I don’t travel much. The main reason I don’t is that I hate being away from my dogs. But when I do travel, I’m a sucker for a good hotel.
When I booked myself a birthday trip to NYC, I got a room at my usual – the Hudson in my old neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen. She ain’t what she used to be under Ian Schrager’s ownership, but she still does what I need for a reasonably affordable rate.
But a few weeks leading up to the trip, the new TWA Hotel at JFK occurred to me. I had never been to Eero Saarinen’s iconic TWA Flight Center, neither as a young traveler when TWA was still flying nor as a 22 year resident of New York City. But I’ve long admired the terminal’s stunning design through old photographs of its glory days and even more recent photos in its state of virtual abandonment.
For those who may not be aware, the landmarked building at JFK was gloriously restored and repurposed as a hotel by MCR and Morse Development, with two handsome hotel wings flanking the iconic Flight Center building, which now serves as the lobby/entrance with lounges, a café, a coffee shop, a restaurant, bars, retail and more.
Since my flight to NYC was into JFK, I went to the TWA Hotel website and thought “Fuck it. Check it out for a night.” So I booked a room.
My flight from Cleveland arrived at JFK’s Terminal 8 at around 2:00pm. Once I grabbed my bag, I hopped on the ever handy AirTrain to Terminal 5, where the TWA Hotel lives. Upon my arrival, I was awestruck.
Approaching from the outside, the building itself is, of course, stunning. The roadways around the terminal are freshly paved and the landscaping is perfectly groomed. To top it off, there are a couple of vintage cars parked out front, most notably an early 1960s Lincoln Continental convertible. It quickly dawned on me that I was entering a time capsule.
From the valets parking cars to the people greeting me and guiding me to check in, the entire hotel staff, including bartenders and servers, is dressed in fabulous period uniforms the way they’d be dressed for their respective roles way back when.
Then there’s the building itself, filled with different iterations of the iconic signature Saarinen tulip furniture and splashes of that TWA red. The sound system in the building plays great music exclusively from the late 1950s and early 1960s. With the exception of iPads managing check-in and retail points throughout the terminal, this place is firmly and lovingly locked in 1962, when the TWA Flight Center originally opened.
My Deluxe King room was on the lower end of the size spectrum, which is totally fine with me. I’ve never needed a lot of space. But what a handsomely appointed little space it was. The furniture, the lighting and fixtures, the wall design, the minibar, the desk, the bathroom appointments… all the choices were so well made. The working rotary phone (free local and international calls) and the vintage copy of LIFE magazine were nice touches, too. The only thing missing was a closet, which my efficient little one-day pied-à-terre lacked. Instead, I had hooks and three thick metal hangers, which aren’t the best for hanging a suit or jacket. But my suit and I survived.
After I parked my bags in the room, I went exploring.
Throughout the hotel, there are delights around every curve and corner. This place was designed for wandering, sitting, seeing, experiencing, enjoying and being smitten with everything the eye catches.
On one “wing” of the the upper level, there is a virtual museum of TWA uniforms through the decades. As you continue to meander about that side of the building, there are a number of places to sit and muse, including little cave-like lounges nested inside the inner structure.
As you pass under the iconic clock along the bridge that connects the upper levels, there is the Paris Café by Jean-Georges, where I enjoyed a delicious vegetable curry for dinner that evening in the Lisbon Lounge. Outside the café, overlooking the Sunken Lounge, one can find more places to sit in Saarinen splendor.
On the main level is that exquisitely preserved Sunken Lounge, the centerpiece of the room, complete with two circular bars on each side. Outside the huge windows, there’s “Connie,” a decommissioned 1958 Lockheed “Constellation” that now serves as perhaps the cutest cocktail lounge I’ve ever encountered, where I thoroughly enjoyed a very sophisticated Shirley Temple before dinner.
In addition to a TWA Shop (of course), the main level also boasts a Shinola shop, a shoe shine, a free photo booth, and an elegant bookstore/reading room, complete with iconic mid century furniture from Herman Miller by Eero Saarinen, Charles and Ray Eames and others, and a collection of design books from Phaidon.
Throughout the main TWA Flight Center building and in one’s room, an unsung virtue of this place is that there are plenty of places to open up a laptop and get work done very comfortably and in a ridiculously chic setting.
On the lower level is a fully tricked out fitness center (the largest in any hotel), including a 14-bike Peloton room. In case you forgot to pack your sneakers, the hotel provides a pair you can borrow for free. Lovely.
But one of my favorite features of this jewel box is the rooftop bar/lounge with an infinity pool overlooking the tarmac. Since I’d read about this on the website, I came prepared with my swim trunks. Before dinner, I slipped them on, wrapped myself in the TWA robe that came with the room and headed to the roof, where I enjoyed a fully heated sunset swim in 50º weather. I struck up a nice conversation with another guest named Sam from India. We were both laughing, trying to wrap our heads around the idea of swimming on an airport hotel rooftop in the middle of November, watching planes take off and land, and we were loving it. I dried off and warmed up with one of the thick, oversized red and white TWA beach towels provided by the pool, then headed back to my room to freshen up and dress for dinner. It was bed, bath and beyond the valley of the dolls.
After dinner and more exploring and picture taking, I called it a night and retired to my room. A hotel this close to a tarmac and a runway would seem unbearably loud. But our proprietors have taken care of it with a design that is ultra quiet with “the second thickest windows in the world” and shades that completely blackout the room. And the bed? The pillows? The sheets? Very comfy.
Anyone who knows me knows that my mornings are ruled by coffee. (Actually, my entire day is ruled by coffee.) The caffeination situation by Intellientsia Coffee is not only delicious and efficient, but it’s also adorable with a vintage BMW Fiesta on display next to the counter. And across the entry from the coffee shop is the Food Hall for snacks and quick, casual bites. After two large cups of coffee and some granola with fruit, it was time to bid adieu to the TWA Hotel and catch the train into Manhattan.
As I’ve said, there are delights to be found everywhere in this hotel. I would stay here again in a heartbeat. Hell, I might live there if they let me. Themed experiential accommodations like this could easily slip into gimmickry, which the TWA Hotel miraculously manages to avoid. Every space is not only chic, sexy and fun, but it’s also usable and oddly practical. You can sit, work, relax, have a drink, eat something, swim, exercise, sleep, enjoy… It might feel a little kitschy at moments, but, yet, it all seems to work very well. It’s an oasis from a time when aesthetics mattered and design was really good.
A lark like this might be best enjoyed with someone else. Without a willing or worthy playmate for such adventures, I go it alone, which frees me up to do whatever I want to do whenever and however I want to do it, I suppose. But this place would be doubly delightful with a partner in crime.
However you do it, just do it. Whether one is on an overnight layover or, like me, wants to have a fabulous experience on his first (or last) of a few nights in NYC, it’s incredibly worthwhile. Even if I lived in New York, I could easily see myself booking a night or two here just for the fun of it. Because it’s a lot of fun.