TWA Hotel takes preservation to new heights

Completed in 1962, the TWA Flight Center was the epitome of contemporary, stylish travel, selling the fantasy of a modern world connected through air travel. When given the opportunity to design their own airport terminal at JFK International Airport in New York, TWA chose to showcase their forward-thinking ideas and hired architect Eero Saarinen to design what would become one of the most architecturally celebrated Mid-Century Modern buildings in the country. The curving, boundary-pushing concrete structure with sleek finishes represents Saarinen’s legacy of breaking from the popular International Style of the time and creating something fluid and expressive.

Staircases covered in penny tile floor access the upper levels of the TWA Hotel lounge. Photo Credit: TWA Hotel/David Mitchell

Staircases covered in penny tile floor access the upper levels of the TWA Hotel lounge. Photo Credit: TWA Hotel/David Mitchell

The Flight Center welcomed travelers for four decades, but by 2001 the terminal had outgrown its usefulness and its future was thrown into uncertainty. The rehabilitation by MCR/MORSE Development brought the fantasy and romance of air travel back to life in the form of the TWA Hotel.

The TWA Flight Center was rehabilitated to house the check-in area for the hotel. A 50,000-square-foot events center was also added. The preservation efforts focused heavily on the interiors and the retention of important and unique spaces and details. The original bars and restaurants were returned to their historic uses and now welcome a new generation of travelers. MHA managed the federal and state historic tax credit applications that were key to recreating the beauty and glamour of Saarinen’s design. Two new low-rise buildings were built on the site for the hotel rooms.

The main focus of the rehabilitation was preserving the iconic interior finishes that defined the TWA Flight Center for decades. The penny tile floor was thoroughly cleaned and repaired and tiles were replaced only where necessary. The TWA red carpet and furniture coverings were preserved and replaced in-kind where needed. The two Flight Tubes – windowless, elevated pedestrian tubes that once connected to other parts of the airport – were reopened to provide access to the JetBlue Terminal and the new hotel rooms. The iconic flight board was restored by the original manufacturers to the original split-flap machinery. All exterior and interior signage was either retained or recreated using the historic fonts and TWA colors. Additionally, an original 1958 Lockheed Constellation passenger aircraft was restored with TWA finishes and placed on the tarmac between the two flight tubes for use as additional lounge space and to recreate the historic scene from inside the Flight Center.

The experience of the TWA Hotel is unique as it leans heavily on the commercial memory of the place. With the help of creative financing like the historic tax credit and historic consulting by MHA, not only has an irreplaceable building been saved it has been turned into a time machine for modern day travelers.

Copy of Summer 2019

This article appeared as the feature story in The Historic Advisor | Summer 2019 issue. Read this and other issues of our quarterly newsletter and sign up below to get our newsletters delivered to your inbox.