WEST MILFORD, N.J. (AP) - When the new TWA Hotel opens on May 15 at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport with a Lockheed Constellation serving as the hotel bar, the reaction at one small New Jersey airport will be no more than: meh.
It’s a matter of been there, done that, for New Jersey’s Greenwood Lake Airport.
The small state-owned airport in West Milford has had a Constellation on its tarmac since 1977. Later bolted to the terminal, the former Air France flyer opened as a cocktail lounge for a new fine dining restaurant in 1981.
“It was short-lived,” said Tim Wagner, the airport manager.
The timing of the project doomed the high-end hospitality concept, said local aviation historian Shea Oakley. The Constellation arrived in 1977. The budding bedroom community’s most popular attraction and the airport’s neighbor, the Warner Bros. theme park Jungle Habitat, closed that October.
“It was all set up for this great attraction that died the same year they flew the airplane in,” Oakley said. “It probably would have been successful had Jungle Habitat continued.”
The restaurant and lounge were outflanked in a matter of months by the airport’s cafe, which proved to be more popular to the local crowd, Wagner said. The plane has since served as everything from storage to a flight school. It is now a museum, with a fully restored cockpit and displays highlighting the plane’s history.
Similar cocktail lounge concepts in Penndel, Pennsylvania, and Toronto failed to last past the early 2000s, yet Oakley and Wagner predict the TWA Hotel’s attempt will be more than a fading novelty. The lounge’s integration into a boutique hotel in an architectural landmark and one of the world’s busiest airports will surely help, they said, as will the draw of the plane itself.
“It’s definitely intriguing to take a look at something that was so advanced back in the day,” Wagner said.
The Lockheed Constellation’s triple-finned tail, dolphin-shaped fuselage and four B-29 bomber engines helped the plane become the fastest way to fly.
Affectionately known as “Connies,” the planes were first commissioned by TWA for passenger flights in 1939. They did not see commercial use until 1945, however, with World War II rerouting the propeller-driven planes for military purposes.
The TWA Hotel’s Connie is one of the final civilian variants of the plane, called the L-1649 Starliner. Greenwood Lake Airport’s is among the first.
Coded as an L-049, the plane that today has birds nesting in its landing gear took its first trans-Atlantic flight on July 9, 1946, airport records show. Less than a year later, it would narrowly escape the scrapyard after a landing gear failure at La Guardia Airport in Queens.
Repaired and later sold to Trans World Airlines, the Connie was reborn as “The Star of the Azores.” The plane wore the traditional red-and-white livery of TWA through 1959.
During the 1960s, the plane flew for World Wide Airlines, Royal Air Burundi, Edde Airlines and Air Nevada. By 1970, 2072’s four siblings had been scrapped. It found a second life, however, when former airport owner Frank Lembo bought it in 1976 for $45,000.
With a large hole cut in the fuselage to provide access to what is now the airport’s banquet hall, restoration to flying condition would be difficult but not impossible, said Oakley, who said he would love to see it on the air show circuit.
While Greenwood Lake Airport’s Connie was flown into a 2,500-foot runway, the TWA Hotel’s plane was driven to Queens from Maine. With its wings detached, the fuselage of the plane was towed into Times Square for a visit. The plane has since been reconstructed on its private tarmac near JFK Terminal 5.
Built in 1956, it was one of just 44 Starliners made and four left in existence, according to the hotel website. The plane flew for TWA for three years before becoming a cargo plane in Alaska. Later, it became a marijuana dropping plane for drug runners in South America, where it was abandoned. Rescued in 1986, the plane was sold essentially for parts in 2007 before being bought for the TWA Hotel in 2017.
When preparing the airplane for its move from Maine in October 2018, Tyler Morse, the CEO of the company behind the hotel project, told the Lewiston Sun Journal the airplane is a huge part of the historic fabric of the TWA terminal at JFK.
“Having this aircraft be a cocktail lounge and be brought back to life at JFK is very historically accurate and really brings the project together and merges the vintage world and the contemporary world,” he said.
The hotel, developed as part of a $265 million renovation, began accepting reservations in February. Its 512 rooms lie in two low-rise buildings behind famed architect Eero Saarinen’s TWA Flight Center. Closed since 2001, the center will serve as the hotel’s lobby.
Room rates start at $249 per night. Amenities include a 10,000-square-foot rooftop observation deck with an infinity-edged pool, a museum highlighting the history of mid-century modern design and a food court with a variety of options. The cocktail lounge is booked for opening night.
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