New York Times | By David W. Dunlap | December 6, 2016
In 1962, the architect Eero Saarinen’s Trans World Flight Center at Kennedy International Airport seemed poised to ascend, its 310-foot-wide concrete wings flexed in hopeful upstroke as a memorable symbol of the globe-girdling Trans World Airlines.
There was just one problem.
“It was functionally obsolete the day it opened,” Tyler Morse, the chief executive and managing partner of MCR Development, said. He is also an avid student of the building, an official New York City landmark, inside and out.
Designed by Mr. Saarinen when the propeller-driven, triple-tailed Lockheed Constellation ruled the skies, the flight center opened at the dawn of commercial jet aviation. Its check-in and baggage-handling capacities were quickly taxed by Boeing 707 jetliners, and then simply overwhelmed by jumbo Boeing 747s.
Unsympathetic expansions were made to the terminal building, called the headhouse, between 1967 and 2000. It closed in 2001, after American Airlines acquired the crippled T.W.A., and has stood largely empty ever since.
For one brief shining moment, however, the flight center was an embodiment of the jet age.
That is the moment Mr. Morse seeks to recapture in his plans to revive the building as the public entrance — with reception desk, restaurants, a nightclub, event space and a food court — leading to a new two-building, six-story, 505-room hotel in the crescent-shaped area between the Saarinen landmark and JetBlue’s Terminal 5.
He even plans to call his $265 million project the TWA Hotel.
Inside the Trans World Flight Center, water would bubble again in Isamu Noguchi’s green marble fountain in the Ambassador Lounge, softly masking the tik-a-tik-a-tik-a-tik-a-tik chatter of a Solari di Udine split-flap display board announcing flight departures and arrivals from an orchidlike sculptural pedestal.
An L1649A Constellation would be parked outside the sweeping window wall that once overlooked Runway 4 Left/22 Right and Runway 13 Left/31 Right, air stairs at the ready. “It will look like the Connie has just pulled up,” Mr. Morse said, envisioning the scene.
Two luminous, gently arching tubes that guided passengers to their waiting aircraft would be used to connect the flight center, the hotel buildings and Terminal 5. “We really want to activate these so that everybody has a chance to use them,” Mr. Morse said in April, as he led a couple of visitors over the chili-pepper-red carpet in the tubes.
The hotel is expected to open in late 2018. A formal announcement of the project is to be made on Dec. 15.
American Airlines has licensed the use of the T.W.A. name and logo. “It’s a wonderful tribute to T.W.A. and the many employees of American Airlines who came from the T.W.A. family,” Matt Miller, a spokesman for American, said.
MCR Development, based in New York, owns and operates 88 hotels. It holds a 75-year lease on the flight center and its 6.2-acre site from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which oversees the region’s airports. JetBlue Airways has a 5 percent stake in the project.
The authority estimated the aggregate rental over the term of the lease at $70 million. That sounds like something of a bargain. Mr. Morse insisted it was nothing of the kind.
“We’re taking all of the risk for something that has never been done,” he said. Besides investing $265 million, he said, he has to deal with 22 government agencies. MCR must remediate asbestos throughout the headhouse and rebuild or update mechanical systems. If the restoration work meets government standards, however, MCR will be eligible for a credit against federal and state income taxes of an amount up to 20 percent of qualifying construction costs.
The architects of the hotel project are Beyer Blinder Belle and Lubrano Ciavarra Architects. Beyer Blinder Belle was responsible for the sumptuous restoration of Grand Central Terminal in Midtown Manhattan.
As Grand Central Terminal still conjures the majesty of transcontinental train service in a commuter rail age, the Trans World Flight Center continues to evoke the romance of air travel. (There. How many times have you read the words “romance” and “air travel” in the same sentence?) For that alone, it is irreplaceable.
The restoration facet of the hotel project has won praise from leading preservation groups.
“It will be wonderful that the public will be able to see it and appreciate it once again,” said Alex Herrera, director of the technical services center at the New York Landmarks Conservancy.
Gina Pollara, the president of the Municipal Art Society, said, “Beyer Blinder Belle has done an incredibly sensitive and beautiful partial restoration of the headhouse.”
However, preservationists object to the new six-story structures, which are more than 70 feet high.
Frank E. Sanchis III, the United States program director of the World Monument Fund, said, “The hotel is far too high and will effectively imprison the headhouse, both reducing the amount of natural light entering it and severely restricting the outward views from the interior.”
Ms. Pollara said, “The Port Authority abnegated its responsibility to care for this treasure thereby forcing the developer to build a larger hotel to finance the remainder of the renovation.”
The agency sees it differently.
“The Port Authority stepped up and preserved the T.W.A. Flight Center, which has been empty for 15 years, with an initial $20 million investment plus $1.5 million per year in operational costs — with the intention that the remaining rehabilitation investment would be made by a developer pursuing an adaptive reuse of this historic site,” a spokeswoman, Cheryl Ann Albiez, said.
“The agency’s resources are not unlimited,” she added, “and spending more on the structure would have taken away from critical airport infrastructure investment.”