TWA Hotel finally opens its doors at JFK airport

Connie -- a 1958 Lockheed Constellation -- has been turned into a lounge as part of a project to transform the historic TWA Flight Center into a destination. Photo Credit: Corey Sipkin

The “Mad Men”-esque venture features a cache of bars and restaurants, in addition to the airport’s first full-service hotel.

Connie -- a 1958 Lockheed Constellation -- has been turned into a lounge as part of a project to transform the historic TWA Flight Center into a destination.
Connie — a 1958 Lockheed Constellation — has been turned into a lounge as part of a project to transform the historic TWA Flight Center into a destination. Photo Credit: The World’s Fare

A vintage 1958 Lockheed Constellation plane, featuring an open cockpit and several rows of brown and plaid seats along two aisles with envy-evoking legroom, was parked outside Kennedy Airport on Wednesday.

But this wasn’t just some old relic — instead, it has a new life as a fully-outfitted cocktail bar that’s part of the anticipated TWA Hotel, which has finally opened its doors.

A nod to romantic notions of the Jet Age, the hotel has channeled the midcentury roots of the historic TWA Flight Center, which has been vacant since the airline shuttered in 2001. And with a cache of bars and restaurants — and drinks like the Old Fashioned or Royal Ambassador Cocktail (with Champagne, orange juice and Grand Marnier) — the hotel starts to feel like a "Mad Men" episode brought to life. 

"It’s about having fun and going on the airplane and listening to good music and thinking happy thoughts about the first time you took a flight," said Tyler Morse, the CEO of MCR and MORSE Development, the company heading up the project, at a ribbon-cutting ceremony Wednesday. "An airport is usually a means to an end … We want to add ‘je ne sais quoi’ to an airport."

A ribbon cutting on Wednesday officially opened the revamped terminal.
A ribbon cutting on Wednesday officially opened the revamped terminal. Photo Credit: Corey Sipkin

The TWA Flight Center, designed by Eero Saarinen, first opened in 1962. It was landmarked by the city in 1994 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005. When it opened, it touted state-of-the-art features like enclosed passageways between the terminal and jet, closed circuit TVs and baggage carousels.

The TWA Hotel first broke ground in December 2016, and includes 512 rooms each with windows that are more than four inches thick. Rates start at $249 for an overnight room or $139 for a day pass, according to developers. While there are many modern aspects to the hotel, much of the focus was on preserving original details like building working split-flap boards and installing chili pepper-red carpeting, as well as restoring 100,000 square feet of penny-tiled floors.

"It’s an extraordinary building," Morse said. "Just seeing people smiling and seeing people’s happiness at seeing this building back to life is a great feeling."

More than 4,000 people worked on the project, Morse said, and of those hired to work at the hotel, 49 percent are from Queens and 77 percent are a minority.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo called the TWA hotel "smart economically" on Wednesday, championing the $13 billion plan to refresh JFK he unveiled last year.

Former TWA flight attendants said stepping into the building Wednesday was like stepping back in time.
Former TWA flight attendants said stepping into the building Wednesday was like stepping back in time. Photo Credit: Corey Sipkin

"You are on the cusp of an entire JFK renovation," he told developers about the new project. "It is going to be a different airport … and it is going to be what New York deserves: which is the front door for an international community to come and visit and do business. And you got there first."

For Barbara Bachuretz, 63, who worked as a flight attendant with TWA out of JFK from 1976 until 1989, stepping into the building on Wednesday was like stepping back in time. Bachuretz, who arrived in uniform on Wednesday, said she even met her husband (who worked as a flight service manager with the airline, but has since passed away) on a flight from New York to London.

"It’s wonderful to see it," she said. "The memories are overwhelming. I can remember like yesterday … getting off the crew bus and we would have to — I was usually running late — run up those little tubular [jetways]. I’d be breathless. Those are tough to run, those long corridors… and pulling your suitcase behind you and running in high heels."

Bachuretz, who said she met several celebrities like Paul Newman and Robert De Niro on board, said she was just so relieved the building was never demolished.

"There’s nothing like it," she said. "You can’t replicate this. I’m thrilled that it’s been repurposed."

The project includes the totally renovated 1958 Lockheed Constellation L-1649A Starliner plan.
The project includes the totally renovated 1958 Lockheed Constellation L-1649A Starliner plan. Photo Credit: Corey Sipkin

The hotel is the first full service hotel at the airport and is more than just rooms — passengers transiting through JFK can stop by any of the project’s bars and restaurants, including The Sunken Lounge, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s venture the Paris Café, and, of course, the totally renovated 1958 Lockheed Constellation L-1649A Starliner plane, or "Connie."

Alison Fox