By Jon Cronin
Mid-century modernist architecture, history and pop culture will collide at a $265 million hotel designed around the landmark TWA Flight Center at JFK Airport.
The flight center will be restored to its original 1962 design and serve as a grandiose lobby with chic restaurants and bars and two six floor hotel towers that will be constructed behind and on either side of the center.
Manhattan based MCR Development won the 75-year lease from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to build and operate the hotel, which will break ground next year, creating 3,700 jobs once it’s opened and approximately 2,500 construction jobs as part of the restoration and creation of the hotel.
The hotel will feature 505 rooms, 40,000 square feet of conference rooms, restaurants, a spa and a 10,000-square-foot observation deck that overlooks the runways. Construction will begin this summer after the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure process with a 2018 grand opening.
Tyler Morse, CEO of MCR Development, likes to illustrate the history of the landmark as part of his project. Morse noted, as he toured the facility recently with local press, that jet propelled planes replaced propellers and “The Jet age was born in Queens,” a fact the terminal was supposed it was to represent when it opened in 1962.
He also said, coincidentally the year the TWA terminal was built was also the first year that the Jets and the Mets played. The theme of the building will be 1962. “Sixty-two was a great year. Kennedy was president. Camelot. The airport at the time was called New York International,” he said also noting that the locals still called it Idlewild after the golf course that originated there.
He notes that 1962 was, “A big year for Queens.”
“They just don’t build stuff like this anymore,” Morse said, while pointing to the curvature of the architecture and stark white interior contrasted with TWA’s signature Chili Pepper Red carpet and couches. He has become a big fan of the flight center’s architect Eero Saarinen.
“This guy was on the cutting edge of mid-century modernism as a design movement,” he noted.
“Everything will be about TWA,” said Morse, and added, “There will be a museum component to the hotel,” focusing on the coming of the jet age, which was born and came of age in Queens, “That’s why they call themselves the New York Jets.”
In 2001, being unable to support the traffic at JFK, the building closed and has been vacant for 14 years. Morse said there were two other RFPs prior to 2014. Looking around at the structure smiling, he said, “I think this building needed to come back to life.”
A lover of history and architecture, Morse touts that the building is a marvel considering that it has the similar square footage to Madison Square Garden, yet only rests on four columns, “an architectural feat that is not often seen,” he said.
He noted that they have had a great experience with the Port Authority, and with local historians and historical preservationists because the restoration is “totally authentic.”
Of the $265 million project, $65 million is remediation of the asbestos, HVAC system, roof repair and lead paint removal, said Morse. Several years ago, the Port Authority did a $20 million renovation of the open entrance area of the center.
Some of the changes that will be made are; the TWA baggage carousels will be taken out and turned into a 4,000 square foot ball room. Between the two tubes attaching the center to the JetBlue terminal, the developer will dig a big hole and have an even larger ballroom and conference buried under there.
The food hall will be where the old TWA ticket takers were and all the receipts will be on TWA ticket stock.
Morse said, “We’re gonna have the best taco purveyor from Brooklyn, we’re gonna have the best hipster coffee guys from Brooklyn. A lot of Queens vendors, a lot of Brooklyn vendors,” he added, “The idea is to bring small up and coming operators who have great food and an incredible following, but don’t have a lot of money, can’t sign big leases…but have great food.”
He said they’re looking for people who are still under the radar, who are not that well known and give them a shot.
“We’re gonna have a ton of traffic here. We’re right in front of the AirTrain,” and noted the continuing ease in public transportation to and from Manhattan.
“It’s really gonna be a destination,” he said where people can park across the street or take the AirTrain, come to the TWA Flight Center, “to have a great meal and have a great day.”
Showing what a fan he is of the site, Morse said, “It’s neat to think that Howard Hughes built this and to think of the stars that went through here. Hughes was a big Hollywood guy.”
He also noted that the Beatles and Pope John Paul II, countless celebrities and immigrants new to the country walked through the tubes connecting the TWA Flight Center to the main structure of JFK.
Moviegoers may recognize the tubes from “Catch Me If You Can” when Tom Hanks chased Leonardo DiCaprio through one of them.
Asked why he is attracted to a project like this, Morse said. “We live in a world that is becoming more and more homogenized. We basically live in a giant Walgreens,” and added, “I think customers and guests and the general public, appreciate a building like this.”
Reach Reporter Jon Cronin at (718) 357-7400 x125, firstname.lastname@example.org or @JonathanSCronin