The TWA Hotel at New York’s JFK airport is a mid-century fever dream. Enter and you leave the modern-day jumble that is New York’s international airport for a simulacrum of what jet age travel might have been like if you were so lucky to be clicking your way across the penny tile floor in kitten heels, boucle skirt and pillbox hat or a grey suit and a grey tie, on your way to Egypt or Spain or San Francisco.
I happened to be wearing a raspberry trench as I walked up the white steps into the white interior. “Your coat is the perfect accent colour for this place,” I was promptly lauded by a couple taking photos from the mezzanine.
While today the hotel is sheer Instagram nostalgia porn, when the Eero Saarinen-designed TWA Flight Center opened in 1962 with its curving, ovoid roofs that make it look like a bird in flight, it was a marvel of modernity that drew sightseers. My grandparents, my mother and my aunt drove out to see what people called “the bird building”.
This was during the height of American power at the peak of the American century. What couldn’t America do? Leading Nato and containing the Soviets, sending astronauts into space, building suburban dreamscapes and thousands of oversized cars made of American steel. America’s many faults were hidden from view, and the hotel embodies a glamorous look back at a time that was very good indeed, but only for some. (That the TWA colors and MAGA hats are both red and white is pure coincidence.) This version of American history is thrown into relief by the highly diverse staff working here, who thankfully keep the whole thing from turning into some kind of time travel cosplay.
But that doesn’t take away from how simply spectacular it looks; how thrilling the pale, soaring, concrete ceilings and original Chili Pepper Red Carpet are to the eye. I’m greeted at the information desk with its Solari di Uldine split flap arrivals/departures board (one of two) by a woman outfitted in a neat-as-a-pin TWA uniform, hat at the perfect angle and scarf tied just so (she was later replaced by other greeters wearing pilot uniforms with gold epaulettes). To the left is the hotel check-in desk, in front of what used to be baggage claim, and to the right is the Departures Hall food hall, where travellers like myself dropped their bags and picked up their paper boarding passes. The counters are now populated by food vendors selling paninis, fruit bowls, empanadas and falafel, plus an Intelligentsia coffee bar.
Stairs lead up to the heart of the terminal, the red-upholstered Sunken Lounge, whose wall of windows once had views of the Idlewild runways and now look out onto the Jet Blue Terminal 5, built in 2005, and the courtyard where a 1958 Lockheed Constellation L-1649A Starliner is parked. Connie, as she is called, is now a 150-seat cocktail bar with vintage seats and intact cockpit. The courtyard already has a waiting list for proposals.
I flew out of the terminal once before it closed in 2001 and TWA went out of business, and I remember the excitement of walking past the Sunken Lounge to one of the womb-like, red-carpeted tunnels that connected the terminal to the gates. Travellers could imagine themselves as astronauts walking up the gangway to a spaceship; it was all very 2001: A Space Odyssey and very groovy. Today those tubes lead to the new Saarinen and Hughes (for Howard Hughes) wings of the hotel, with a total of 512 rooms. The rooms have bathroom amenities packed in first class flight kits, tiny mirrored cocktail bars and masculine walnut tambour millwork on the walls, crafted by Amish woodworkers. On the ninth floor of the Hughes wing, the rooftop infinity pool and bar has palpitating views of Runway 4 Left/22 Right – as I watched, an Air France plane touched down like a feather as a line of jets waited for their turn to take off. Turn around and the New York City skyline hovers in the distance.
An amazing attention to detail can be found in every inch of the hotel, as it should after its $265 million (£210m) facelift and expansion, from the bespoke Flight Center Gothic font created just for the signage to the period Chryslers parked inside to the museum in the London Club, the former first class lounge, with TWA stewardess uniforms from Pierre Balmain, Yves Saint Laurent and 90-year-old Stan Herman, who was asked to design some of the staff’s current uniforms. The museum will expand with more mid-century exhibits curated by the New York Historical Society. The vintage travel posters that line the walls near check in are so covetable that I was surprised the TWA shop didn’t carry a calendar of them. Someone take my money, please! Below the store is a fitness centre and a 50,000 square foot dark-panelled conference and event space that includes The 1962 Room – and the first wedding has already been booked.
On the mezzanine, the Paris Cafe is a perfect period piece, with Saarinen-designed Knoll tulip tables and chairs divided by curving banquettes into four colourways: cream, blush, grey and yellow. I listened to Frank Sinatra croon while looking out at the air traffic control tower and perusing the menu from celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, which includes a bright spring pea soup an indulgent black truffle pizza with poached egg.
The rotary phones, the old LIFE magazines, the three-sided Vulcain ceiling clock, everything is so Don Draper-ed that I, a reformed smoker, desperately wanted a cigarette. But as I sat in the Sunken Lounge under the split flap departure board, sipping my “Come Fly With Me” cocktail – which I set it down on a TWA-branded square napkin, natch – I realised I felt … relaxed. At the airport. At JFK, no less. I had checked in to the golden age of travel and it was worth the stay.
A day rate for a room at TWA Hotel starts from $149, and overnight from $249. twahotel.com
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