“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.
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.
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 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 newly opened TWA Hotel at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport is a reincarnation of the Flight Center, which opened in 1962.(David Mitchell / TWA Hotel)
Vintage TWA uniforms are displayed in the new TWA Hotel at JFK.(Kevin Hagen / Getty Images)
The TWA Hotel features a super-thick glass curtain wall.(David Mitchell)
A TWA-branded bathrobe hangs in the room.(Kevin Hagen / Getty Images)
A red-carpeted tunnel provides access to the hotel’s Hughes Wing.(Timothy A. Clary / AFP/Getty Images)
Former airline TWA found a jingle that stuck with “Up, Up and Away."(David Mitchell)
A look inside a guestrooms at the TWA Hotel.(David Mitchell)
A collection of vintage TWA crew uniforms -- including those designed by Valentino, Stan Herman and Ralph Lauren -- are on display at the TWA Hotel at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.(David Mitchell / TWA Hotel)
The AirTrain passes in front of the TWA Hotel, which opened in 1962 as the Trans World Airlines Flight Center and was designed by Eero Saarinen.(Mark Lennihan / Associated Press)
A vintage suitcase packed with retro TWA ephemera is exhibited at the TWA Hotel.(David Mitchell / TWA Hotel)
“Connie” is a 1958 Lockheed Constellation airplane that has been restored as a cocktail lounge at the TWA Hotel.(Kevin Hagen / Getty Images)
All lighted up: the TWA Hotel, New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, at night.(David Mitchell / TWA Hotel)
A woman carries a vintage handbag for the opening of the TWA Hotel.(Mark Lennihan / Associated Press)
A room at the TWA Hotel at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport has a view of the Eero Saarinen-designed terminal.(Mark Lennihan / Associated Press)
Visitors sit in the cabin of “Connie,” the 1958 Lockheed Constellation airplane that has been restored as a cocktail lounge at the hotel.(Kevin Hagen / Getty Images)
Guest Billie O’Hagan, a flight attendant for Alaska Airlines, checks in at the front desk in the new TWA Hotel.(Kevin Hagen / Getty Images)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.