When he was a boy, Tyler Morse would sometimes get to go along with his father, an oil executive at Atlantic Richfield, on business trips. When the pair flew Trans-World Airlines into John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, they would meander through TWA’s cavernous Flight Center, a soaring, exultant expanse of sculpted concrete that architect Eero Saarinen had built in 1962 as a paean to the jet age. On the upper level of the terminal, perched high above the crush of passengers and acres of red carpeting, father and son would stop into the cocktail lounge.
“It was a full smoking section,” Morse said. “Everybody’s puffing away.” And there, easing into the leather seats, the men would commence to drink—well, the elder Morse would, at least.
Understandably, Morse gets a little dreamy when he tells this story, because it doesn’t only summon a memory of his father, but of that undulating, futuristic terminal at JFK. “I’ve known about the building for a very long time,” Morse said.
Indeed he has, which means today has been a very long time coming for Morse, the CEO of hotel operator MCR, a company he founded in 2006. After 43 months of planning and construction, MCR will finally cut the ribbon on the TWA Hotel, a high-flying renovation project that has turned the airline terminal where he sipped a Shirley Temple in the early 1980s into a 505-room luxury hotel. It is an ambitious project that has cost Morse’s company a reported $265 million to build. And if Morse is nervous about opening day, he’s not showing it.
“We think we’ve built a great product,” he said, “and a fun place to be.”
The white elephant
Even as adaptive-reuse projects go, this one is in a class by itself. Not only is the old TWA Flight Center an internationally famous edifice and a breathtaking architectural space, it’s possibly the biggest white elephant in New York real estate. In the 18 years since the last TWA flight lifted off from JFK, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey—which owns the airport and the old TWA facility—has been searching for a company willing to take the place over.
That that search had been fruitless is not especially surprising. Though the building is much loved by architecture enthusiasts, its landmark status prohibits most alterations to it. Even before getting started on a project, a developer would have to remove the old terminal’s lead paint and asbestos and then replace all of its original windows with tempered glass. A possible 2013 deal with celebrity hotelier André Balazs, whose properties include L.A.’s storied Chateau Marmont, raised hopes, then collapsed. “Nobody” Morse said, “could figure out how to make the economics work.”
Morse long believed he could make them work, but, until recently, his firm wasn’t in a position make a play for the project. But when the Port Authority put out another request for proposals four years ago, MCR, today the sixth-largest hotel operator in America with $2 billion in assets under management, was finally well capitalized enough to try. And after wading into New York’s legendary red tape—Morse had to contend with 22 different city agencies—MCR emerged with a deal.
By constructing two new freestanding wings, Morse and his company have transformed the property into a hotel and convention space that uses the historic terminal as a lobby (at 200,000 square feet, reportedly the world’s largest hotel lobby). MCR is shouldering most of the cost, but the Port Authority sweetened the pot by agreeing to build a parking garage and kicking in $20 million to help restore the terminal. Meanwhile, JetBlue, which built its massive Terminal 5 just behind the historic property in 2012, stepped in as a 5% stakeholder.
Now that the TWA Hotel’s paint is dry and its doors are open, MCR has a 75-year lease on an internationally renowned property, arguably the most unusual hotel on the East Coast, and plenty of onlookers waiting to see how it all works out.
Turning passengers into guests
The hospitality business has always been risky, but Morse’s project has one huge thing going for it: the airport itself. JFK has no other hotel on the property, giving the TWA Hotel an effective monopoly on travelers looking for a convenient and attractive place to stay.