It’s not often that a trip to JFK constitutes a pilgrimage, but that’s what it felt like as we headed toward the TWA Flight Center on Sunday. Open House New York had invited the public for one last hang inside of Eero Saarinen’s mecca of midcentury design before its conversion into a hotel.
If you’re not the type who has a Saarinen womb-chair tattoo and are unfamiliar with this sacred space, it’s that eerily illuminated spaceship you see when you emerge from JetBlue’s Terminal 5. It’s been vacant ever since it closed in 2001, around the time TWA was absorbed by American Airlines.
With its four intersecting ceiling vaults buttressed by four curvilinear Y-shaped piers, its exterior reminds me of a horsehoe crab or a samurai helmet (indeed Saarinen’s partner on the project, Kevin Roche, likened earlier sketches to a Conquistador helmet).
The $12 million structure was actually meant to evoke “the spirit of flight, inside and out,” per the TWA president who commissioned it in 1956. But the popular belief that Saarinen modeled it after a bird in flight, with its beak (in the center of the photo above) serving as a water basin and its wings housing the ticketing counters and baggage carousels, would seem to be incorrect.
According to Eero Saarinen: An Architecture of Multiplicity, the designer maintained that any resemblance to a winged creature was unintentional — even though he referred to the building as a “Leonardo da Vinci flying machine.” He merely wanted it to “interpret the sensation of flying,” he said.
When the terminal’s design was first announced in 1957, The Times noted that Saarinen aimed “to make the passenger’s transition from taxicab to airplane as painless as possible” – an aspiration that seems even more noble in today’s era of Morrissey-groping TSA agents. The architect employed a “family of forms,” or design cues, to insure that “wherever you are, inside or outside, the building sings with the same message.”
Around the time the Flight Center opened in late May of 1962, the mismatched buildings that made up JFK’s new Terminal City were considered a “strange mixture of World’s Fair flash and pedestrian bad taste” by Times critic Ada Louise Huxtable. And yet she praised the success of Saarinen’s “bird,” even as it put form over function. “Personal expression pursued dangerously close to the point of architectural transgression has produced a gem,” she wrote, “and if this is sin, it provides the traditional extra measure of pleasure of all sinful pursuits.”
Others weren’t such big fans. Preeminent architecture critic Vincent Scully accused Saarinen of designing his later buildings “in the form of models for dramatic unveiling at board meetings and of having never been detailed beyond that point.”
In actuality, Alistair Gordon writes in Naked Airport, Saarinen sketched an early version of the Flight Center on the back of an airplane menu, arrived at the roof’s final form partly by poking at an overturned half grapefruit, and finally created a cardboard model that was big enough to crawl into. The design process was so laborious that it involved some 600 drawings, only 200 of which pertained to the finished structure. This was in part because of the 5,000-ton roof. Its construction, such a marvel that it merited not one but two items in the The Times, involved 30-hour pours of concrete into custom wooden forms held up by a phalanx of scaffolding.
Whatever you think about the expressionistic terminal, designed mostly with propeller planes in mind, there’s no doubt it was ill-suited to accommodate the boom in travelers during the advent of 707s and the Jet Era — much less the larger 747s that came after. From the moment it opened, “it was always crowded,” wrote Saarinen’s photographer, Ezra Stoller, “as it was too small for the amount of traffic it had to accommodate.”
Saarinen’s “form world” was evident to anyone who stepped inside on Sunday. The interior feels less like a manmade construction and more like the inside of a conch shell.
Near the front doors is an information desk partly covered in Japanese-made circular tiles and crowned by a Datavision board designed by Swiss watchmaker Solari.
To me, the board’s shell resembles an alien’s enlarged head and the counter his folded arms. This is exactly what George Jetson would’ve consulted to find out whether his flight was delayed.
Back in the day, a couple of attendants would’ve been at this desk; TWA pamphlets and a courtesy paging phone would’ve sat on its marble counter. On Sunday, informational panels advertised the forthcoming $250 million TWA Flight Center Hotel.
A rendering showed how Saarinen’s head house will transform, with minimal changes, into a lobby. If and when the hotel is approved and opens in 2018, it will offer 505 guestrooms in newly constructed wings as well as a museum paying tribute to the building’s legacy, an observation deck, 40,000 square feet of conference space and six to eight bar/restaurants.
Hotel developers MCR (earlier negotiations fell through between the Port Authority and Andre Balazs of The Standard Hotels) aim to return the building to its “original glory.” Such promises have been made since the late ’80s, when, according to Building For Air Travel, TWA commissioned an expansion plan that would’ve restored the then ailing terminal. After the terminal closed, the Steven Spielberg production Catch Me If You Can spent $10,000 removing ’70s display boxes and Mylar window coverings. In 2003, JetBlue briefly considered reviving the space as a portal to the new terminal it would eventually build behind it, but in the end that was considered impractical. In 2008, the Port Authority invested another $20 million in restoration and asbestos abatement. Among other things, it added back the sunken conversation pit that was intended to be a modern evocation of grand train-station waiting rooms.
It has often been noted that the Flight Center opened the same year that plans for the old Penn Station’s replacement were announced; when the train station was finally demolished in 1966, Huxtable lamented in The Times that modern travelers enter the city “not in Roman splendor, but through the bowels of a streamlined concrete bird.”
Actually, Penn Station’s grandiose, sun-splashed interior was an inspiration for the Flight Center, according to Saarinen: An Architecture of Multiplicity. Architect Robert A. M. Stern has called the Flight Center the “Grand Central of the jet age,” and it’s no accident: the interior’s fluid lines were a result of observations at busy Grand Central Terminal, where Saarinen’s team discovered that foot traffic tended to be curvilinear rather than rectilinear.
Given that New York has lost buildings as majestic Penn Station, it’s a marvel that the Flight Center has been preserved to such a degree. The building and much of its interior was landmarked in 1994, despite TWA’s protests that the designation would hamper an upgrading of the “functionally obsolete” terminal. Meanwhile, two of JFK’s other iconic terminals were recently demolished to accommodate more plane parking: The original Terminal 8, with its distinctive stained-glass window, was demolished in 2008. IM Pei’s minimalist Sundrome at Terminal 6 (which TWA at one point used as an extension of the Flight Center) met the wrecking ball in 2011 and Pan Am’s flying-saucer-like Worldport followed in 2013.
Meanwhile, the Flight Center’s futuristic, 125-foot-long concrete tubes, which used to lead to the terminal’s departure lounges, look much as they did when they opened, complete with carmine red carpeting.
That’s not to say that today’s Flight Center is exactly what Don Draper might’ve seen. For one thing, the last of the Saarinen-designed departure lounges that connected to the head house was hauled away in 2008. They would’ve been visible through this window.
Old photos show fixtures that still haven’t been restored: the ovular illuminated signs pointing passengers to the “Ticket Lobby” and to the gates and restaurants, the flags from various countries that hung on the upper level, the baggage carousels (an innovation at the time), and the standing ashtrays that dotted the sunken waiting area.
The telephones have been removed from the alcove next to the ladies bathroom.
One of the building’s most photographed fixtures, the globular clock at the center of the ceiling, is actually not original – according to a Landmarks Preservation Commission report, it was tacked onto the PA system.
On the upper level, fixtures belonging to the Lisbon Lounge restaurant/bar (actually designed by another firm) have been removed.
Same goes with the former Paris Cafe coffee shop, which was also roped off.
On the other side of the gallery level, the plush armchairs, plants, and marble pedestal tables that once dotted the Ambassador Club (the only food and beverage area that Saarinen designed here) are long gone.
Downstairs, the ticketing counters, also roped off, looked quite barren.
On the other hand, this shoeshine station near the men’s bathroom is still intact.
Same with the ventilation ducts, or “air fountains.”
Over the years, the Flight Center has been open to the public sparingly – most infamously in 2004 for an art show that was aborted after some “art punks” puked at the opening and defaced the walls.
It’s easy to see how the downtown art crowd could’ve gotten carried away in the sultry lower-level lounge.
The mayhem, as described by The Times, included graffiti, broken glass, and damage to a door leading to the runway. Sunday’s crowd, which included some former pilots and stewardesses, was considerably tamer, even if, at 3 p.m., it took everyone a good half hour to heed Open House’s polite calls to vacate the building.
Oh, there was also this lil’ punk.
Saarinen died suddenly, of brain cancer, about a year before the Flight Center was completed, but there’s evidence he wouldn’t have opposed its current state of limbo. During his last visit to the terminal’s construction site, he said that “it would make a beautiful ruin, like the Baths of Caracalla.”
Luckily it won’t be a ruin much longer, and in due time we’ll be able to down a bracing martini there before venturing into the hellmouth of modern-day JFK.