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Exclusive first look: Inching closer to launch, TWA Hotel unveils room design

Exclusive first look: TWA Hotel unveils room design

NEW YORK — Rotary dial phones. Iconic midcentury modern architecture.  TaB sodas in the mini-bar.

If that sounds like it could be 1962, that’s by design. It’s all part of the DNA of the new TWA Hotel that’s set to open next year at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Anchored around the landmark TWA Flight Center that opened in 1962 as the jet age dawned, the airport property is one of the most-anticipated hotel openings of 2019.

It’s easy to see why.   

The 512-room hotel will feature two new six-story towers that flank the old TWA terminal’s “head house,” an architectural masterpiece designed by Eero Saarinen. The terminal is in the process of being converted into a 200,000-square-foot lobby  the hotel claims will be the world’s largest.

The TWA Hotel will include six restaurants and eight bars. One of those, a cocktail bar, will be housed in a refurbished Lockheed “Constellation” aircraft that was a staple of the TWA fleet in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

“People appreciate differentiation these days,” says Tyler Morse, CEO of the MCR and Morse Development firms that are spearheading the redevelopment of the TWA site. “We’re kind of living in one giant Walgreen’s. It’s a very homogeneous world.”

The TWA Hotel, Morse says, will shake that up.  

Already, enthusiasts — both aviation and architectural — have eagerly awaited each new detail to emerge about the iconic structure’s rebirth as a hotel.

“Our phones are ringing off the hook,” Morse says. “People are wildly excited about this project."

Veteran travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt is not surprised.

“I have not seen a new hotel attract the level of interest from travelers, aviation enthusiasts — even  the hotel industry itself — as the TWA Hotel has,” says Harteveldt, who worked for now-defunct TWA in the 1980s.

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The TWA terminal was last used for flights in 2001 and has been empty since. The building has since been declared a New York City landmark and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2005.

Already, visitors are intrigued by a rooftop pool that will afford views of the airfield — not to mention the Constellation and the hotel-lobby conversion of the TWA Flight Center that's now in progress.

 The TWA Hotel will formally unveil the look and layout of its standard rooms on Tuesday. USA TODAY got a sneak peek ahead of the official public unveiling.

“We’re bringing back the magic of 1962,” Morse says, describing the property as an “experiential hotel.”

“Everything we’re doing is unique and bespoke,” Morse adds during a preview of the rooms at a JFK hangar where MCR has put together a “top-secret” full-scale mock-up of what will be a standard room at the hotel.

The standard rooms are on the small side, averaging 325 square feet. Forty-four of the hotel’s rooms will be larger suites, with the biggest topping out at around 1,200 square feet. All will include aesthetics that are sure to appeal to aviation and design buffs.

They're fronted with floor-to-ceiling windows; most afford guests views of either flight activity on the airfield or a panorama of the TWA Flight Center itself.

"You can walk right up to the window and watch the planes take off and land," Morse says of the airfield-facing rooms. 

Even the hotel beds are positioned so that guest will fall asleep with a view out the window. 

“When you wake up, you see the airfield," Morse says, tipping his hat to aviation enthusiasts. "If you’re an 'avgeek,' this is pretty cool."

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Morse also predicts the TWA Hotel will be one of the world's quietest, thanks to a seven-pane curtain wall he says is among the thickest in the world. 

"We're at an airport. People expect it to be noisy, so we overcompensated," he says. 

The decor of the rooms, handled by architecture and interior design firm Stonehill Taylor, could be mistaken as a museum exhibit highlighting midcentury Americana, though there’ll be a separate aviation- and architecture-themed museum for that on site.

Guests will be able to make calls on vintage 1950s-era Western Electric 500 rotary-dial phones, with no charges for either local or long-distance numbers. 

“We’re buying them on eBay,” Morse says, noting there aren’t many other places to track down working rotary phones these days. “They replace the guts of the phone,” swapping out the old analog technology for a modern connection.

No word yet on whether there'll be instructions for guests too young to have ever encountered such a phone. 

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Some of the phones rotary phones destined for guestrooms were visible in warehouse next to the hotel’s room mock-up at the JFK airport hangar.

Other items in the warehouse included everything from art to glassware to robes and slippers. All were tested for both usability and their fit into the rooms’ overall aesthetic.  

Among the items in the testing warehouse: dozens of pencils, which Morse suggests are more complicated to choose than one might think.

“What size font” for the TWA Hotel branding? “Do you dye the eraser TWA red” or leave it uncolored? And what about the metal bracket holding the eraser? “We chose silver shiny,” Morse says, holding up an example.

Airport as a destination?

Airport hotels are rarely regarded as destinations in themselves, left to the province of stranded travelers or those overnighting ahead of a 6 a.m. flight.

But Morse thinks the TWA Hotel — about 15 miles from Manhattan — can pull it off.

Though a number of other hotels line JFK’s periphery, the TWA Hotel will be the only one on the airport’s actual grounds. But Morse believes the lure of the property will go beyond.

“Thirty percent of our business will be events, celebrations and corporate meetings,” he says, adding that the hotel anticipates hosting 100 weddings and 50 bar mitzvahs each year.  

Harteveldt thinks the TWA Hotel might actually be able to extend its reach beyond that of a typical airport hotel, but "a lot will depend on their execution."

"There will be a lot of people interested in trying it," he adds. "The question is, ‘will they be successful enough to get repeat business?’ They have to treat it as a destination hotel ... as a true first-class, four-star or better hotel." 

Morse also struck that theme during the room preview.

"We don’t want to open so wildly hot and then die," he said, noting the importance of offering a solid product over the long haul. "I don’t like cool hotels, because — by definition — cool is ephemeral. What is cool today is not cool tomorrow. What we want to do is a good product and a terrific experience."

“We don’t want to be a flash in the pan,” Morse adds.

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Credit: Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY
The TWA Hotel's rooms will feature floor-to-ceiling windows and views of either the airfield or the TWA Flight Center building.

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