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TWA Hotel is a time machine to the glamorous world of vintage travel

The lovingly restored TWA terminal at JFK Airport offers patrons an ultimate escape to 1962.

The lobby of the Eero Saarinen-designed TWA Hotel at JFK in New York.
The lobby of the Eero Saarinen-designed TWA Hotel at JFK in New York.Christopher Muther/Globe Staff

NEW YORK — The future whirled into 1962 with an entrance to rival that of Kitty Carlisle in an ostrich feather gown. John Glenn orbited the earth and President Kennedy asked Congress for $531 million to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade. The Jetsons buzzed into Sunday nights and a song named after a communications satellite topped the pop charts.

That promise of the future, a future gleaming with dishwashing robots and cities rising on the moon, manifested itself on earth in the most spectacular way with a neofuturistic airport terminal at JFK (then Idlewild Airport) for Trans World Airlines. The TWA Flight Center was a white, winged structure that appeared to have landed in Queens from a yet-undiscovered solar system. Its architect, Eero Saarinen, who also designed the St. Louis Gateway Arch, had pulled the buoyant spirit of the moment and translated it into an earthbound structure for the Jet Age.

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And this is where our story begins.

As 2019 came to a “good riddance” end, Saarinen’s futuristic TWA Flight Center, which was reborn last year as the TWA Hotel, offered an entirely different mood. Inside the hotel it was New Year’s Eve 1962. The Four Seasons — or at least the cast of “Jersey Boys” — were singing “Big Girls Don’t Cry” on the flaming red carpet of the sunken lounge. Revelers in suits and satin dresses did the watusi with sweating glasses of bubbly in their hands on the cantilevered catwalk overhead. It was the ultimate escape from the world outside the hotel, where travelers in nearby terminals were shouldering the weight of the world, and the weight of their suitcases.

But here, in Saarinen’s airport masterpiece, all of that seemed decades away. I was spending New Year’s Eve at a special 1962-themed New Year’s Eve party, dancing in a tuxedo near a woman who was a dead ringer for Christina Hendricks in “Mad Men.” Many of the partygoers had taken the theme to heart and their wardrobe captured the glamour of the era.

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“Hey guys!” called a woman dressed as a 1960s air hostess. “They’re looking for people to play Twister.”

And off we went to an entire room that was covered in colored circles with a giant spinning arrow on the wall.

“Left hand green,” she called, and while the faux Four Seasons sang “Sherry” in the sunken lounge, we assumed the position.

The action inside the TWA Hotel isn’t always so rambunctiously retro, but even without a party, the hotel should inspire joy in lovers of midcentury architecture (or at least Stanley Kubrick fans). When I arrived at the hotel I wandered slack-jawed and in awe. I wasn’t around for the golden age of travel, but while I was staying at the hotel, I had a healthy taste of it. I took out my camera and began taking dozens of photos of the way the sun beamed through broad windows and onto the penny tile floor that had been painstakingly restored. As I snapped, “Promises Promises” from Dionne Warwick gently echoed throughout the lobby.

Employees at the TWA Hotel dressed in vintage flight attendant uniforms welcome guests to the hotel at JFK Airport.
Employees at the TWA Hotel dressed in vintage flight attendant uniforms welcome guests to the hotel at JFK Airport.Christopher Muther/Globe staff

The TWA Hotel is the ultimate comeback story of an outdated terminal that was about to be encircled and obscured by new buildings before it was nominated to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of the 11 Most Endangered Places in America. By 2005 the TWA Flight Center was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Now, it is flanked by two buildings, accessible by the original red-carpeted tubes, that contain a total of 512 hotel rooms.

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One of the dramatic hallways, designed by Eero Saarinen, at the TWA Hotel at JFK Airport.
One of the dramatic hallways, designed by Eero Saarinen, at the TWA Hotel at JFK Airport.Christopher Muther (custom credit)/Globe Staff

Although the guest rooms are new, they’re designed to invoke that same 1962 vibe. The walls are paneled in walnut, and the metal details are brushed brass. David Klein’s illustrated TWA travel posters from the 1950s and 1960s hang over the beds. My room, which was overlooking the terminal, was lacking a closet, but otherwise successfully continued the illusion of the 1960s. I didn’t hear a single plane thanks to windows that are 4½ inches thick. You pay more for a view, but overall the rates are affordable, with most rooms starting under $200. As per Globe policy, the hotel did not know a travel writer was on site and the paper did not receive a discount or freebies.

The hotel takes full advantage of TWA branding from the 1960s. The Howard Hughes-owned airline was the fashionable star of Jet Age travel, which is evident in a hotel display of flight attendant uniforms from designers such as Howard Greer, Oleg Cassini, and Valentino. A quiet reading room filled with Eames furniture offers a less flashy option for those looking to unwind.

The sunken lounge at the TWA Hotel at JFK Airport in New York.
The sunken lounge at the TWA Hotel at JFK Airport in New York.David Mitchell

There is a heated swimming pool on the roof of the hotel where guests can splash while watching planes land. During the winter a skating rink is set up outside near one of the hotel’s most intriguing, and wonderfully gimmicky features: “Connie,” a 1958 TWA Lockheed Constellation Starliner that was converted into a 1960s-era cocktail lounge.

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The rooftop pool at the TWA Hotel at JFK.
The rooftop pool at the TWA Hotel at JFK.Three Marks

Climb the stairs and board the plane, and then sit and swirl your drink. On the day I lingered inside the bar, a woman who was a dead ringer for Mrs. Maisel sat in one of the wide, spacious original seats with a hatbox by her side. The only difficulty with putting a very fun bar inside a very small plane is that it can be difficult to grab a prime seat without making a reservation first.

An example of Eero Saarinen's breathtaking architecture in the TWA Hotel in New York.
An example of Eero Saarinen's breathtaking architecture in the TWA Hotel in New York.Christopher Muther/Globe staff

Not everything at the TWA Hotel was straight out of 1962. The gym is one of the largest I’d seen in a hotel and featured an entire studio of Peloton bikes. I was hoping for at least a couple of vintage vibrating belt exercise machines, but no such luck. Authentic can only go so far.

Despite the lack of vibrating belt exercise machines, this hotel gave me nothing but feelings of pure joy, and when was the last time you could say that about an airport hotel? From the 1964 Life magazine on the coffee table in my room to the 1950s BMW Isetta parked in the lobby, the careful restoration and thoughtful details of this hotel are perhaps the closest many of us will ever get to the time when flight attendants were called air hostesses and passengers donned wool and chiffon finery for leisurely flights.

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Christopher Muther can be reached at christopher.muther@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.