Jet-Set Design Takes Flight at TWA Hotel

Jet-Set Design Takes Flight at TWA Hotel

By Carleton Varney- Special to the Palm Beach Daily News

When it’s time for up, up, and away — and you’re departing from or arriving at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport — you might consider a stop at the TWA Hotel, where I recently enjoyed an overnight stay between connecting flights.

Just across the road from the main section of JFK, the hotel connects to Terminal 5, the JetBlue terminal. I found the hotel well worth the price of $170 a night.

It’s a design-landmark destination, thanks to the original, magical 1962 architecture by Eero Saarinen and, of course, the late Howard Hughes, whose eccentricities and aviation accomplishments are legendary. Hughes owned Trans World Airlines, which operated from 1930 to 2001.

The main TWA terminal building — designed to recall a bird’s wings — has been transformed into the hotel’s lobby. The airline check-in counters are still in use — but for guest rooms, not tickets to Istanbul, Copenhagen or whatever your destination might have been on the TWA schedule.

You can relax comfortably in the lobby’s Sunken Lounge sitting room on Saarinen-designed red leather chairs with white tables and enjoy the view of the runway. A vintage TWA Constellation aircraft — known as Connie — is sitting outside the window as well, reminding all the visitors of aviation in days past.

I am so happy that the TWA building was preserved and adapted in such a first-class way. The airline brand’s red-and-white color scheme is used liberally in the design of the hotel. The hallways of the two hotel wings — the Saarinen Wing and the Hughes Wing — are carpeted in a bright red-red. Hooray, I say. I’m thrilled there’s no mousey-gray or dusty-beige carpeting.

Making the hotel even more delightful is its rooftop sundeck café and swimming pool. Now get this: You can swim to your heart’s content and watch the planes take off and land. As I am a Boston Red Sox fan, I was happy to see the Jet Blue Red Sox plane land and pull into its gate. Naturally, the Red Sox logo is painted on the plane’s tail. That was a cherry on top of a wonderful visit.

The decorator in me loved touring the terminal-turned-hotel. Photographs of the late movie stars Marilyn Monroe, Debbie Reynolds and Elizabeth Taylor boarding the TWA planes brought me back to the days when airline travel was a glamorous luxury. I also enjoyed seeing many of the TWA travel posters displayed up and down the hallways and the display of vintage TWA “hostess” uniforms and luggage.

Because of coronavirus-related restrictions, the Paris Café by Jean-Georges Vongerichten was closed. But my associate Brinsley Matthews and I did tour the restaurant, which is furnished throughout in Saarinen designs. Each section of the restaurant had a handsome color scheme — from gold to gray to salmon — and all were professionally decorated to my liking. I look forward to the day when the restaurant is open so that my friends and I can enjoy the cuisine. For the moment, outside dining on the pool deck hit the spot.

I cannot end without complimenting the room-design team. Bedrooms, while small, are refreshingly decorated in white with jolts of red for wastebasket interiors, soap dishes and lamp bases. As the hotel accommodates many one-night stays, there is an appropriate spot for hanging coats. And my room had a remarkably large shower, all white with those signature touches of TWA red.

P.S. When you visit, you might want to have someone take your photograph sitting at Howard Hughes’ desk, as I did. And did you know TWA bought the Convair planes that had interiors decorated by my mentor, Dorothy Draper?


  • Joy Lewis on

    Oh, Carleton! How delightful. Nancy has shared your blog with me and I am happy to know what became of the great Saarinen/Draper/Hughes/Varney/Matthews playground. Particularly, because when I first met Bob (introduced, as you may remember, by Reeser) he had been excited to tell me about having designed the wicker banquettes (woven in Puerto Rico) in the Ambassador’s Club at the TWA terminal ..and we actually, rode out to see them. His first job after graduation from R.I.S.D. was in Saarinen’s office in New Haven and fortunately (for me) he had just left that job and moved to Boston. But back to the moment, your blog was brilliant and it made me happy to see that you are still flourishing. Cheers!

  • Joe Passero on

    Love the story Carlton. Thanks so much.

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