A Night at the TWA Hotel

January 24, 2021

THANKS TO SOME terrific rates offered to airline workers in these times of low occupancy, I’ve been staying regularly at the TWA Hotel at New York’s Kennedy Airport. It’s become my go-to layover when I’ve got an early-morning sign-in or a night to kill between trips.

The 512-room property, set between terminals 4 and 5, incorporates the famous “Flight Center” — Eero Saarinen’s swooping, soaring, masterpiece TWA terminal completed in 1962. The most architecturally significant airport terminal ever built, the Flight Center was also the first one designed expressly for jet airliners. After the takeover of TWA by American Airlines in 2001, its fate was bounced around between preservationists and Port Authority bureaucrats, its survival in doubt until it was saved from the wrecking ball thanks mainly to the efforts of New York City’s Municipal Arts Society. The initial plan was for the terminal to serve as a lobby and ticketing plaza for JetBlue, whose Terminal 5 sits directly behind it. This fell through, however, and the terminal sat in a state of semi-dereliction until the hotel plan came together.


When it opened in 2017, the travel blogs went giddy, binging on terms like “retro,” and “throwback,” with the obligatory references to “Mad Men” and so forth. This made me nervous. Aware that such endeavors have a tendency to go aesthetically awry, I was worried the renovators had spoiled the place.

I’m happy to report this is not the case. They understood what made the terminal special, and have kept it that way. The building’s beauty rests in its continuity. “All one thing,” is how Saarinen, a Finn whose other projects included the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and the terminal at Washington-Dulles, once said of it. It’s a fluid, unified sculpture of a space, at once futuristic and organic; a carved-out atrium reminiscent of the caves of Turkish Cappadocia, overhung by three cantilevered ceilings that rise from a central spine like huge wings. And, bless their hearts, they’ve left it alone. It speaks for itself, free of any architectural gimmickry.

The hotel is not exactly “inside” the terminal, as some have stated. The Flight Center is too small a structure for that. It’s merely the check-in lobby and central atrium. Which, essentially, is what it’s always been. Now, however, the two long pedestrian tunnels, through which passengers once walked to the boarding gates, connect instead to a pair of multi-story hotel blocks. Along the lobby’s left side, at the long counter where in 1962 you would have received your boarding pass for Rome or Paris or Athens, guests pick up their keys and head to rooms in either the “Saarinen” or “Hughes” wing — the latter in honor of Howard Hughes, who controlled TWA from 1939 until the 1960s. Along the right side is a 24-hour bistro for pizza and panini, and, on the floor above, a very expensive sit-down place called the Paris Cafe. On the rooftop level of the Hughes wing is an all-season infinity pool overlooking the runways — it’s small, but the view makes up for it. In the warmer months, a bar with open-air tables serves drinks and sandwiches.

Out back, photographed and Instagrammed no fewer than eighty billion times, is a brilliantly restored Lockheed Constellation, wings and all, with an onboard cocktail bar. Few people would notice or care, but in fact this is a touch anachronistic: the Connie was a propeller-driven plane and mostly obsolete by the early 60s. A 707 would have been better. But we shouldn’t quibble. It’s a beautiful installation and it does the job it’s supposed to, taking us back to another age and time — even if not quite the correct one.

Mixed in with all of this are several displays featuring 60s-era ephemera, period photographs, vintage TWA uniforms and so forth. Indeed the entire place has the feel of a museum, which I suppose it is.

On the negative side, the front desk is understaffed, with check-in times often hitting twenty minutes or more. The tilework is grubby and could use a power wash, and, for some confounding reason there’s no luggage ramp between the upper and lower levels of the lobby. The levels are staggered only slightly, but guests have no choice but to carry their bags up and down the stairs.

The rooms themselves have the same time capsule vibe, outfitted with Saarinen-designed furniture and other period touches. Things wobble just a bit along the fine line between nostalgia and kitsch — the martini glasses and the Western Electric rotary phones — but the feel overall is elegant and smart. The travel posters are wonderful, and I love the cordless phone chargers (every hotel needs these).

What’s sorely lacking, however, is some counter and closet space. The standard rooms have barely enough space for a roll-aboard bag, and no closet whatsoever. The four-point peg-and-hanger contraption in the alcove is useless; I was forced to hang my coat and shirt over the floor lamp. There’s plenty of open wall that could be outfitted with additional hangers or storage nooks, making the lack of them all the more frustrating.

The bathrooms, on the other hand, are oddly enormous, with wide vanities and walk-in showers that could fit an entire 747 crew. Why they opted for oversized bathrooms while skimping on the rest I’ll never understand. Above the mini-fridge is an equally wasteful serving ensemble with two each of martini and champagne glasses, the point of which, other than to use up precious square footage, escapes me. Here, the hotel becomes a little too full of itself, sacrificing practicality in order to make some pretentious aesthetic statement.

There’s also a peculiar “no wake-up calls” policy. People have flights to catch, do they not? And if you’re like me, a backup to your mobile phone alarm is important.

All criticism aside, there’s that phrase: I love what they’ve done with the place.

In 1996, Saarinen’s building was still a functioning airline terminal. As a young pilot for TWA Express, I was one of the employees who worked there. Into its fourth decade and home to a financially struggling carrier, it was neglected and forlorn. I remember sitting in the space now occupied by the Paris Cafe, eating shitty cafeteria food while clutches of sparrows swooped from the yellowed overhangs to snatch up crumbs. The red-carpeted tunnel that now leads to the Hughes wing once took me to the TWA Express operations room, where five-gallon buckets were spaced along the floor to collect rainwater that dripped from holes in the ceiling.

To see it today is heartening. It almost feels miraculous. Watching people mill around the lobby — businesspeople, a family of four, a Singapore Airlines crew taking selfies — I wonder how many of them have an idea what this place even is, or was. I imagine to most folks, not being airport buffs or historians, it’s just a cool hotel with a funky old lobby.

For it have become a trendy hotel — rather than a museum, or even a working terminal again — is maybe not the ideal outcome, but it’s a welcome alternative to demolition — as befell two other iconic JFK structures: I.M. Pei’s National Airlines “Sundrome,” which was cleared away so that jetBlue could expand its hideous Terminal 5, and the former Pan Am “Worldport,” a.k.a Terminal 3, torn down in 2013. The Flight Center narrowly escaped a similar fate. Fortunately it lives on, a place both old and new, restored with commitment and care.

Not every iconic airport building deserves to stay standing forever — Terminal 3 for example, was beyond rehabilitation and overdue for the wrecking ball. What I wish, though, if we’re not preserving these structures, is that we put a little more imagination and vision into the ones that take their place.

In this regard, JFK sets a best and worst example. It kept Saarninen standing, but has otherwise has lost most of its character through a long series of tear-downs and replacements. Worst of the new terminals is without a doubt JetBlue’s aforementioned, wildly overrated Terminal 5. Let’s dip into my book for a description

“‘T5’ as the carrier likes to call it — is a $743 million, 72-acre structure that opened in 2008 to considerable promotion and fanfare. Inside, the fast-food outlets and shops conspire to make yet another airport look and feel like yet another mall. But it’s T5’s exterior that’s the real tragedy. Although the street-side facade is at worst cheerless, the tarmac-side is truly abominable — a wide, low-slung, industrial-brutalist expanse of concrete. Once again it looks like a shopping mall. To be more specific, it looks like the back of a shopping mall. All that’s missing are some pallets and dumpsters. The facility’s only visual statement is one of not caring, a presentation of architectural nothingness, absolutely empty of inspiration — precisely what an airport terminal should not be. Is this the best we can do?”

T5 sits directly between Saarinen and the spot where Pei’s Sundrome stood. There’s something troublingly ironic about that.

ALL PHOTOS BY THE AUTHOR.

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Letter From Ghana


Welcome to Room 420: Rubber Floors, Mysterious Odors and Inexplicable Artwork. Plus: Mojito Madness and the World’s Worst Billboard.

ACCRA, GHANA

THE FLOOR IN ROOM 420 is made of rubber — or something that looks like rubber. It’s a pebbly, industrial-style flooring. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were made from recycled tractor tires. That would be a good thing, and either way I like it. I admire its toughness, and it lends a handsome touch to the rest of the — what to call it? — African-modernist decor of sun-faded pastels and white pine. But tread barefoot at your peril: in the shower your feet will leave inky black stains around the drain.

Outside my window, a crippled man is propelling himself down the sidewalk in a hand-cranked wheelchair with a seat made of plywood. He is wearing an oily pair of jeans, and his legs — whatever might be wrong with them exactly, or if they’re there at all — look like deflated canvas tubes. Nearby, on the wall of a construction site, in angry spray-painted letters it says, DO NOT PISS HERE!

My room stinks of cigar smoke and cologne.

Now, at least as I understand it, the accepted literary style of describing smells is to always use some fantastical or over-the-top comparison and maybe a little metaphor. “His room stank of coalsmoke and defeat.” I’m not creative enough for that, and besides it doesn’t always describe the smell accurately. I assure you this room smells precisely like cigar smoke and cologne, and I am confident that both of those things were here, in abundance, shortly before my arrival yesterday afternoon. I picture an overweight German businessman in a towel dousing himself in some awful fragrance; a recalcitrant Nigerian hooker napping in this very bed. “Kommen ve must go now. It is check-out time!”

The smell hit me the second I walked in. I thought about changing rooms but I was too tired to go dragging my stuff back to the elevator.

Plus, this is room 420. I have had this room before, and Eau de Montecristo aside, it is my favorite for an excellent reason: because it is home to the most ridiculous piece of artwork ever to grace a hotel room. Hotel artwork is a pretty competitive field — in all the wrong categories — and if you travel a lot, doubtless you’ve marveled at the many tacky, trite, or simply hideous pieces tacked to the walls by clueless hoteliers. But the winner for oddest-ever in-room picture hangs proudly above the non-useful miniature sofa in room 420 of the Novotel City Centre here in Accra. I could try describing it, but here’s your proverbial Thousand Words instead:

Worst Hotel Artwork

I can’t make out who the artist was (initials DDR?), but this was a limited edition print, number 30 of 150, and it dates from 1997, embossed with an important-looking stamp decreeing its membership in the esteemed “Novotel Collection.” I call it, “Air and Sea,” or, “O Captain My Captain” (artist unknown; ink and whatnot on paper). Perhaps in a youth hostel or backpacker joint it wouldn’t seem so jarring, but the fact this is West Africa makes it even more of an insane non-sequitur than it would be anywhere else.

I thought about taking it with me — the theft of fine arts is a booming business, you know. And here in Somerville, Massachusetts, we have the should-be-famous Museum of Bad Art. MOBAs renowned curators could do worse, maybe, than ringing up Novotel and making an offer for DDR’s masterpiece. Alas the piece is surprisingly well-secured in its frame.

Or am I being unfair? It’s a fun picture, certainly, and far preferable to some schlocky painting of an African village or an acrylic stick figure of a woman grinding grain.

Meanwhile, for guests who don’t mind lingering odors, who aren’t serious art collectors, or who don’t enjoy bouncing around on rubber floors, the Novotel still has plenty to offer. It’s clean, in a convenient location, and the staff, like everybody in Ghana, is disarmingly friendly. The poolside pizzas are the best in West Africa and the Sangaw bar, just off the lobby, is a relaxed and cozy spot to enjoy a cold bottle of Star.

It’s also a great hotel to have your laundry done — a badly needed service after a long flight and the sweaty van ride from Kotoka airport. They are prompt and do an excellent job. It’s not too expensive, and everything comes back brightly washed and meticulously folded in accordance with some unfathomable mathematical folding principle. Even the socks come back folded, looking like little origami socks.

Not everybody at the washing station is paying attention though. I’m one of those eco-weirdos who takes those sad little “help us conserve water” placards seriously; I re-use the towels and I don’t let the housecleaners change the pillow cases. And on the laundry slip, I write, in big underlined letters, NO PLASTIC! Chipping in, doing my part. No matter, here’s how my clothes come back to me…

Laundry

There’s some cultural disconnect going on here, possibly — the idea that a Western guest wouldn’t want his impossibly folded boxer-briefs and socks presented in cellophane splendor simply impossible to entertain. Or maybe they think this is funny?

Which brings us down to the aforementioned Sangaw Bar. What to make of this special cocktail promotion, advertised tabletop in clear plastic easels…

Apparently for some West Africans, your idea of “Latino” is a crazy old woman smoking a gigantic cigar.

I much enjoy traveling to Ghana, and Ghanaians are some of my favorite people in the world. Always smiling, always saying hello, always eager to sell you a handmade goatskin drum or some shea butter without ripping you off. This is an amiable and proud place — if not always for reasons everyone is eager to hear about. Once, a couple of years ago, I was getting out of a taxi across from the Novotel, and as I stepped to the curb I was confronted with the following, staring at me from a newspaper kiosk…

So we know there are people who keep track of these things. And naturally some of us wonder: who finished first and second?

Accra is also home to the world’s worst billboard. It’s just outside the airport, informing arriving passengers of the country’s desperate dearth of copywriters. KILL INSECTS! ENJOY NICE SMELL. Is that the smell of dead insects? At any rate, it looks like they applied a little too much: “Hey girls, come and help daddy spread some of this toxic insecticide around the house. Douse it good now, and breathe it in! Smell that wonderful smell. Breathe in deep! What’s that? Yes, daddy also has a headache and knife-like stomach pains. But just keep breathing and spraying. Wait, oh shit, I just killed my entire family…

Kill Insects

I digress.

Every hotel has it quirks. Inexplicable artwork, rubber floors and bizarre cocktails, there are a lot of things to dislike about hotel rooms, even the fanciest and most expensive ones: temperamental air conditioning, toe-breaking doorjambs, ergonomically hellish “work spaces.”

And here’s another one: cardboard brochures. Nowadays, each and every hotel amenity, from room service to Wi-Fi, is hawked through one or more annoying advertisements displayed throughout the room. Cards, signs, menus, and assorted promotional materials—they’re everywhere: on the dresser, in the closet, on the pillows, in the bathroom. I wouldn’t mind if this laminated litter was placed unobtrusively, but it tends to be exactly in the way, and I resent having to spend five minutes after an exhausting red-eye, gathering up these diabolical doo-dads and heaving them into a corner where they belong. One’s first moments in a hotel room ought to feel welcoming, not confrontational.

Food and room service are another topic entirely. Speaking of West Africa, be careful never to dine too hungry at the Pullman Hotel in Dakar, Senegal, where the surly poolside waitress might, eventually, bring you the pizza you ordered ninety minutes ago, and where the in-room menu offers such delectables as:

Chief Salad
Roasted Beef Joint on Crusty Polenta
The Cash of The Day
Paving Stone of Thiof and Aromatic Virgin Sauce

That last one sounds like a chapter from a fantasy novel. Head instead to Le Layal, a great little Lebanese place up the street where, once you get past the “Testicles with Garlic” and the “Homos with Chopped Meat”, the menu is both coherent and tasty.

So the phones are open. If you’ve got comparable examples of hotel weirdness, feel free to share them in the comments section below.

 

UPDATE: November 15, 2014

Well, subsequent stays at the Novotel City Centre in Accra reveal that the “Novotel Collection” is more bountiful than we thought. We now have three contenders for the for strangest (worst?) hotel artwork of all time. Move over “O Captain,” you’ve got company. Down one floor, in room 302 we behold this remarkable creation. For now untitled, it appears to depict a severed robot head in the throes of a mind-meld with a giant strawberry…

NovotelArt2

And not to be outdone, also on the third floor, yet another demented masterpiece awaits us, perhaps the most impressive of the lot…

Novotel Art 3

We notice a consistency here — an opposing-panels “faces” theme — though somehow this unifying principle doesn’t make the pictures less ridiculous. How to choose a favorite?

 

Anyway here’s an idea. Maybe you should visit Ghana. If you’re considering a first-time trip to West Africa, I can’t recommend it more highly. It’s friendly, safe, affordable, and there’s tons to do.

HIGHLIGHTS IN TEN DAYS…

Day 1: Arrival. Check in to your non-smoky room at the Novotel and enjoy the afternoon at leisure. Walk down to the Arts Center to try out your haggling skills, and maybe come away with one of those not-too-overpriced drums. Later have dinner at Tandoor, Africa’s best (and spiciest) Indian restaurant.

Day 2: Accra. Visit the Osu coffin makers, and finish the afternoon with a sundowner at Osekan, a seaside bar/restaurant not far from the hotel. Ghanaian food tonight at Buka, or at Asanka Local if you’re adventurous. If you’ve never had Ghanaian food, start easy and order the red-red, or the Jollof rice with chicken.

Day 3: Get an early start and head west to Elmina Castle, the famous slave castle about two-and-a-half hours west of Accra. (Skip Cape Coast Castle and head directly to Elmina, about 20 minutes further.) After a tour be sure to wander around the harborfront area. Get right down in there, onto the sand in into the little alleyways between the houses. After lunch continue west to the small town of Axim, near the border with Ivory Coast.

Visit Ghana

Days 4 and 5: Spend two nights at the Axim Beach Hotel, a rustic seaside place on a beautiful beach. Take some time to wander Axim town, with its ramshackle main street and nearby slave castle.

Day 6: Depart Axim early and head east to Cape Coast, stopping at Nzulezo floating village on the way. Once in Cape Coast grab a bus or tro-tro up to the frenetic city of Kumasi, about a five-hour drive away. Stay at the Four Villages Inn.

Days 7-8. From your base in Kumasi, take a tro-tro out each morning and visit the nearby Ashanti towns. Buy some Kente cloth and don’t forget your schnapps (this will make sense to you later).

Day 9. Fly back to Accra — no bus or tro-tro; you’ve had your fill of that — and spend your final night in room 420. Have a pizza and a crazy lady mojito.

 

CLICK HERE TO VIEW THE AUTHOR’S PHOTO GALLERY FROM GHANA

 

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Recycling

 

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