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TWA Terminal at JFK: A feeling of flight

Updated on October 13, 2014
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As you examine New York’s Kennedy Airport you can’t miss it. Like a huge cement bird with a tremendous wingspan, the defunct TWA Terminal dominates its corner of the landscape. Although this 600,000 square-foot concrete and glass building is vacant, it stands as a testament to the bygone age of the glamour associated with early jet travel.

While it has been dormant for years, there's currently a proposal to convert the iconic structure into a first-class hotel, the only one at the airport.

In 1962, before President John F Kennedy was assassinated, the $15-million dollar terminal opened at the sprawling international airport, then named Idlewild. It was a time when men and women dressed up before ever considering taking a plane and once on-board the hot meals were always adorned with fresh parsley, in both economy and first class.

TWA, known for innovation, such as showing the first in-flight movies, wanted a terminal at their New York City hub that would make a statement.

For over 50 years its been gawked at and talked about:

It could hold its own in the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art."

— Architectural critic Joseph Giovannini

Some have called the terminal "a cathedral to aviation."

It was termed the "Grand Central of the jet age," by Robert A.M. Stern, Dean of the Yale School of Architecture.

"That's not just a building, Mac,” a cabdriver in the 1960s was overheard saying. “It's a feeling. You get inside it and you feel like you're floating."

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TWA's President Ralph Dawson wanted just such a building. One that captured "the spirit of flight." To make this a reality, the airline commissioned Finish American architect Eero Saarinen. He was a highly regarded modernist architect who had designed buildings for major American corporations, such as General Motors, IBM, and CBS. Until the TWA Terminal, also known as TWA Flight Center, he was mostly known as the designer of St. Louis’ 630-foot-high Gateway Arch. Many of his edifices featured massive sweeping structural curves.

The work of architect Saarinen

Saarinen said he wanted “to create a building that was distinctive and memorable … in which architecture itself would express the drama and excitement of travel.” He perceived the terminal “not as a static, enclosed place, but as a place of movement and transition.” Saarinen designed a structure that would “express the drama, the special character and excitement of travel,” he said.

Before computers, architects used T-squares, triangles and rulers to draw their designs on paper. Since the TWA Terminal design was dominated by curves, Saarinen left these angular tools on the drafting table and picked up non-hardening modeling clay, the kind used by sculptors. He kneaded it and molded it and created a large model of the structure. The clay allowed him to easily shape the curves and arches that were difficult to capture on paper.

The building incorporated many new ideas that have been adapted throughout the airline industry, such as outfitting the terminal with closed circuit television and a public address system.

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TWA was the first to separate passengers from their baggage at check-in. Then the bags were whisked away to the planes. When you got to your destination you retrieved your luggage from a TWA invention – the moving carousel. Passengers used separate wings of the building – one for outgoing flights another for inbound planes.

But everyone gathered in a vaulted two-story column-free lobby of the TWA Terminal. Many stood examining the large Arrival and Departure boards set in an oval, modern-art structure. (See photo.) Above them was a graceful concrete roof arc featuring a cantilevered bridge that connected curved balconies.

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'Lines bending outward and upward, still convey the rush'

Jutting out from the main structure were two unusual tube-shaped corridors, originally lined in red carpet, they connected travelers with the arrival and departure gates.

As they walked through the building people were “caught up in the thrill of motion,” noted architectural critic Giovannini in the World Street Journal. “Lines bending out of sight, outward and upward, still convey the rush. As fresh today as it was (in the 1960s), it speaks to the body through the eye.”

The interior of the building is dominated with unusual arches and floor to ceiling windows that allowed the public to view the various jets as they arrived and left the terminal, as if through some fantasy version of a large living room picture window. The interior walls and floors were “filled with more than five million dime-sized porcelain tiles. The walls undulate and disappear into the floor,” Forbes magazine said.

Remember, this was a time when the family and friends of airline passengers could move about the terminal freely without anyone asking to see an ID or an airline ticket. The terminal was so unique that many New Yorkers and tourists visited the building as they would any other attraction in mid-town Manhattan, even though JFK is an hour-long, traffic-congested, cab ride from Manhattan.

Saarinen saw his building as an 'experience for the traveler.'

“More than a building, Saarinen carved a fully designed experience for the traveler, gracefully transporting passengers from the ground to the sky and back again,” raved Forbes. “Unfortunately, by the time the building was completed, it was already obsolete.”

The massive 747 jets were too large to be accessed from the terminal (gates had to be modified) and Cuban hijackers in the 60s and 70s prompted an increasing need for security that the building did not incorporate in its original design.

After 9/11 occurred in 2001, the airline industry reevaluated terminal design with security given top priority. However, the TWA Terminal never was retrofitted with new high security entry points, because the airline was flying through clouds of red ink.

When TWA ceased operations in October 2001 the unique terminal closed. The demolition ball never came near TWA Terminal, kept away by its (1994) designation as a historic landmark and its selection to the National Register of Historic Places (in 2005).

So, for most of a decade, it sat vacant before the Port Authority (the agency that operates the airport) renovated the building’s passenger tubes and connected them to a new 26-gate, $750 million JetBlue building (Terminal 5) built behind the Saarinen structure. The new terminal’s design is understated so as not to overwhelm the neighboring iconic building.

Check TWA Terminal at 4:00

Over the years there have been proposals for the sleek structure to serve as a restaurant, a conference center, the airport’s marketplace and twice a plan has been discussed to convert it into an on-site hotel. Many of these proposals never got airborne because famous architects (including Stern) criticized them for compromising the spirit of the TWA structure.

Time for an on-site hotel

In 2013, plans for a the building to be converted into a new airport hotel hit a snag after designs from hotelier Andre Balazs clashed with the desires of the Port Authority. But the hotel idea was resurrected a year later.

JFK Airport handles more international traffic than any other airport in North America, making it the busiest international airline passenger access point in the U. S. JFK is the country’s sixth-busiest in passenger traffic and the 19th-busiest airport in the world. As such, civic group Global Gateway Alliance, believes a hotel at JFK Airport is vitally needed.

In 2014, for the second time the New York Port Authority sent out proposals seeking a developer who would convert the historic property into a hotel within two years. "Major airports around the country and the world have first-class hotels," said developer Joseph Sitt, chair of Global Gateway Alliance. “A hotel is a particularly good fit for the TWA Flight Center, which is such an icon of flying's golden age."

“Neither Kennedy nor LaGuardia airports is home to an on-site hotel,” Sitt wrote in an Op Ed piece in AM New York. “Cities around the world use airports as hubs for transportation, commerce, meetings and events, but NYC's ‘front doors’ function as little more than dreaded stopovers.

“It's time not only for this project to take flight,” he concluded, “but for our marquee airport to have a hotel that makes Kennedy better for passengers, visitors and the city as a whole.”

© 2014 Thomas Dowling

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