Does the first 500-room hotel on the JFK property require a fight, flight, or fright response from travelers who’ll do anything to get through security and onto their planes as fast as possible?
One of the many sacrifices of the golden age of flight was the democratization of air travel. In a world where pretty much everyone can travel anywhere, anytime they want, there is less and less incentive to celebrate the anticipation of the journey itself. Thanks also to automated check-in apps, strict loading and unloading zones at terminal entrances and the labyrinth of joyless security checkpoints, most modern airports have shaved the land-side facilities down to skycaps, check-in desks and a partridge in the pear tree. Which begs the question: can a nostalgic hotel, dripping in red retro, reconstitute that glamorous, old-world anticipation – despite our short attention span and even shorter disposable time?
The whole point of an airport nowadays is to shrink an unpopular experience down to the absolute minimum. Therefore, the notion of a longer linger prior to security makes for an unlikely bet that non-travelers might be lured to an airport when they have better options. Or those who actually have a destination might want to front-load even more pre-departure time before finding their terminal, removing their shoes, fluids and laptops and hiking to their gates.
Let me put it another way: who wants to hang around the dentist’s office for any longer than absolutely necessary? Even if it’s in an architecturally relevant building? Even if they have a great view from the oral hygenist’s chair? Even if they have great reading material in the waiting room? The only people who loiter at airport terminals nowadays are janitors, security, and check-in agents. For everyone else it’s a high-stress, irritant necessity, about as much fun as root canal. And the sooner it’s over the better!
So, along comes visionary developer Tyler Morse with a brave and expensive plan to turn a neglected building on the endangered list into a time machine – convinced it will take us back sixty years with a new lease on life as a hotel. Like mold, hotels have parasitically mushroomed out of just about every conceivable host structure never intended for hospitality. These include train stations, office towers, churches, hospitals, prisons, caves and even giant blocks of ice. So, an airport terminal isn’t entirely out of the question, but that’s hardly the point. One of the biggest benefits of Morse’s endeavor provides a posthumous defibrillation of the TWA brand, along with Eero Saarinen’s curvaceous, pre-jet-age terminal, inspired by a bird taking flight – easily the quintessential architectural marvel of the sixties.
Long before architects like Zaha Hadid or Frank Gehry, Saarinen (hot off his St. Louis arch acclaim) forced plaster and steel to go where none had gone before, to create the largest column-less dome structure the world had ever seen. Restoring and converting the former Flight Center into the hotel lobby was obvious, but then Morse had to build 2 crescent shaped wings with 512 rooms that connect via the original suspended “tubes”.
Half of the one-way glass rooms have airside views with nonstop airliner action on two runways. The other half stare back at the Saarinen structure, where the TWA baggage-handler overall-clad valet-parkers provide most of the action, in exchange for what will no doubt become an after-dark exhibitionists paradise.
The rooms are nice and bright – but tight, with a handful of curious design choices. Being able to plane spot from a comfy king-sized pillow-top with runway views, just before the point of rotation, is pretty hard to beat, even if a traveler with multiple suitcases might have to decide between standing next to – or on – the bed. The in-room martini bar is a fun idea, but you can’t really make a martini without vermouth. Or olives. Or ice. Or a shaker. I would have happily traded mine in for the oddly absent Nespresso machine as promised on the hotel’s website. Instead of a garbage can, there’s a laminated table-top mat, with one half dedicated to recycling and the other for waste, thereby exposing your junk for the world to see and judge.
Instead of a cupboard, (are they worried I might overstay my welcome?) you can try your luck at the single drawer, deep enough to accommodate two X-rays, or one of the six brass hooks mounted far too close together to suspend more than one item at a time. The electric blackout shades are stellar, but the controls are hidden behind a soffit on the farthest edge of the room. The sugar-cube sized nightstand is just large enough to hold a mobile phone, but there are no USB charging ports in sight. And while the impressive 4-inch thick, floor-to-ceiling glass window wall successfully shields every GE, Pratt & Whitney or Rolls Royce turbine winding up or down, the walls are thin enough to grant me a point of view on an impending custody battle going on in the room next door.
Speaking of sounds, the (charming at first) nonstop clickety-clickety-clack of the hand-made Solari informational signs in the terminal lobby eventually penetrates the brain like an unrelenting jackhammer. Even if the chili-pepper-red soft furnishing details contrast exquisitely with the ocean of dime-sized, white mosaic.
Despite all the hoopa-doopla regarding the restaurants, the Lisbon Lounge and adjoining Paris Café both boldly brandish Jean-George Vongerichten’s name as if he’s also about to join the Democratic Presidential race, but on closer inspection, the typical airport junk-food-adjacent menu is cooked by airport operator Tastes on the Fly. And while the mezzanine dining spaces are airy and mod, they enjoy a most unappetizing view of the Terminal 5 parking structure. Make no mistake, even for Queens, this will never become destination dining. The other “restaurants” are 5 shoulder-to-shoulder food truck vendors along a frigid check-in counter wing, that feel about as out of place as a live alligator wandering around Buckingham Palace.
The massive gym is without doubt the largest of its kind in any hotel I’ve ever visited. In addition to multiple racks of free-weights and barbells, I lost count at 35 different weight training devices, 15 treadmills, 15 elliptical and stair machines and a 20-bike peloton classroom. The formal changerooms boast terrazzo floors with white marble and ebony details, and a litany of showers and lockers.
Equally attractive is the subterranean (and hence windowless) conference center and ballroom with museum alcoves displaying dioramas of TWA’s 50’s and 60’s in-flight service. The mosaic, stone and steel finishes are remarkable, but I strongly suspect that every portion of charity chicken, tradeshow turkey or bar mitzvah bread-rolls will have to be trucked in.
Despite high expectations, the May 15th opening turned out to be more bland than grand. It was astonishing to see such a tremendous mountain of PR melt at the woeful unreadiness of the staff and the facility itself. After completing the self-service digital check-in process, where you magnetize your own room key, I asked one of the cheerful front-desk attendants to point me in the direction of my room.
“Your…room…” she mused thoughtfully. “Hmmm. Let me just ask someone else.”
And so began a slow-motion relay race in delightful ineptitude. Even though there were a number of retro pay-phones throughout the terminal and a vintage rotary phone in each room, none were actually working. (And to make matters worse, there is no actual phone number listed for the hotel at all.) Adding to the list of “no’s”: no room service, no breakfast, no wake-up calls, no working bed-side lamp, no toilet roll holder, no shampoo, and the few restaurants that were actually operational were all fully committed. The next best options were the Halal Guys, Empanada Republic and the Earl of Sandwich, with deliveries from Uber Eats, Seamless and Domino’s Pizza as fallbacks.
The first item on my “must-see” list was the giddying idea of an apron-side rooftop infinity pool facing two runways. Passing an entire trade-union of helmeted workers still hanging room doors on the uppermost floor, the pool turned out to be everything but infinite. The first clue was the sub-infinity water level, and the cornucopia of electrical cords and tiling equipment still very much in frantic operation. Before I could even snap a quick photo, one of (bar franchisee) Rande Gerber’s lieutenants lowered the lid on what was left of my waning enthusiasm.
“Sir. Excuse me. You can’t be here without a reservation?”
“For the pool?” I asked, vexed and perplexed in equal measure.
“Yes. You have to make a reservation.”
“OK. How can I do that?”
He produced a personal business card, and offered it to me with a knowing wink. “Just call this number and I’ll take care of you.”
So, I rushed back down via one of the 3 hours-old elevators with that uniquely addictive new-elevator smell of resin and glue, and quickly dialed the number.
“Didn’t I just speak to you a few minutes ago?” he quipped.
“Yes.” I confirmed. “I’d like to make a reservation at the Pool Bar.”
“I’m sorry, we’re not giving out any reservations at this time.”
The way I see it, the only real opportunity to realize Morse’s aspirations of a super-deluxe 5-star hotel on the tarmac would be to up the VIP ante considerably. Provide city-to-hotel vintage limo or helicopter transfers. Enable the front desk to check bags through to any airline at any terminal. Provide white-glove TSA security facilities, concierge duty-free shopping and room-to-gate chauffeur service anywhere across the tarmac. Instead, Morse expects to be at 200% occupancy by double-renting rooms for daytime or nighttime stays to crews, the stranded or early-bird travelers.
It’s highly doubtful that foreign airlines will accommodate their crews at these rates. Nor can I see any domestic airline putting up their marooned passengers in spitting distance to JetBlue’s Terminal. That leaves the affluent traveler with time to kill, or those aviation geeks who can afford a runway view. Even the avalanche of architecture students who are likely to march through the domed terminal and its adjoining tubes will never part with $260+ just to spend the night. I therefore predict that this elaborate, but static, amusement park ride will find a similar fate to the other no-frills, discount-rated, airport-adjacent Inns, Gardens and Courtyards that have accommodated the bored and bleary-eyed cancellation crowd for decades.