The 10,000-square-foot observation deck overlooking JFK International Airport’s Bay Runway is home to one of Lea Ciavarra’s (G’95) favorite parts of the new TWA Hotel—and as one of the lead architects on the project, it’s hard for her to choose a favorite space. The deck on the roof of the hotel's Hughes Wing houses an infinity edge pool—which is heated in the winter—a pool bar and, of course, an impressive view.
“To be able to take a swim or sit in a lounge chair with a cocktail while watching the planes take off is a really unique experience,” she says.
Lubrano Ciavarra Architects (LCA), the firm Ciavarra co-owns with her business partner Anne Marie Lubrano, was approached in 2014 to design an on-airport hotel, reimagining Eero Saarinen’s 1962 TWA Flight Center, which now serves as the hotel lobby.
“From a design standpoint, we were aiming for an elegantly proportioned building that recalled the 1962 time frame but was also clearly rooted in the present,” she says.
Ciavarra, Lubrano and her team had many obstacles to consider as they approached the project.
“The biggest challenge in my eyes was that we didn’t want our addition to distract from the completeness of Saarinen’s original building or idea,” she says.
As she designed the hotel, Ciavarra studied the historic images of Idlewild Airport—as JFK was then known—as well as the Flight Center building itself during its construction.
“At the time, the building sat very clearly at the end of a long causeway, as a sculptural object in space, or a ‘figure in a field,’” she says. “Its immediate site and backdrop was a field of tarmac and open sky.”
Over the years, the site was overtaken with elevated and sunken roadways, pedestrian skywalks, the AirTrain, terminal expansions, parking structures and jet fences.
“We made the overarching goal of the project to return the Flight Center to a uniform, neutral backdrop—to clarify the reading of the sculptural figure and celebrate the Flight Center,” she says.
The two hotel wings highlight the original concrete shell Saarinen designed in the late 1950s—only 8 inches thick at its thinnest point and spanning 315 feet long, supported by only four columns. The shell was built with minimal materials, and its bird-shaped structure conveyed TWA's brand identity at the time.
The project was an amazing opportunity for Ciavarra and Lubrano's small firm.
“To be given the commission to add onto such a total design, such a complete sculptural form, was humbling,” Ciavarra says.
The Power of the Orange Network
A graduate of Syracuse University's School of Architecture, Ciavarra has served on the school's advisory board since 2001 and was appointed as the first-ever female chair in 2018.
“The School of Architecture really helps students with achieving a conceptual clarity in their design work and their architectural arguments,” she says. “They produce true leaders in the field—intelligent and capable of reading the room and leading teams, but with equally strong design skills.”
She was first drawn to the field of architecture in her junior year at Colgate University when she spent a semester abroad in Venice, Italy.
“Venice is primarily a pedestrian city with such defined sequences, you can’t help but to viscerally experience space urbanistically and architecture up close,” she says. “It is a city so textured in terms of material and light. Living there made me want to draw.”
When she returned, she added an art minor to her math major and applied to graduate schools for architecture, ultimately deciding on Syracuse University.
The summer after Ciavarra completed her master’s, she was hired as an assistant professor for two years at Syracuse University; she spent one of those years in the undergraduate program on campus and the other as the director of pre-architecture in Florence, Italy.
Although reluctant to leave Italy, Ciavarra wanted to practice as an architect before continuing to teach full-time. She moved to New York City and initially spent afternoons at Columbia’s Avery Library looking through the massive archives of old periodicals for published architects whose work she was drawn to.
“A project of Richard Gluckman’s was in one of those periodicals, and I noticed he was a Syracuse alumnus [’70, G’71] as well,” she says. “I ended up getting an interview and happily worked for Richard for three years.”
She also reconnected with Lubrano, who had started at Syracuse University in the master’s program with Ciavarra before transferring. Lubrano was approached to design a new house for a family friend in Harbor Island, Bahamas, and the two teamed up for the project and then started their own successful firm.
In the 20 years since LCA’s inception, the small firm has employed 20 Syracuse University graduates—at times throughout its history, the firm has been 100 percent staffed by Syracuse alumni.
“I find Syracuse Architecture alumni to be ‘whole’ architects—not only strong designers, but smart and logical thinkers,” she says. “The intimacy created in Slocum Hall fosters a personable group that collaborates easily and freely, one that isn’t afraid to work hard. In a small office environment, we often say, ‘Who do you want to sit next to every day?’ Syracuse Architecture alumni almost always check that box.”
Celebrating the Achievement
LCA’s hotel design is a model of elegance that transports visitors back to the golden age of air travel. The interior details celebrate the midcentury modern style. A split-flap mechanical departures board by Solari di Udine displays custom messages. You can order martinis and popular 1960s cocktails in the Sunken Lounge, which features floor-to-ceiling windows, upholstered benches and white penny tile. The original red carpet-lined Flight Tubes connect the Flight Center to JetBlue Terminal 5 and act as the main pedestrian entrances into the hotel buildings.
In May 2019, Ciavarra and Lubrano took a taxi to the ribbon cutting for the TWA Hotel.
“We both teared up as the car turned the corner into the access roadway and our buildings came into view beyond Saarinen’s,” she says.
In September, Ciavarra returned for a grand opening celebration weekend thanks to her client, Tyler Morse, CEO of MCR Development, who generously opened the hotel to the full design team and all partners and investors.
“There was such a positive energy all weekend throughout the hotel campus,” says Ciavarra. “I think everyone truly felt like it was 1962.”
Ciavarra found yet another favorite place to enjoy the hotel experience. “There’s a spot on the cantilevered balconies in Saarinen’s building where you can stand under that amazing concrete shell and observe it all,” she says. “From that spot, martini in hand, you can see people relaxing in the Sunken Lounge, moving through the Flight Tubes, checking in under the Solari Board—and even get a framed view out to our new hotel buildings.”
After five years of hard work, Ciavarra is finally able to enjoy all she and her team have accomplished.
“As a firm, Anne Marie and I were so honored to be part of this fabulous collaboration—with our client and the terrific team of designers and engineers—and to be a part of reactivating and sharing this iconic landmark anew with the world.”
This story was published on .
Also of Interest
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As the fourth oldest architecture school in the country, Syracuse's School of Architecture offers a professional curriculum that stresses creativity, research, and problem solving. The five-year program leads to a Bachelor of Architecture degree.