TWA Rising

by John Delach

On Flag Day, Mary Ann and I walked into the lobby of the original Terminal Five, TWA’s former Flight Center at John F. Kennedy International Airport for the first time since February of 2001. Back on that cold Saturday morning we were catching our flight on a TWA 767 to Porto Plata in the Dominican Republic. Our purpose last Friday was to have lunch at the newly opened TWA Hotel that utilizes the soaring concrete and glass main terminal as its lobby, food court, museum and our destination, The Paris Cafe.

Philip Kennicott noted in his review for The Washington Post: “Eero Saarinen’s 1962 TWA terminal has always been about selling a fantasy.”  Indeed, it did back in its day and indeed it does again. As college students in the early 1960s my cousin, Bill and I would occasionally drive out to New York International Airport or Idlewild, it’s popular name, to visit the new terminals seemingly springing up out of nowhere. Seven were constructed, Number One, Eastern Airlines, Two, Northwest, Three, Pan American, Four, The International Arrivals Building for foreign and small domestic airlines, TWA’s Number Five; Eight, American and Nine, United. (Six and Seven would be built later, Number Six a second terminal for TWA as they outgrew their flight center and Number Seven for British Airways.)

Five of the seven were boring box-like structures., Only Pan American’s World Port and TWA’s Flight Center presented buildings that rivaled the innovations in design, architecture and engineering simultaneously being developed for the 1964-1965 New York’s World Fair. Those two were our favorites and we had easy access to almost all areas during those long-gone innocent days of minimal security. Only First Class and the private airline clubs, TWA’s Ambassador’s Club and Pan Am’s Clipper Club were off limits. 

The overhanging roof at Pan Am’s circular World Port was its most innovative feature It protected passengers from all precipitation as they used outside stairs to board and de-plane aircraft. Impressive, but not comparable to Saarinen’s bird-like design that rose upward and outward, creating an enormous open space unsupported by internal columns. It took your breath away or so it seemed.

Fantasy was swell, but it took until January of 1977 before I made my first flight from that magnificent edifice, a Saturday morning trip to San Francisco on a Lockheed L-1011. I made my first business trip to London in 1976, but, for several years, I preferred British Airways as they were the only carrier to offer a day flight to London, BA Flight 178 that left JFK at 10 am. I did fly TWA home several times arriving at Terminal Five. Once TWA added a day flight, I switched over to TWA for most of my trans-Atlantic flights.

I stayed the course when Carl Icahn muscled his way into control of the airline although with guilt and a bit of fear. The striking seasoned flight attendants were replaced with newbies who were heavy on smiles and giggles but short on competence. I doubted their effectiveness in an emergency. Fortunately, the veterans returned but Icahn had broken the spirit that was TWA. By then three of the legacy airlines were failing, Eastern, Pan American and TWA. To survive they gutted themselves. TWA sold off its transatlantic routes to American Airlines in 1990. They ceased all remaining operations in October of 2001 closing Terminal Five.

Even though it sat dormant, the building had a life insurance policy, the City of New York had designated both the exterior and interior as historical landmarks in 1994. Various proposals fell apart or failed and it remained in repose until 2016 when Tyler Morse, chief executive of MCR Development, owners of 88 hotels announced the plans for the TWA Hotel. Long story short, it came to pass this May.

Though I didn’t wear a tie, I felt the need to wear my blazer, Mary Ann wore a white, woven poncho over her white blouse and black slacks. After leaving her Jeep with valet parking we entered the lobby. To the left and right were tube shaped corridors once used for check-in stations. If memory serves me, international to the left and domestic to the right.

Straight ahead a wide marble staircase led to an old friend, a sunken seating plaza carpeted in ruby red, TWA’s primary color. A tall glass window framed the rear of the lounge but instead of presenting a view of a busy tarmac, taxiways and runways in the distance, that view was now blocked by Jet Blue’s Terminal Five. Morse understood the need to improve this landscape, so he bought a surplus Air Force Lockheed Constellation domiciled in Maine, dressed it in TWA colors and had it trucked to JFK. Re-christened “Star of America” the airplane restores the fantasy of flight.

And fantasy abounded; hostesses occupied a desk by the entrance wearing vintage TWA stewardess uniforms. “Behind them a reproduction of a vintage Italian hand-made Solari di Udine split-flap display board made its distinctive tik-a-tik-a-tik-a-tik-tik-a-tik chatter as it announced flight departures and arrivals from an orchidlike sculptural pedestal.”

Rotary pay phones. A sign read, “Make a call for ten cents or try it for free.” Mary Ann dialed our home number and reached our answering machine. An old shoeshine stood-unmanned. Morse had done his best to create a time warp. I took it all in; once this was a friendly place to begin journeys to far off places, journeys of triumph, failure, fun or boredom.

Lunch was disappointing. The write-up for the Paris Café led me to believe that with luck, lunch would feature a croque monsieur one of my favorite French inventions. Instead, the menu was anything but French. I settled on a cheeseburger, Mary Ann a tuna tartare appetizer.

After lunch we explored the old girl one more time. I led Mary Ann to the other mezzanine where the Ambassador Club was once domiciled. The bar was gone, but we did discover an alcove where VIP’s could relax in private Called the “Pope’s Room,” Pope John Paul II used it during his 1987 Papal visit to America.

The two elevated tubes that once led to the long-gone separate structures that once housed the gates now led to the two separate hotel wings. Re-carpeted in ruby red they looked much as they did back in the day.

Before leaving we explored the Connie decked out mostly as a lounge with a bar at one end. Three rows of two across seats had been installed, one, the larger first-class variety and two rows of smaller coach seats albeit larger than any coach seat in the sky today. The guide informed us that these were the actual seats TWA used to furnish their Constellations. The discovery of ash trays built into the arm rests gave him credence.

I left with mixed emotions. It was truly fun to see the terminal again in its restored condition but a bit sad too. Most of the people who come to visit or stay there won’t have a clue what TWA was like as an airline and not just a theme for an airport hotel.