There are those moments which form the core of your urban memory. For some, they serve as reminders of why they left everything to move to New York City. For others they reinforce why they never left. As an architecture buff, my moments all have to do with the incredible spaces that capture the spirit of our city.
On a scouting trip, I had another one of those transcendent moments. I was on a one-on-one tour of the TWA Flight Center at John F. Kennedy Airport. The terminal was open to the public for Open House New York last year, but I’ll be showing you some spots that were off limits. Standing alone in the terminal lobby will go down as one of my top 10 NYC moments.
Every curve and detail of the TWA flight center was thought out by architect Eero Saarinen, with the terminal being one of his last works, completed posthumously. The National Trust for Historic Preservation was a partner in the effort to save it from the wrecking ball in 2003, and is now highlighting the terminal as one of the 24 most inspiring preservation stories in the 24 years of its 11 Most Endangered Historic Places List.
More than designing space, Saarinen clearly conceived of different scenes and experiences that would take place as one moved through the terminal, despite its free-form design. This is not out-of-the-box architecture—upon visiting in the present, you feel transported not only to another time, but also to an ethereal place. This was the cathedral to aviation, if there ever was one, and you feel through the design the pride and optimism the aviation industry had then.
That sense of pride still remains today, if you look closely, as the terminal sits empty awaiting approval for adaptive reuse. Upwards of 14 agencies are involved in the preservation and adaptation of the flight center, which will likely become a hotel (new wings will be built for the rooms so the original space will not be tampered with). James Steven, manager of JFK Physical Plant and Redevelopment tells me of the painstaking renovation he has overseen with Beyer Blinder Belle, down to the details of each circular tile and the years of sourcing materials all over the globe.
It is clear that James and those that maintain the building feel an immense sense of pride about the flight center, and are in fact rather in awe of it. “It’s a beautiful building, isn’t it?” one of the men said to me as I took the photographs. This speaks to the power of architecture, as the three of us from different backgrounds felt simultaneously moved in the hallowed spaces of the building.
The main lounge was rebuilt according to Saarinen’s original design. During the use of the terminal, it had been replaced by ticket counters. The men in the photograph are scouting for illegal taxis hustling unsuspecting tourists.
Leonardo DiCaprio ran down this flight tube in the film Catch Me If You Can.
A framed, spontaneous moment–one of my favorite spots in the flight center.
The still-lit Duty Free sign, around which are the baggage carousels. This whole area is off-limits.
A shoe-shine station was built into the design
The TWA Flight Center is truly a place not to be missed. James believes the terminal should be open for Open House New York again this fall–last year he personally worked the event along with a very small staff–so here at Untapped we’ll keep our fingers crossed.
Get in touch with the author @untappedmich.