Taking Off With Style: Three ECs Bring New York's TWA Hotel to Life

Front of TWA Hotel. Photo Credit: Berlin Rosen / Balthazar Korab
Photo Credit: Berlin Rosen / Balthazar Korab

When the Trans World Airlines (TWA) Flight Center airline terminal at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport opened in 1962—designed by Eero Saarinen with a gull-wing structure to echo flight—it captured the heart of the city.

As an example of the mid-century modern design movement, it was granted landmark status by New York City in 1994, a crucial move that prevented its demolition after the TWA’s demise in 2001 and the closing of the Flight Center because it couldn’t support the size of modern planes. The terminal was also added to the National Register of Historic Places. The building was unoccupied for almost two decades and will reopen in May as the lobby of the TWA Hotel, named in homage to the original company.

The two seven-story wings of the hotel are located behind the original Flight Center. Its interior design retains the signature colors of the TWA—white and chili-pepper red created by Saarinen—and will include 50,000 square feet of conference, event and meeting space, six restaurants and eight bars along with a 10,000-square-foot public observation deck. The redevelopment plan is a public-private partnership between MCR and Morse (the developers), Jet Blue (whose terminal adjoins the hotel), and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. It has been designed to achieve LEED Silver Certification when it opens.

Three electrical contractors shared electrical work on the $265 million project: Unity Electric LLC, ADCO Electrical Corp. and Dooley Electric Co. Inc. They worked with general contractor Turner Construction, which is headquartered in New York.

Construction workers and partners at the TWA Hotel Topping Out ceremony. Photo Credit: Berlin Rosen / Balthazar Korab
Construction workers and partners at the TWA Hotel Topping Out ceremony. Photo Credit: Berlin Rosen / Balthazar Korab

Unity Electric Co.

Unity Electric was founded in 1974 and has extensive experience in airport electrical construction. The Flushing, N.Y., EC was first on the ground, setting up temporary power for the TWA project, and it had a team of 40–50 electricians that were responsible for fitting out and installing a new electrical distribution system in the north and south towers. The towers contain 512 guest rooms, the observation deck and a pool on the south tower roof.

Unity performed all electrical power work including LED lighting within the suites, bathrooms and corridors, and installed an intricate lighting control system using state-of-the-art dimming. The company also installed all electrical components in the meeting rooms and kitchens and was responsible for wiring the mechanical equipment in the conference center. Unity also installed all ground fault power for the pool.

“The challenges on this job were typical,” said Tom Amberger, COO, Unity Electric. “We were dealing with complex logistical coordination, sophisticated technologies, and some design changes. Completing the work on the specialty lighting system required concentrated coordination between our crew, the other tradespeople, and Gary McAssey from Turner Construction. There are always safety concerns with new construction, and we took a proactive approach and followed best practices to ensure a safe and productive work atmosphere.

“In the end, we were extremely proud to help build a world-class hotel in the heart of JFK International Airport. While the new rooms in the hotel are very modern, the main lounge has a distinctly vintage feel. Guests in the lounge can look out picture windows to see a refurbished, propeller-driven 1956 Lockheed Constellation,” he said.

This plane, nicknamed “The Connie,” houses a retro cocktail bar.

Unity Electric has a nostalgic connection to the TWA Flight Center. During its heyday, electrical maintenance in the building was performed by PEM Electric, owned by Ed Dougherty. Dougherty currently works in business development at Unity Electric.

“It’s a landmark, and it’s bittersweet coming back here after all these years,” he said.

Interior of the TWA Terminal in 1956. Front of TWA Hotel. Photo Credit: Berlin Rosen / Balthazar Korab
Interior of the TWA Terminal in 1956. Front of TWA Hotel. Photo Credit: Berlin Rosen / Balthazar Korab

ADCO Electrical Corp.

ADCO Electrical Corp., founded in 1977 and headquartered in Staten Island, N.Y., is a full-service electrical and telecommunications services firm. It performed the underground riser and infrastructure work on the TWA Hotel project, which included all of the underground for the high voltage and the main feeder coming into the conference center and towers.

 The company oversaw construction of the co-generation plant on the north tower roof, a combined heat and power (CHP) plant that will connect to a natural gas source. It will supply electricity and regulate the temperature for the entire property, allowing the building to operate on a separate power source from the airport and from New York utility Consolidated Edison Inc.

“We did the whole infrastructure and all the underground and the setups for the generators on the roof of the north tower,” said Ron Scimone, COO, general superintendent, ADCO. “Included in that was the interlocking wiring, the controls on the generator, emergency power and all the switchgear for the main feeds into the building.”

Elements of the co-generation system, a CHP plant with three reciprocating engines, three gas-driven chillers and boilers were prefabricated over a six-month period in Kingston, Ontario. While constructed in Canada, they were UL-approved and New York City approved installation.

John Jedlicka, ADCO’s general foreman, went to Canada to observe and oversee the prefabrication of those co-generators, which were shipped to the site in multiple specially designed containers.

“We worked with the generator company to actually install the setup on the roof, interlock all the piping and low-voltage wiring to complete the task to put this thing in operation for full power,” Scimone said. “All of this work was accomplished by qualified IBEW Local 3 union electricians that are part of our full-time workforce at ADCO Electric.”

A model guest room at the TWA Hotel. Photo Credit: Berlin Rosen
A model guest room at the TWA Hotel. Photo Credit: Berlin Rosen

Dooley Electric

Dooley Electric Co. Inc. has operated in the New York area since 1921. It used a crew of 10–20 workers to install the fire alarm system for the campus and electrical fit-out for the TWA Flight Center.

“We interfaced the fire alarm system of the base building side to the pre-action systems that were monitoring the co-generation plant on the north hotel roof,” said Daniel Rutigliano, project manager, Dooley Electric. “The roof of that building was probably our biggest hurdle on this project.”

A pre-action system detects and identifies smoke or heat to activate a pre-action valve to allow water to flow into the piping. Sprinkler heads then release water onto the fire.

Installation of the fire alarm systems had its own challenges. As an existing structure, the TWA Flight Center already had beam detector systems.

“Due to the structure itself, we couldn’t install smoke detectors, so we redid the beam detector system to monitor any smoke in the high ceilings and in the TWA Hotel lobby,” Rutigliano said. “It was an old system that we upgraded with new detectors, and which we interfaced to a new Class A Siemens fire alarm system, a supply and return DAC, that is, a hard-wired return.”

Dooley Electric installed three separate fire alarm systems in the hotel: in the lobby, the north tower and the south tower, which is connected to the conference center.

“If there was an alarm in the north tower, they didn’t want to have to evacuate the other buildings,” Rutigliano said. “The thinking was that there was no reason to disturb those elsewhere even though it’s on the same campus. They have a sequence in which shutter doors would close off egress areas so that an alarm would occupy just one building. If the north hotel goes into alarm, they would evacuate that building. The [other buildings]would be notified but would not go into alarm for evacuation. The interconnection of the building was definitely an interesting install as far as the amount of programming and interfacing of the buildings because of the three separate systems on-site.”

This 1956 Lockheed Constellation, nicknamed "The Connie," houses a retro cocktail bar. Photo Credit: Berlin Rosen / Ryan Dorsett
This 1956 Lockheed Constellation, nicknamed "The Connie," houses a retro cocktail bar. Photo Credit: Berlin Rosen / Ryan Dorsett

Hotel visitors will travel from the hotel lobby/Flight Center through tubes. Those existing tubes connect the hotel directly to Jet Blue’s Terminal 5. Old, existing light fixtures were in the tube ceilings, and Dooley Electric replaced them with new LED track lights and integrated by an app-operated DMX lighting control system. The tube can be lit in color for holidays or to celebrate specific events or clients.

“Part of the agreement when we bought this job out was to utilize existing pathways and in certain areas—conduit pathways from the cellar level to the lobby and mezzanine—we did that and actually retrofitted and upgraded existing panels, but many of them were encased or in concrete, so we couldn’t touch them since—if we’d damaged a pathway—we might not get it back,” Rutigliano said. “We had to work within what the building gave us. For example, to remove those existing [lighting] fixtures and install new fixtures compatible to the system, we rented a crawler lift to access them since the lights were over 50 feet in the air in the underside of the skylights.

“A design change would be released and look good on paper, but after on-site investigation, unforeseen existing hurdles would be found, and would need to be constantly reworked. The [National Electrical] Code is different now; the systems are different now. Retrofitting it to meet Code was a hurdle. You’d get a drawing that shows design and you get to the field and you have to go back and say, ‘We can’t do it this way. We can only access this through that way where you only have one pipe in the ceiling, no other pathway and we couldn’t run lighting controls in same conduit as your normal line voltage. So, we tried to figure out interfacing the lighting controls in the cellar, so we could intercept pipes. Every day was a new day with that job,” Rutigliano said.

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