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TWA Hotel captures midcentury magic even when travelers are grounded

This 2020 Innovation by Design honoree transformed an iconic New York landmark.

TWA Hotel captures midcentury magic even when travelers are grounded
[Photo: TWA Hotel]

In 2019, one of the world’s most iconic airport buildings—Eero Saarinnen’s TWA flight center at JFK—reopened as a swanky airport hotel. This year, when the pandemic hit, it became a glamorous staycation destination for New Yorkers going stir crazy in their apartments.

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The iconic building, which was finished in 1962, has had a large influence on architecture but was ultimately never used for its original purpose: by the time it was completed, it was too small to accommodate the updated jets flying out of the airport. The stunning transformation made the reimagined TWA Hotel the winner of our 2020 Innovation by Design Award in the Hospitality category.

To bring the building back to life, owner and developer MCR had to deal with 22 different government agencies and update some of the building’s very foundations. “There was some lead paint in the building, and the windows were not made of tempered glass so they shattered. There was also petroleum on the site,” says MCR CEO Tyler Morse.

[Photo: TWA Hotel]
To preserve the midcentury modern magic of the flight center, MCR had to make some unusual design changes. “We needed a big conference and event space, as you do at a big hotel. And so we said, well, where are we going to put this? It didn’t work in the iconic Saarinnen building, but we didn’t want to build a building next door. So we ended up building it underground, and parking an airplane on top of it.” Morse says.

The hotel also features an infinity pool on the roof and a lobby that pays homage to the history of aviation and midcentury design. To power it all, the company built a separate power plant off of the electrical grid using battery storage, so that if New York had a blackout, no one staying at the hotel would be affected.

[Photo: TWA Hotel]
Morse’s ambition when the hotel opened was to keep it at 200% occupancy, with different passengers checking in and out on the same day—but that was before the coronavirus shut down much of the city and ground air travel to a halt. Today, the hotel has about 80% of its 512 rooms occupied. Despite it being an airport hotel, he says the crowd is largely local: “People are just tired of Zoom. It’s mostly staycations—you can’t go to France or even to Florida, so people are going there,” he says. The airy and spacious design of the hotel has unintentionally benefitted vacationers. “We have tons of space, which makes it easy for people to stay socially distanced.”

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See more honorees from the 2020 Innovation by Design Awards here.

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