Eero Saarinen’s Flight Center opened as the main terminal for Trans World American Airlines in 1962

A Local Landmark: TWA Flight Center

Eero Saarinen’s Flight Center opened as the main terminal for Trans World American Airlines in 1962

In 1962, Moon River, a song written by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer but made famous by Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, won both the Oscar and the Grammy. A story of wanderlust and searching, of “two drifters off to see the world/there’s such a lot of world to see,” it seems a poetically appropriate selection for the time. In the same year, the Oscar for best picture went to West Side Story, a tale of two teenagers finding love as they confront ethnic stereotypes and discrimination in a rapidly changing neighborhood. The New York Yankees won the World Series, beating the San Francisco Giants, not long after the transcontinental move that brought them and the Dodgers from New York to the Golden State. Eero Saarinen’s Trans World America Flight Center opened at JFK (then, Idlewild) Airport, unveiling the new age of twentieth-century travel with its visionary, Space Age design.

International relations would forever be changed by the escalating Cold War and the ongoing space race, both felt palpably that year. The Cuban Missile Crisis came to a head. Scientists and engineers at NASA worked to keep stride with their Soviet counterparts; astronaut John Glenn became the first man to orbit the earth. President Kennedy delivered his We Choose to Go to the Moon speech, committing the US to landing a man on the moon within “[the] decade of hope and fear” and highlighting the promise and potential in space exploration. “The growth of our science and education,” he said, “will be enriched by new knowledge of our universe and environment, by new techniques of learning and mapping and observation, by new tools and computers for industry, medicine, the home as well as the school.”

The TWA Flight Center reflects the innovative and pioneering design and architecture that emerged in the mid-twentieth century, influenced in part by the developments and technologies that came out of the race for space. Saarinen’s experimental use of concrete and glass created a futuristic and unique style—a lunar landscape on the ground—while modern amenities like baggage carousels, passenger flight tubes, and an electronic departures board made it state-of-the-art for the golden age of travel. Designated a New York City landmark in 1994, and included on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005, the structure is a lasting example of the new knowledge, techniques, and industry Kennedy promised in his We Choose to Go to the Moon speech.

By 1969, a new wing was added to the Flight Center. Many of the original details and portions of the complex have been replaced, renovated, or demolished in the decades since. Despite this, a recent visit to the terminal’s still-standing head house made it easy to imagine the space as it would have been when it first opened—grand, expansive, mighty, breathtaking, otherworldly. Touring the site, I recalled how I felt when I saw the St. Louis Arch, another of Saarinen’s masterpieces (designed in 1947; completed 1965). Iconic examples of the modernist architecture of the twentieth century, both structures interact with time and space in a way that reveals our human limits—the delicate clouds hovering perfectly within the lines of the skylights and sculpted concrete ceiling at TWA; the face of the moon, perhaps hiding an unknown river or two, shining down on the stainless steel curves of the Arch—yet also illuminates our efforts to understand that time and space, to explore those limits, to create.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey closed the Flight Center in 2001, at which point it and the surrounding area entered a long period of extensive restoration mixed with new development. A product of that development, the 2008 Jet Blue terminal, stands behind Saarinen’s structure; early plans would have had the head house function as an alternate entrance to Jet Blue. In 2015, however, it was announced that the historic space would instead be converted into the lobby of a 500-room hotel. Two new structures will be built between the head house and the main terminal.

As it has been presented, the conversion and development project will “defer to the landmark.” However, none of the preservation organizations participating as consulting parties in the historic review process sanctioned the plans, citing the height of the new buildings, their proximity to the head house, and the degree to which the work will alter critical aspects of Saarinen’s design—including the soaring appearance of the structure, its interaction with light, and the visible sky seen from its interiors. Time will tell whether the project, scheduled to conclude in 2018, succeeds in honoring the original modernist vision of the Flight Center. “If this capsule history of our progress teaches us anything,” said Kennedy in his 1962 speech, “it is that man, in his quest for knowledge and progress, is determined and cannot be deterred."