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How Public Tours Helped Save NYC’s Most Futuristic Air Terminal

TWA Flight Center in 2012
TWA Flight Center in 2012, visited during Open House New York (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise indicated)

The mid-century architecture of aviation is disappearing, with New York’s JFK international airport losing the I. M. Pei-designed Sundrome in 2011 and the flying saucer-shaped Pan Am Worldport  in 2013. Alongside these demolitions, the TWA Flight Center designed by Eero Saarinen at JFK — then Idlewild when the futuristic Trans World Airlines (TWA) terminal opened in 1962 — has had an uncertain future.

Closed in 2001 with TWA’s absorption by American Airlines, it’s been vacant ever since. It now seems likely it will finally be adapted into a hotel. Last month, Craig Karmin and Ted Mann reported for the Wall Street Journal that JetBlue Airways and hotel developer MCR Development LLC were in “advanced negotiations with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for the rights to turn the iconic Trans World Airlines terminal at Kennedy Airport into a modern hotel.”

TWA Flight Center in 2012
Corridor in the TWA Flight Center in 2012
TWA Flight Center in 2012
Flight board at the TWA Flight Center in 2012

Something that has differentiated the TWA Flight Center from other disused, architecturally significant sites in limbo is the public access. This week when Docomomo US announced their 11 Modernism in America Awards for 2015, the Design Award of Excellence (Commercial) was bestowed on the restoration work for the terminal by Beyer Blinder Belle — it started in 2002 and was funded by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in preparation for an adaptive reuse. The award’s reasoning emphasizes: “Most importantly, tours and events held at the restored terminal have inspired a resurgence in interest of Saarinen’s building by the general public.”

Liz Waytkus, Docomomo US executive director, told Hyperallergic:

“Getting people out and into a building, especially one that is unoccupied, can often be the key to turning the tide to preservation. Holding tours at historic sites where large numbers of people turn out, demonstrates in a very physical way the public’s interest in preserving these sites.”

Since 2011, Open House New York has offered annual free access in the terminal, although it’s possible their last event was in 2014 as the TWA Flight Center’s redevelopment goes forward. Other public events like the 2004 Terminal 5 art exhibition kept the space on the radar, despite it being enclosed by the construction of the new Jet Blue Terminal 5. Docomomo US itself promotes public experiences of interiors of historic spaces through the National Tour Day focused on 20th-century architecture.

“What the Ellis Island immigration station came to symbolize for the early 20th century, the TWA terminal celebrates for the early postwar years of foreign travel and America abroad,” Theodore Prudon, president of Docomomo US, told Hyperallergic.

North and South Elevation of the TWA Flight Center (created by Beyer Blinder Belle Architects, via Library of Congress)
North and South Elevation of the TWA Flight Center (created by Beyer Blinder Belle Architects, via Library of Congress)
Reception Desk and Solari Board Sections and Elevations of the TWA Flight Center (created by Beyer Blinder Belle Architects, via Library of Congress)
Reception Desk and Solari Board Sections and Elevations of the TWA Flight Center (created by Beyer Blinder Belle Architects, via Library of Congress)

Glimpsed through the windows of Terminal 5, the TWA Flight Center looks like some colossal bird that’s landed amongst the airplanes. Saarinen died in 1961 of a brain tumor only a year before the terminal opened, but in 1959 the Finnish-American architect explained of its symmetry: “We wanted passengers passing through the building to experience a fully-designed environment, in which each part arises from another and everything belongs to the same formal world.” Entering the terminal through the red carpet-lined portals reveals how deeply thought out the space was, with sloping concrete ceilings, huge windows, and curving walls suggesting the sensation of flight.

“The challenge that remains for TWA is finding the right balance of use and preservation, and of course finding a developer that understands how to blend its history with the future,” Waytkus added. “There isn’t a more inspiring building in the world when it comes to aviation, and we hope its future is equally as inspiring.” Prudon also said that with “its location in JFK Airport, the challenge for the TWA Terminal will continue to be finding an ongoing use that remains compatible and supportive of its original purpose and still be viable as a functioning building.”

Some sections of the TWA Flight Center have already been lost, such as the severed departure lounge, but with its listing as a landmark since 1994 by the City of New York and the National Register of Historic Places since 2005, along with the restoration and hotel proposals, it will likely continue to stand as the last of the mid-century architecture marvels at JFK. A big architect name can’t always preserve architecture, such as with the recently demolished Louis Kahn storefront in Philadelphia and Frank Lloyd Wright showroom in Manhattan. Maintaining a public profile for architecture can grow the grassroots attention needed to assure that whatever reuse is proposed will have an audience that understands what is at stake, both inside and out.

TWA Flight Center in 2012
Exterior of the TWA Flight Center in 2012
TWA Flight Center in 2012
TWA Flight Center in 2012
TWA Flight Center in 2012
TWA Flight Center in 2012
TWA Flight Center in 2012
TWA Flight Center in 2012
TWA Flight Center in 2012
TWA Flight Center in 2012
TWA Flight Center in 2012
TWA Flight Center in 2012
TWA Flight Center in 2012
TWA Flight Center in 2012
TWA Flight Center in 2012
TWA Flight Center in 2012
TWA Flight Center in 2012
TWA Flight Center in 2012

The Modernism in America Awards will be held at the Docomomo US National Symposium on June 5 at the IDS Building in Minneapolis, Minnesota. 

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