ORLANDO — It was in 1962 when the Trans World Flight Center opened as the original terminal designed by Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen for Trans World Airlines at New York City’s Kennedy International Airport. There have been changes to the structure over the years — some portions of the complex got demolished, and there are have renovations to other sections.
But its historic significance is not in doubt, and in 1994 the City of New York designated both the interiors and the exteriors of the terminal a historic landmark, while in 2005 the National Park Service listed the TWA Flight Center on the National Register of Historic Places. Such is the building’s impressive style that director Steven Spielberg used it in his 2002 movie “Catch Me if You Can.”
It might have a very different future, though. The building has been vacant since 2001, when TWA ceased operations. Since April, JetBlue and a business partner that develops hotels have been negotiating for the rights to turn it into a hotel.
The property might seem far away from what’s happening in Orlando, but next week that won’t be the case. The historic significance of the TWA Flight Center has attracted the attention of researchers from the University of Central Florida. On Friday, the university announced that UCF researchers will be leading a team using high-tech laser scanners to capture the interior and exterior of the structure before it gets transformed into a hotel.
“Historians worry that looming plans to develop the Trans World Airlines terminal as a hotel may sacrifice some of the iconic features that earned it a spot on the National Register of Historic Places,” wrote Mark Schlueb, senior communications coordinator at the UCF News & Information Office.
The data that the UCF team collects will be used to create a 3-D model of the building so it could be explored and discovered by future generations — in a virtual, rather than literal, sense.
“This is one of the great masterpieces of midcentury architecture,” noted Lori Walters, a researcher at the Institute for Simulation & Training and the Department of History, both at UCF.
“We want to preserve it for future generations as it looks prior to any modifications that will be made in the near future,” she added. “It will enable you to walk around and interface with the environment, so you’ll be able to hear an oral history snippet, see photographs, read documents, learn about the period and what jet travel was like in the 1960s.”
Walters plans to work on this project with UCF history instructor Michelle Adams.
This is an area Walters has specialized in, having already created digital 3-D depictions of the New York State Pavilion from the 1964-65 World’s Fair, NASA’s Saturn V rocket and the Apollo 14 capsule using tripod-mounted scanners that bounce lasers off objects. Multiple scans of the buildings and objects get stitched together to create a 3-D depiction that is accurate right down to two millimeters.
Walters’ research focuses on architecture of the post-World War II era, and her goal is the virtual preservation of significant buildings, particularly from the 1950s and 1960s.
“I wanted our next project to be something that was representative of the era, and something that – I don’t want to use the word threatened – but could be changing in the near future,” Walters said.
The UCF team has arranged with the Port Authority to gain access to the TWA Flight Center, and they will begin using the scans on Monday. The project is expected to last five days.
“They’ll be assisted by a crew from Langan Engineering & Environmental Services, as well as Rutgers University engineering professor Jie Gong and RU graduate students,” Schlueb wrote.
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