Stocked With Artifacts and Fueled by Nostalgia, the New TWA Hotel Finally Opens Today

Will the value of a long-vanished airline be enough to fill these faraway rooms?

In the TWA Hotel's plush lobby, 1962 never quite ended.
Photo: Max Touhey; All photos courtesy of TWA Hotel

When he was a boy, Tyler Morse would sometimes get to go along with his father, an oil executive at Atlantic Richfield, on business trips. When the pair flew Trans-World Airlines into John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, they would meander through TWA’s cavernous Flight Center, a soaring, exultant expanse of sculpted concrete that architect Eero Saarinen had built in 1962 as a paean to the jet age. On the upper level of the terminal, perched high above the crush of passengers and acres of red carpeting, father and son would stop into the cocktail lounge.

“It was a full smoking section,” Morse said. “Everybody’s puffing away.” And there, easing into the leather seats, the men would commence to drink—well, the elder Morse would, at least.

Understandably, Morse gets a little dreamy when he tells this story, because it doesn’t only summon a memory of his father, but of that undulating, futuristic terminal at JFK. “I’ve known about the building for a very long time,” Morse said.

Tyler Morse (l.) with celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

Indeed he has, which means today has been a very long time coming for Morse, the CEO of hotel operator MCR, a company he founded in 2006. After 43 months of planning and construction, MCR will finally cut the ribbon on the TWA Hotel, a high-flying renovation project that has turned the airline terminal where he sipped a Shirley Temple in the early 1980s into a 505-room luxury hotel. It is an ambitious project that has cost Morse’s company a reported $265 million to build. And if Morse is nervous about opening day, he’s not showing it.

“We think we’ve built a great product,” he said, “and a fun place to be.”

The white elephant

Even as adaptive-reuse projects go, this one is in a class by itself. Not only is the old TWA Flight Center an internationally famous edifice and a breathtaking architectural space, it’s possibly the biggest white elephant in New York real estate. In the 18 years since the last TWA flight lifted off from JFK, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey—which owns the airport and the old TWA facility—has been searching for a company willing to take the place over.

The terminal's gull wing shape made it internationally famous and nearly impossible to redevelop.
Max Touhey

That that search had been fruitless is not especially surprising. Though the building is much loved by architecture enthusiasts, its landmark status prohibits most alterations to it. Even before getting started on a project, a developer would have to remove the old terminal’s lead paint and asbestos and then replace all of its original windows with tempered glass. A possible 2013 deal with celebrity hotelier André Balazs, whose properties include L.A.’s storied Chateau Marmont, raised hopes, then collapsed. “Nobody” Morse said, “could figure out how to make the economics work.”

Morse long believed he could make them work, but, until recently, his firm wasn’t in a position make a play for the project. But when the Port Authority put out another request for proposals four years ago, MCR, today the sixth-largest hotel operator in America with $2 billion in assets under management, was finally well capitalized enough to try. And after wading into New York’s legendary red tape—Morse had to contend with 22 different city agencies—MCR emerged with a deal.

By constructing two new freestanding wings, Morse and his company have transformed the property into a hotel and convention space that uses the historic terminal as a lobby (at 200,000 square feet, reportedly the world’s largest hotel lobby). MCR is shouldering most of the cost, but the Port Authority sweetened the pot by agreeing to build a parking garage and kicking in $20 million to help restore the terminal. Meanwhile, JetBlue, which built its massive Terminal 5 just behind the historic property in 2012, stepped in as a 5% stakeholder.

Now that the TWA Hotel’s paint is dry and its doors are open, MCR has a 75-year lease on an internationally renowned property, arguably the most unusual hotel on the East Coast, and plenty of onlookers waiting to see how it all works out.

Turning passengers into guests

The hospitality business has always been risky, but Morse’s project has one huge thing going for it: the airport itself. JFK has no other hotel on the property, giving the TWA Hotel an effective monopoly on travelers looking for a convenient and attractive place to stay.

The sunken lounge, restored with its signature red carpeting.
Max Touhey

And there are a lot of travelers. In 2018, JFK’s 455,524 flights moved 61.6 million passengers through the complex. Morse has also set his sights on the employees working at the airport who have the same problem travelers do when they’re hungry: Apart from the food court, the options are few. “There are 40,000 people that work at JFK airport every day,” Morse said, “and there’s nowhere to eat.”

Hungry gate agents aside, it’s clear travelers will be the hotel’s bread-and-butter customer. For MCR, the airport location is “a huge edge, a huge competitive advantage,” said Matthew Arrants, executive vp of Pinnacle Advisory Group, a hospitality consulting firm. Be it “distressed passengers” stranded by a canceled flight or executives looking for a convenient place to have a meeting, he said, “all the demand [for the TWA Hotel] is generated by the airport.”

Of course, any number of off-property chain hotels can offer a bed or a conference room in a pinch, too. But TWA has an edge they don’t: the TWA name itself. Much of Morse’s strategy centers around the resurrection of the vanished airline’s brand equity, which includes the mystique of the jet age itself.

The once and future TWA

Trans-World Airlines was once, along with Pan American World Airways, America’s flagship carrier. Started as a mail courier in 1930, TWA later became the property of dashing millionaire aviator Howard Hughes, whose money and connections brought the glamorous Lockheed Constellation to the fleet, lured movie stars to fill the seats and purchased the services of Saarinen to design the gull wing terminal at JFK Airport, known as Idlewild until 1963. Poor business decisions and a disastrous takeover by corporate raider Carl Icahn ultimately doomed the carrier, which merged with American Airlines in 2001. But the legend remains, and Morse is betting there’s enough of it left to get people to stay at his hotel.

Because the lobby will be the hotel’s showpiece, MCR lavished particular attention on restoring it to its jet-age opulence. “Everything is historically accurate,” Morse said. “The building was restored to exactly as it was, down to the signage.” Trans-World Airlines comes alive in myriad other ways. MCR hired Stan Herman, who designed TWA’s polychrome uniforms in the 1970s, to create a comparable ensemble for the hotel staff to wear. Hotel stationery bears the classic TWA typeface, recreated by Pentagram and now called Flight Center Gothic. Morse’s extensive selection of TWA memorabilia (everything from advertisements to travel bags) has its own museum on the property.

Some of the TWA artifacts on display in the on-site museum.

Morse’s biggest artifact, however, is out back, where an actual Lockheed Constellation has been turned into a cocktail lounge. The four-engine plane actually flew for TWA from 1958 to 1963 before passing through a number of owners (including a Central American drug gang that used to fly bales of pot around) and finally landing in a government surplus auction. Morse bought the plane for about $100,000, then trucked it in pieces to JFK.

Destined to be a cocktail lounge, the Constellation is lowered into place.

The TWA Hotel will need to sell a lot of martinis to make that money back, but Arrants believes marketing rarely gets as colorful or ambitious as this. “These guys are killing it,” he said. “I’m really impressed with everything they’ve done. Right now, travel is about experience and experience is about authenticity, and [if] you’re talking a historic building, you’re breathing authenticity.”

But does authenticity matter when a brand has been gone for a generation? Mario Natarelli, managing partner of brand consultancy MBLM, doesn’t think so. TWA, he said, “isn’t Pan Am. It doesn’t have the panache of that. Whatever residual links there are aren’t powerful ones.”

Morse is confident there is enough glamour left in the name for his hotel, however. “You would be shocked at the love for TWA,” he said. “It’s almost better that it’s not currently an airline, because it can’t disappoint you today. Let me tell you one certainty: You have not had a bad experience on TWA in the last 18 years, I guarantee.”

Morse is deadpanning, but there might be something to his theory. Hayes Roth, principal of HA Roth Consulting, believes that while TWA does have a “lingering brand value among a pretty large audience,” Morse also has an opportunity to bring the brand to a younger audience with no memory of it. “This is how you build a brand story,” he said. “Those who don’t know it [might ask], ‘What’s a TWA?’ We’re so glad you asked!”

TWA's old typeface, resurrected as a usable font.

Turbulence ahead?

Stripping away all the high-flying chic, however, the TWA Hotel project is not without its challenges. While MCR does operate a number of unique properties—including the High Line Hotel in Manhattan, built inside a 124-year-old former seminary—the company’s core brands are midpriced chain names like Hampton and Hilton Garden Inn. So while Morse has plenty of experience as a hotelier, not a lot of that comes in handy in operating a property as unusual as this one.

“There’s so many nonstandard features to this,” he admitted. “You can’t really start with the normal rule book and tweak. You have to throw the rule book in the trash and start from scratch.”

And while the airport location is sure to funnel business to the TWA Hotel, the fact remains the property is 15 miles and a $70 cab ride from Manhattan, where all the beautiful people live. “I think [that] they think this is going to be a destination for hipsters who want to feel aligned to a nostalgic moment,” Natarelli said. “If they’re thinking this is going to be for chic movers and shakers, that’s probably not what will happen.”

In the rooftop pool, guests can cool off above a hot tarmac.

In fact, it was this knowledge that kept the hotel’s rack rate a modest $250. And since the hotel is effectively an island, cut off from things to see and do, MCR packed a long list of amenities and distractions onto the property: six restaurants including one by Jean-Georges Vongerichten, eight bars, a rooftop pool, retail shops including Warby Parker and Shinola, and 50,000 square feet of event space.

“The reality is nobody is going to be driving in from Queens or Manhattan just to go eat and have a drink at the TWA Terminal, so there’s a risk in that,” Roth said. “It took some courage to do this.”

Morse is well aware that luring Manhattan business won’t be easy. For good measure, he’s built a scaled-down lobby of the hotel on the 98th floor of One World Trade Center in lower Manhattan that functions as a showroom for his property. Even so, Morse isn’t especially fazed by the idea that Manhattan hipsters probably won’t flock to his faraway hotel. “New York is so Manhattan focused,” he said, pointing out that the city has 7 million people who don’t live in Manhattan and another 3.5 million who live near JFK on Long Island.

He’s already dreamed up various ways of courting those locals, too. “We’re going to have an ice-skating rink in the wintertime [and a] giant Christmas tree,” he said. “This is going to be the Rockefeller Center of the Queens community.”

The terminal as it looked in its heyday.

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