The summer travel season is upon us, and with it comes thousands of cranky travelers boarding planes.
If you have the type of luck I seem to have, you inevitably end up in front of someone coughing all over your head, or stuck in the middle seat between two chatty-Kathys, or next to that guy with abnormally long legs.
But this is not how it used to be. There used to be a time when your flight was just as exciting as your trip – it was perhaps even the best part.
While the glamourous Jet Age has long since passed, thankfully the nostalgia now lives on in America’s newest attraction—the TWA Hotel in New York City.
Heels, hose, and hats
It’s the early 1960s.
Frank Sinatra is singing “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” Epic films like Lawrence of Arabia and Spartacus were on the big screen (for less than a buck a show), and people were actually entertained by showtunes in musicals like The Music Man.
Men and women got dressed up for their flight – or really anytime they left the house. Heck, women even put on heels and makeup just to greet their husbands at the door after a long day of work!
People were polite and courteous.
And when you stepped on the plane, you weren’t greeted by “flight attendants”—you were greeted by a beautiful stewardess dressed in a tailored uniform, pantyhose, and heels, and a pillbox hat pinned to her perfectly coiffed hair.
This was the heyday of the now-defunct airlines like PanAm and TWA.
A time when your experience, from beginning to end, was guaranteed to be exceptional.
It’s up to you, New York…
Let’s go back even further to 1930. Public air travel was still new and exciting and it was a very big deal if you ever had the chance to fly in your lifetime.
A company called Transcontinental and Western Air was just getting started, foreseeing the future to a time when air travel would really take off.
Pilot and wealthy businessman Howard Hughes bought the company in 1939 (well before he went a little nuts), and it would then become Trans World Airlines, one of the first commercial carriers that would make history.
As travelers realized how amazing it was to travel without being stuck in the family car for days on end (with no air conditioning and maybe two radio stations – gasp), the Jet Age was born.
Major hubs were being built all over the country up through the 1950s and 60s, and these airports were adding lounges, restaurants, and shops to accommodate travelers’ every need before boarding their flight.
Enter Eero Saarinen, a prominent European architect who knew that the future was in futuristic design.
As TWA grew into a trusted and major airline during the Jet Age, Saarinen was commissioned to design a luxurious flight center for the carrier – and what better place than a major destination like New York?
Then-Idlewild Airport was already becoming a popular hub for travelers, with businessmen, celebrities, and even Presidents taking advantage of its location.
Saarinen’s design included lines and curves that would seamlessly blend, soaring ceilings, and cozy nooks. It is said he designed the exterior to resemble a bird in flight.
Saarinen was also the designer of the famed Gateway Arch in St. Louis, so you can see how he liked to think.
The new TWA Flight Center truly became the epitome of the changing cultural tides in America.
As soon as it was opened in 1962, it became the place to be. And history was made here.
Beloved President John F. Kennedy departed from this airport on November 15th, 1963 – one short week before his tragic assassination.
Just six weeks after his death, Idlewild was renamed in his honor as John F. Kennedy International Airport.
And it was in Saarinen’s “Sunken Lounge” where hundreds would gather to greet The Beatles as they arrived from across the pond in 1965.
Wealthy businessman and prominent citizens would sit alongside excited travelers for a drink before boarding their flight.
The world was becoming smaller as ordinary folks could follow their dreams by taking to the skies.
TWA and the Flight Center had some truly amazing decades up until the 1990s when an unfortunate string of bankruptcies occurred, followed by the tragic explosion of TWA Flight 800 in 1996, and then the event that forever changed air travel all over the world – September 11th, 2001.
That was the year TWA and the luxurious Flight Center at JFK folded for good.
Gone but not forgotten
But now its incredible history is being introduced to a new generation in an amazing way.
While TWA is not likely to return to the skies, the company’s nostalgic history has been brought back to life in the newly-reopened TWA Hotel in the former Flight Center at JFK.
The project was started in 2014—after the Flight Center had lain abandoned for nearly fifteen years—and brought nearly 4,000 jobs to the area between construction and employment within the hotel.
After a lot of planning and a few bucks – $265 million to be exact – we can now step back into the Golden Age of 1962 and experience every luxury we can imagine.
This place is indeed a destination in and of itself — part museum, part nightclub, part hotel, and all parts high-class.
Saarinen’s lounges have been meticulously restored to their 1962 grandeur.
Guests are surrounded by period styles, music, and classic cocktails. The old TWA flight board is on display. There are cozy restaurant booths covered in plush red velvet. The Sunken Lounge with its futuristic round leather stools and curved bars invites you to sit a while and enjoy an Old Fashioned.
There are several restaurants to choose from with dishes served up with retro flair and cultivated by some of the nation’s top chefs.
One restaurant contains vintage cars from the 1960s, another is a converted Lockheed Constellation – the “Connie” – and kids are invited to play with the controls in the restored cockpit.
Rooms have their own martini bars, rotary phones, and original Saarinen-designed furniture.
There are observation lounges where you can watch the planes take off just as they did in 1962, and throughout the hotel you’ll find museum-like displays of uniforms, luggage, and other memorabilia from this glamourous era of flight.
You can even take a ride in one of several 1966 Chrysler Newports which will take you from the hotel to your terminal.
And don’t forget to visit the gift shop for some vintage TWA swag—like luggage, t-shirts, and even vintage toys for the kiddos like the Etch-A-Sketch.
There are over 500 rooms, all painstakingly crafted in mid-century modern décor with a little vintage TWA travel bag of toiletries included for guests. Starting at $250 a night, you can enjoy the experience of a lifetime even if you don’t come here to board a plane.
I can just hear Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Perry Como crooning on the loud-speaker now as I sip a vintage cocktail in my white gloves and pencil skirt.
I may not have the hips for it, but I’m doing it anyway.
Vintage meets modern convenience
If you’re thinking, “Yeah, this all sounds cool, but I like my modern amenities,” have no fear.
Everything in this luxury hotel is designed with the most updated technology and immediate conveniences in mind.
The glass windows in the guest rooms are several inches thick, making it soundproof and ensuring a good night’s sleep. Of course, there’s Wi-Fi, a business center, conference and meeting rooms, a fitness center, and a rooftop infinity pool.
There’s a Constellation Ballroom for weddings and special events, coffee bars that serve soy milk-half-caff lattes with extra foam (if a plain ‘ol cup of Joe isn’t your thing), and stellar concierge service.
And while you can get all those modern-day amenities anywhere, what you won’t get anywhere is the opportunity to experience something we may never see in America again.
A time when life moved more slowly. A time when people talked to each other over a cup of coffee without a cell phone in their hands.
A time when a man escorted a lady on his arm so she wouldn’t stumble in her heels, held the door for her and carried her bag.
When we didn’t have to arrive at the airport hours ahead to check into security, because the world really was a better place back then.
The TWA Hotel offers us a little trip back in time when people would arrive early at the airport not because they had to, but because it made their travel experience a little more magical.
And this place is magical. Maybe even magical enough that spending a few nights here will make guests stop and wonder if perhaps things have not changed for the better.
Tyler Morse of Morse Development, who brought the Flight Center back to life, feels this way.
Right when you walk in, you’re going to feel like you’re in 1962. It was this amazing year, and anything was possible in America. So that’s the ethos and the spirit that we’re capturing as you walk into the building.”
The TWA Hotel has been booked full in the days since its grand opening and people can’t seem to get enough.
Perhaps the most excited of guests are the former TWA employees themselves who get to relive a part of their glory days.
Former “stewardess” Linda Parlock tells Time Magazine, “So many strong memories, family ties to this terminal, that you could cry. We were all so dedicated.”
“At that time, the element of the passengers that would come here — phenomenal. They were well mannered, they were educated, they were just… you don’t see that element today,” says former employee Peter Coyle.
This hotel has so much to do, you won’t even have to go on a grand New York City adventure.
I don’t know about you, but I’m planning to visit this incredible piece of history very soon. It’s not often we get the ability to go back in time.
I’ve always thought I was born in the wrong generation, so if only for a short time, I’ll get to pretend I’m living in all the glamour and style of those Golden Years of aviation.
So pull up your Spotify playlist of those crooners from the 60s, grab your gloves and hat, and head to the TWA Hotel!
However, a word to the millennials—you better Google how to use a rotary phone first.