Review: Mid Century Chic Comes Alive At The Trans World Airlines Hotel

“Oh my God, I remember that!” I exclaimed.

It was a Chrysler Newport in the lobby. A funky little globe TV also caught my eye as I walked into the “main reception” of the hotel. I walked up and studied it, turning it on expecting to see Walter Cronkite or something.

The TWA Hotel at Kennedy Airport immortalizes forever mid-century chic in a way that is befitting of Walt Disney or Westworld. It’s nearly flawless in many ways. With the exception of all the people who were dressed in current fashion, it was like being in a movie set, or back in time (as I remembered it).

We have been longing to stay at the hotel since its opening. We diligently documented our stay, with Troy snapping photos throughout our time there. We have created a gallery for you to see all the things we saw and did while hanging out in Queens for three days.

But, if you think this will be a glowing review of the hotel – you would be mistaken. There are lots of gushing reviews about the hotel. This won’t be one of them. The hotel’s operation is weak at best and horrible in many aspects. There is no concierge, room service, and check in is operated in an Ikea-style fashion – you figure it out yourself.

My room was never properly serviced; the “Martini bar” lacked both olives and vermouth (and if Peggy Olson believed “Vodka and Mountain Dew is an emergency,” then pouring ice cold gin into a Martini glass and calling that a cocktail must be nothing short of an act of desperation.)

Wait service in the hotel’s restaurants (and yes, we at ate at them all) was largely slow and uninspired; the food was something slightly above what I imagine is served in public schools in New York.

There are no bell hops. Access to cabs is nearly impossible (although we did manage to get around with Uber). And it’s basically on one of the busiest sides of the airport, so you hear jet noise pretty much all the time – with the windows rattling.

In short, I’ve stayed at three-star hotels with better execution in terms of hospitality service. I have no doubt that Mr. Hughes would have literally thrown people out the window for how poorly aspects of the hotel runs.

And yet despite all of that, this hotel is still truly amazing and something I’d recommend to anyone who wants to spend a night experiencing the heady days of Mad Men and aviation all in one. For as bad as the hotel’s execution may be, attention to detail in other aspects of the hotel, make it perhaps the perfect “bucket list” item for the aviation enthusiast.

(Note: All pictures are Copyright 2020 by The Aviation Agency and may not be used without written permission.)

How did I get here?

The hotel is located in Terminal Five of the JFK International Airport, nestled on the interior of what is Jet Blue’s main terminal at Kennedy. The hotel is a joint venture between the hotel’s developer, MCR, and Jet Blue. If you’re flying on Jet Blue (which my creative director was), the hotel is beyond convenient. If not, it’s a hike to get over to terminal five, but it takes less time than the hour drive into Manhattan.

Designed in 1962 by architect Eero Saarinen, the hotel was home to Trans World Airlines (TWA) for over 50 years. It’s exactly what you’d expect of the era of architecture by one of the greatest of the greats  – elegant lines and details that subtly change as the light changes throughout the day. Troy, our creative director, got some amazing shots of the lobby and other parts of the hotel through the incredible windows (most of the pictures in the gallery are Troy’s handiwork).

Some have described the entrance and the lobby as “sterile,” and I can understand why. Everything is whitish gray. White octagonal mosaic tile, which was ubiquitous back then, covers much of the walls and the floor. The floors are one of the first negatives you’ll see — while they are original to the building, it’s very evident they hadn’t been cleaned or rehabilitated much, and many of the ramps and passageways in public areas were downright filthy, appearing as if they’ve been walked on for many years with no effort to try and remove any remnants of dirt. Given the attention paid to detail in so many other aspects of the hotel, why they didn’t recondition the floors and the carpets is somewhat beyond me.

That said, I have to also be honest in that, the condition things were in was how I remember old New York. Everything kind of “gritty,” even the things that are “new” and modern.  If they added the smell of cigarettes and cigars, a few standing ashtrays, and had some newspaper trash about, it would have nearly been perfected from my recollections. So one has to wonder if it’s intentional, aspirational, or just negligence, that leads to the grimy tile.

The old split-flat display “clickety-clack” departure board is immediately visible as you enter, and you’ll notice that it contains airlines and destinations that are very “period” relevant. When you look at the board, nearly every brand up there is gone, merged, or bankrupted (something that Troy and I remarked on as we watched it drinking cocktails from the bar watching people come in the main lobby). Every so often the board starts to click and new departures come up which really makes you feel as if you’re in an airline departure hall, even though none of the board’s departures are real.

The lobby, the bar, and the restaurant are all in TWA’s colors – a deep red with white chairs and tulip tables. Florence Knoll and Eero Saarinen’s handiwork are to be found everywhere in the design.  It’s both comfortable and functional, as great design should be regardless of what era you’re in.

The restaurant’s fare is American cuisine by and large, despite being told the restaurant was “French”. We sat at the “bar” that went around the kitchen, allegedly because the restaurant was so busy (they asked us if we had a reservation). One might find that uninteresting but for the fact the entire time we ate, we saw plenty of tables open in the spacious lounge area.

For the voyeur in you, you can watch the rooms get made up by the housekeeping staff, as well as other activities of guests, as the sun goes down. Troy and I noted to each other wryly that we would be putting our blinds down immediately upon going back to our rooms.

Straight out of a Movie Set

When I went into my room, it was pretty much exactly how I remembered hotel rooms when I was a kid. The detail in the room is pretty much straight out of a movie set. I’d expect to have seen Don Draper and Roger Sterling waiting for me with a scotch glass at the ready. Florence Knoll couches, Saarinen tables and a “womb chair” with an ottoman.  I got a suite, so I had a sitting area and a desk that was more spacious, which was nice since we were there working after all.

I remarked about the floor lamp – the old “stripper pole” type lamp. I said, to Troy, “we definitely had one of these in my house as a kid.” Troy replied, “we all did, it was the 60’s and 70’s.” Those lamps all ended the same way as well, apparently, felled by someone climbing them.

While I remarked earlier that the “Martini bar” really had no way of making a good Martini, it did have some nice top shelf liquor in it available. I’m a scotch snob, and there was a generous 200ml Balvenie beckoning me. I would have undoubtedly uncorked it but for the fact that ice delivery service is at best spotty and there are no machines on the floors. I realize to some ice in single malt scotch may be barbaric, but as a Scottish scotch master said to me once, the best way to enjoy scotch is how you like it best. For me, that’s with a few rocks.

Since I never got any ice, I never cracked the seal. Literally for want of a bucket of ice, the hotel lost a 40-dollar sale.

The gigantic flat screen television was nice, but I must admit I was kind of hoping for a gigantic Zenith cabinet unit with an 8-track player and a hi-fi stereo system. I’m guessing they don’t even exist anymore. However, I did make some calls on the rotary phone. I must admit, I played with the phone dial off and on as I worked at the desk; watching the dial spin and remembering the feel.

The bathroom is what you would expect given the hotel room. It’s well designed, well lit, and if you and 30 other people want to take a shower together, there is plenty of room. I mean seriously; I could wash one of those 1956 BMW Isetta 300s they have in the lobby and still have plenty of room to shower.

The hotel room is clearly designed primarily for people who are doing a day trip. There’s virtually no storage to speak of for your things, other than hanging them up on a rack above where you can store your suitcase.           My partner Troy was there for one day (I stayed for two). His experience was ideal. “Veni, Vidi, Reliqui,” would be the hotel’s motto. I have no doubt they have lots of transient travelers looking for that Instagram moment. Granted, we were too, but some of us (myself) actually expected it to be a functioning hotel as well. In that regard, the hotel was wanting.

So as I said earlier, there was apparently an ice shortage (no doubt because of climate change I’m sure)  that continued into the next day. When I returned from a day of meetings, my bed was unkempt, and nothing had been serviced. Disappointed in the lack of housekeeping, but excited about getting to use the phone to call someone, I dialed triumphantly the “0” and got someone.

“When do you normally complete your housekeeping rounds,” I asked politely.

“Why?” the woman on the other side answered in almost a Fran Drescher type accent (I forgot for a moment that the hotel is in Queens and the woman on the other side of the phone sounded like she was straight out of central casting).

“Well, because it doesn’t appear my room has been serviced quite yet. Could you send someone? Also, I could use a bucket of ice if that’s possible.”

A curt reply from the woman and that was that. I believe I made that call around 5:30pm.

Around 10:30 pm, I put the “do not disturb” flag out, lest I be rousted by housekeeping and the bar staff with my bucket of ice and suddenly turnover service in the middle of the night. I didn’t think that was likely, but you never know.

I’m sure you can guess how that story ended. Alas, no ice, no scotch, no bed service.

I was consoled by what I’m sure was a $20 box of Good and Plenty that I cracked open from the goodie bar to amuse myself while I worked.

To be fair, the waitstaff is pleasant, and I had a burger up on the roof lounge that was pretty much amazing. A nice salted crust that was accomplished by a chef who obviously had more than a passing fancy with cooking. It was by far the highlight of the cuisine I had while staying at the hotel.

The Verdict: Yes, this is a place you need to go see, especially if you’re over 50

Is this hotel going to win any Michelin stars? I sincerely doubt it, not unless this historical project includes resurrecting Leona Helmsley from the dead.

But it is still an experience, and in many ways, a remarkable one.

TWA is long gone. Yet the brand has come to symbolize in many ways the heyday of air travel as much as Pan Am, its archrival.  The hotel is like staying at the MoMA but the entirety of the museum is interactive in this case.

Everywhere you turn, if you lived during this time, you’re going to say, “oh my God, I remember this.” It is both eerily familiar and strange all at the same time.

The Lockheed Constellation aircraft (“Connie”) that has a bar inside is definitely a piece of nostalgia worth visiting.  The TWA gift shop is also worth a peruse (but everything can also be purchased online if you’re not interested in lugging it around).

The TWA brand, combined with what is timeless architecture, and more than a “college try” attempt to faithfully replicate the furniture, the art, the style, the rugs, and the feeling of the 1960s, make this place truly unique in a city known for unique destinations.

If the hotel management ever decides to get serious about service, and fixing some of the peculiarities of the hotel’s room, the restuarants, and adds consistent personalized service (instead of models in their 20’s pretending it’s the 1960’s), then this hotel could truly be a gem worthy of competition with some of the best hotels in the world.

If are looking for something Instagram worthy, this place is pretty tough to beat. There’s a coolness about having cocktails surrounded by the best of what was 1960s design. The feeling of the place is pretty amazing. Add to that being an aviation geek, and while not a pilgrimage to the holiest of landmarks in aviation, the TWA hotel should be a bucket list item for the frequent flier passenger and pilot like.

It may seem like I’m being harsh on the hotel – perhaps I am. But again, keep in mind that as hard as I am on the hotel’s service and operations, the sheer magnificence of the experience, the architecture, and the little details (like red pencils and actual period appropriate Bic pens), will be a delight for those who embrace that time in aviation’s history before we were impressed we got “the whole can” on a flight.

The hotel is one of a kind.

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Review: Mid Century Chic Comes Alive At The Trans World Airlines Hotel | The Aviation AgencyReview: Mid Century Chic Comes Alive At The Trans World Airlines Hotel | The Aviation Agency