Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen designed many notable buildings including Washington Dulles Airport and the soaring Gateway Arch in St Louis, but he'll always be best known for the futuristic TWA Flight Centre at JFK airport. After serving as the terminal building for TWA Airlines from 1962 until 2001, the sweeping wing-shaped structure got a new lease of life when it re-opened as the TWA Hotel on May 15.
The hotel is adjacent to JFK's Terminal 5 and is accessed via a dedicated lift from the JetBlue baggage claim area. After passing a mock-up of the office of eccentric TWA owner Howard Hughes, guests reach the Flight Centre by walking through a scarlet-carpeted elliptical "flight tube". It feels like something from a science fiction movie, a portal into the future perhaps, but in this case it slingshots you back in time to the '60s and the dawn of the Jet Age era of travel.
It's a testament to Saarinen's visionary design that the Flight Centre still draws gasps of wonder 57 years after it was first unveiled. Fashioned out of concrete and white tiles, its cavernous curved interior is flooded with light thanks to a soaring glass frontage. Staff dressed in '60s-style cabin crew outfits pose for photos beneath an original mechanical flight display board while guests check-in at a row of airline-style counters. Scattered throughout the property is a museum of TWA memorabilia, including colourful travel posters, original uniforms and a mock-up of the lavish dinners once served in business class.
Housed in two standalone seven-storey curved wings, the property's 512 rooms continue the mid-century design aesthetic. Prepare yourself a drink at the custom-made brass martini bar then sink into a Saarinen-designed tan leather chair and admire the copious Amish-made walnut panelling. Splash out on a higher-floored room in the Hughes Wing and you'll enjoy captivating views of JFK's runway four through floor-to-ceiling windows. Aircraft don't exactly tiptoe around so to ensure they are seen but not heard, the windows are a whopping 11.5 centimetres thick, making them the world's second quietest after the US Embassy in London. Transitting passengers can also book rooms during the day.
The Flight Centre is home to several restaurants and bars, including a brasserie by Jean-Georges Vongerichten, a food court with an outpost of popular New York food truck the Halal Guys and an Intelligentsia coffee cart. The star of the show, though, is a 1958 TWA Lockheed Constellation Starliner (affectionately known as "Connie") that's been transformed into an intimate cocktail bar. Sink into a generous armchair seat (whatever happened to those in economy?), sip on an old-fashioned and enjoy a soundtrack of classic '60s tunes. If you can't secure a spot in Connie, you can still admire her via the floor-to-ceiling windows of the Sunken Lounge – a glamorous recessed bar in the Flight Centre that serves cheese plates, charcuterie boards and delicious herb-infused smashed avocado.
You'd be forgiven for presuming the only option for "stepping out" is to venture back into Terminal 5, but, improbably, the hotel has a rooftop infinity pool overlooking the runway. It's an incongruous setting – watching aircraft take-off and land while drinking a margarita on a sun lounger – but kudos to the designers for even contemplating such a concept in today's era of increased airport security. It'll be even more bizarre during winter, when the pool will be heated, transforming it into a giant Jacuzzi.
JFK's first on-site hotel could have been a dull, soulless corporate chain. Instead, it's a joyous celebration of the golden era of Jet Age travel and a fitting legacy for Saarinen's visionary design.
Terminal 5, JFK Airport, New York. Overnight rates start at $US249 plus tax. See twahotel.com
OUR RATING OUT OF FIVE
An adorable retro TWA amenities kit in the bathroom.
Frustratingly slow service in Connie and the Pool Bar.
Rob McFarland was a guest of United Airlines and the Gerber Group.