 63-by-20-foot infinity pool overlooking JFK’s 4 Left/22 Right and Bay Runways will top the hotel. Add to that a 50,000-square-foot event space, a 15,000-square-foot ballroom and a 4,000-space garage, all expected to be completed when the hotel is fully open in the fall.

Morse expects 10,000 visitors a year, 90% of whom will not be hotel guests, he said.

It’s 1962 once more

In some respects, the hotel still feels like 1962. The Sunken Lounge lacks outlets, and there are no USB ports in the rooms. There are in-room outlets, but electronic device plugs are so large they cover the adjoining outlet.

Rooms face the Flight Center or JFK’s runways. If Room 509 is typical — it’s the one I stayed in — it is small, about 200 square feet, for a luxury property. The desk was cluttered with a large snack tray for purchase and a ’60s-era Life magazine. The desk, a thin shelf squeezed between the bed and the bathroom, creates a bit of claustrophobia because the space is so tight, and the headboard partly blocks the window view.

TWA Hotel
Space is tight in the rooms, but the hotel's glass curtain wall is the second thickest in the world after the wall at the U.S. Embassy in London.
(David Mitchell)

I opened the privacy shades halfway on the floor-to-ceiling windows to let in some natural light, but when they were closed, I felt claustrophobic. The bed, made up with high-end linens, was luxurious.

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A stocked walnut martini bar is next to the closet, which is five wall-mounted hooks. Absent: an iron and a coffee pot. Present: a steamer instead of an iron.

Despite the shortfalls, the TWA Hotel is a destination especially for aviation and architecture buffs — anyone interested in a little time travel.

Info: TWA Hotel, JFK Airport, Jamaica, N.Y.; (212) 806-9000. Rooms start at $249 per night. The hotel is available for short stays, starting at $139, for passengers who have three-plus-hour layovers.

travel@latimes.com

@latimestravel


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