Tim's Turn | History Takes Flight at the TWA Hotel
The irony wasn’t wasted on me. Here we were—my wife, Kathleen, and I—driving to JFK Airport in Queens, New York, fighting a humongous amount of traffic on a Friday afternoon in mid-June.
The irony of the matter is that we weren’t heading there for a flight to some exotic vacationland. We were fighting the traffic just to get to Terminal 5 to visit the TWA Hotel. We went to experience the hotel itself and use it as home base for the weekend as we toured other historic aviation sites in and around New York City, a tour sponsored by the Society for Commercial Archeology.
If you flew Trans World Airlines (TWA) into or out of JFK Airport between 1962 and 2001, you would have flown out of this iconic TWA terminal. When American Airlines acquired TWA in 2001, the building was mothballed until it opened in 2019 as the TWA Hotel. Originally designed by Eero Saarinen—the same architect who designed the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri—the TWA Flight Center has been resurrected as the lobby and lounge for the new hotel. MCR and Morse Development reignited the magic.
What a sense of arrival. As you pull up to the front, you get a feeling you are entering a themed hotel at a major theme park. It’s America’s most exuberant example of midcentury modern expressionism.
All employees are decked out in authentic TWA uniforms, and hotel check-in is at the former airline check-in counter. Classic Solari split-flap message boards with authentic original mechanical operation are still in action, and the famous sunken lounge and bar has been restored to its original beauty and comfort. This destination is not a renovation as much as it’s a restoration and reimagining. It’s a designer’s dream.
In addition to the environment itself serving as a sort of “living museum,” there are historical exhibits throughout the building, all curated by the New-York Historical Society. Visitors experience the jet age through more than 2,000 artifacts, interactive displays, and personal narratives from former TWA employees and their families.
The historical exhibits are presented in a casual, visitor-friendly style. And while a ’60s soundtrack played on the building-wide sound system, I found myself humming the theme song from “The Jetsons” as we perused.
Howard Hughes owned TWA from 1939 to the 1960s, and his office has been recreated with period-perfect details. Visitors are allowed to sit at his desk and to visit Saarinen’s drafting table for great photo ops. Highlighting the exhibits is an amazing display of 37 complete TWA uniforms from 1945 to 2001, designed by Oleg Cassini, among others. In addition, various displays consist of vintage dining service items, in-flight menus, playing cards, swizzle sticks, napkins, and just about anything else one could find on a plane. The gift shop sells reproductions of many of the items.
Following the maddening drive to the hotel, I asked where the bar was. The well-dressed pilot (in TWA garb) pointed outside, and by golly, he was right. Outside is “Connie,” a Lockheed Constellation (L-16449A) that has been converted into a cocktail bar! How cool is that? We walked out, up the stairs, and into an amazingly colorful and welcoming lounge, where we drank our red wine out of TWA logoed glasses.
There was also a roller-skating rink outside. “OK, here I go,” I thought. How many opportunities will I get to skate on a major airport’s tarmac? Unfortunately, it had not yet opened for the day.
That was my only disappointment during the entire weekend.
Tim O’Brien is a veteran outdoor entertainment journalist and is a longtime Funworld contributor. He has authored many books chronicling the industry’s attractions and personalities and is the only journalist in the IAAPA Hall of Fame.