Those flying through JetBlue’s Terminal 5 at JFK Airport will look out the window and see a magnificent white shell, a grandiose design likened to a “concrete bird.” But upon further investigation, the beautiful work of architecture is entirely devoid of airplanes, and it’s completely empty inside save a handful of construction vehicles.
The abandoned Trans World Airlines (TWA) Flight Center, designed by Eero Saarinen and built in 1962 at JFK Airport (then Idlewild Airport), was designed to be the next big thing in the elegance of air travel. Known as the “Grand Central of the Jet Age,” the historic terminal was futuristic and cutting edge, featuring an elevated footbridge, old clocks hung from the ceiling, large windows, and a classy collection of red velvet lounge chairs. The departure/arrival corridor looked like it came straight out of James Bond, a red carpet piercing through a white tube.
The terminal was an aesthetic and commercial success for decades, until the early 2000s, when TWA was sold to American Airlines and the terminal’s retro layout was deemed insufficient for 21st century security guidelines. The duties of the TWA Flight Center were transferred to the modern day Terminal 5, located just to the east of the now-empty building.
Thanks to its placement on the National Register of Historic Places, the midcentury flight center was preserved, sitting unoccupied in the center of one of America’s busiest airports. It remained in limbo for years—intact, but entirely empty other than the occasional open house.
By 2015—nearly 14 years after its closure—the TWA terminal finally found a new purpose. According to plans by JetBlue and a hotel developer, the original head house will be transformed into an airport hotel, consisting of 505 new guest rooms while maintaining many of the airport’s original icons, including the Lisbon Lounge and the Paris Café. The flight center’s exciting repurposing reminds us that it’s never too late or too costly to preserve history.