Walking into Eero Saarinen's TWA Hotel is not unlike, one would imagine, boarding a spaceship. Once you find the TWA elevator in the corner of JFK's JetBlue terminal, a Kubrick-esque, red-carpeted tunnel leads you down into the futuristic curved concrete of the Flight Center, where mid-century design cues and space-aged fantasies seem to converge in a time-frozen snapshot of American optimism. It's a thrilling experience, which is not the typical reputation of an airport hotel. But the TWA is no typical airport hotel.
Opened in 1962, Trans World Flight Center operated as the TWA terminal at the JFK International Airport into the '90s, offering a radical departure from the status quo — then and now. The building was designed with the dignity of the traveler in mind, prioritizing efficiency and awe above all else, down to the smallest detail. "The business of soaring to Eero," his wife Aline recalled in an episode of American Masters, "was [the idea of] making you feel as if you wanted to take a deep breath, of standing tall, of being a human being." And while the building's 1994 Historic Landmark designation suggests that Eero accomplished his goal, the success of the building's reopening earlier this year as a hotel offers living proof.
Exploring the Center, which doubles as a TWA museum, offers a masterclass in visitor experience, from the automated self check-in stations and the Saarinen-designed Womb chairs, which offer full comfort to visitors of all shapes and sizes, to the open lobby experience that offers unobstructed views of restaurants, bars, shops and lounges. And beyond plain view are still more delights, like the expansive ballrooms underneath the Saarinen wing or the rooftop pool overlooking the JFK runways above the Hughes wing. It also doesn't hurt that the entire property looks great from any angle.
The out-of-time experience is slightly dulled by the presence of fellow travelers (as opposed to the Mad Men cast members or extraterrestrial nomads one might expect in such a setting), but the architecture, nearly 60 years on, remains as stunning as the day that the building was first opened. It's worth stopping by, if ever in Queens, New York, if only to wander the grounds, appreciate the details, and remember a bygone time when anything seemed possible.