AIN Blog: Lakefront Airport's Terminal: A Tribute to Aviation's Golden Age

 - February 12, 2014, 5:41 PM
Top: the Lakefront terminal circa 1960. Bottom: the newly refurbished facility

There may be but a handful of vintage airport terminals left in the United States, and the very fact that some exist at all depends on some specific circumstances. Typically they are found at airports that for whatever reason could not, or did not, expand at a rate to justify destroying their original terminal and replacing it with a larger, more functional structure. In most cases it was simply a case of the old airport's being bypassed by a new, larger facility. In those instances where the old airports were not redeveloped, their terminals were left behind as a sort of time capsule. New York’s Floyd Bennett Field was one such example. That facility was doomed by its geography, supplanted by upstarts La Guardia and later Idlewild Airports (today, JFK International) simply because they were closer and more convenient to Manhattan. It was given to the U.S. Navy, which left the terminal largely unchanged, and then to the National Parks Service, which finished the restoration of the deteriorated building back to its original 1930s appearance two years ago.

Another such architectural gem has joined the ranks of the few with the recent restoration and rededication of the former passenger terminal at New Orleans Lakefront Airport. While I have written about flood-prone Lakefront several times, I was finally able to visit it in January during my trip to New Orleans to cover NBAA’s annual Schedulers and Dispatchers Conference.

Today, most aircraft arriving there merely pass by the building on their way to one of the three FBOs on the field, but it's well worth a stop at the terminal, which has taken a curious and circuitous route to restoration.

Once the main air gateway to the Crescent City until the opening of Moisant Field (now Louis Armstrong International) in 1946, the airport was built at a cost of $3 million in the early 1930s, during the tumultuous reign of Louisiana Governor (later Senator) Huey “Kingfish” Long. Originally named Shushan Airport, in a nod to Abraham Shushan, one of Long’s political cronies, the airport was built on state-owned land, to prevent the city of New Orleans from having any control over it. Even today the airport remains under the jurisdiction of the state-run Orleans Levee District Non-Flood Protection Asset Management Authority.

Upon its opening in 1934, the terminal was one of the most advanced in the country. Like its contemporary at Floyd Bennett, it featured highly ornamental art deco period styling and artwork depicting the romance of flight. It was built from the finest materials, with many fixtures bearing either the name or initials of the immodest Shushan, whom Long placed in charge of its construction. Among its amenities were its own surgical suite/hospital, a post office, a ballroom, even several guest suites with private baths that once hosted the likes of Amelia Earhart.

Some believed this elaborate terminal would be a testimony to Long’s accomplishments in the state and a positive welcoming image to the reporters who would flock to New Orleans to interview him after he announced his eventual run for the presidency. That dream would die a year later when Long was assassinated.

Despite its grandeur, Lakefront (as it soon became known after the end of the Long era and the taint of Shushan’s subsequent indictments), was shunted aside to serve as a general aviation-only facility once Moisant Airport opened. The terminal’s ballroom, known by generations of local partygoers as the Walnut Room, remained a popular venue for weddings and high-school proms, but the aviation-related use of the building largely ended when it became the headquarters for the Levee District in the early 1960s.

To accomplish this transformation, the building’s two-story lobby atrium was altered, with a floor installed in the opening on the second floor, closing it off from below and creating a board room. The murals of exotic aviation destinations by Spanish artist Xavier Gonzales, which ringed the second floor balcony and were keyed to an inlaid compass rose set in the center of the first floor below, were hidden away behind newly built walls, while the original art deco aluminum railings that ringed the atrium were removed. Vinyl floor tiles were installed on top of the original terrazzo tiles and marble flooring.

On the outside, the change was even more dramatic. The building was rendered nearly unrecognizable when its many windows were first bricked over, and then the entire outside was sheathed in a metal skeleton, supporting slabs of concrete. The purpose of the drastic redesign remains unclear. Some say it was spurred by the Cold War, and the desire to turn the building into a bomb shelter. Others suggest an urge to rid the airport of the art deco influence and the racial inequalities the period evoked amid the sensitivities of the 1960s. Whichever was correct, the top of the building was mutilated as well, with the sawing off of detailed cast stone relief panels containing aviation motifs.

Thus the building would remain until August 29, 2005, when Hurricane Katrina roared ashore and swamped much of New Orleans. While the airport’s runways were no strangers to flooding in the past, for the only time in its 70-year history, the terminal building was inundated with four feet of water, from above and below, rendering it uninhabitable. After the storm, the Levee District relocated to another building off the airport, and for the next year the debate raged about what to do with the old terminal. Eventually it was decided to restore the building to its original appearance and work began in earnest in 2009 when the Federal Emergency Management Agency agreed to provide $20 million to fund the project.

The first order was to clean out the building and repair the damage wrought by Katrina, including asbestos removal. The concrete exterior sheathing soon came down, revealing the original lines of the building, and the ornamental castings on the roof were rebuilt using period photos as a reference. On the inside, workers undid the modifications to the lobby atrium, once again opening up the center. The vinyl tiles were removed to reveal the original floors, while replacement railings and reproductions of the period light fixtures were installed.The original hand-painted acoustical ceiling tiles (made from sugar cane) had deteriorated. They were no longer manufactured, so the restoration effort used pegboard backed with soundproofing material, which once painted proved to be a dead ringer for the original. Lead architect Alton Ochsner Davis, who happened to be at the terminal the day I visited, told me that color synthesis revealed the original colors of those tiles were much brighter than what remained after years of exposure to smoke and the environment. As a result, he sought to restore the terminal’s original vibrancy with the brightly colored replacements. The murals that had slumbered behind the walls for more than 40 years saw daylight once again. Of the eight originals, one had somehow vanished, while another was found in damaged condition in storage at the Louisiana State Museum. Even the original Shushan Airport dedication plaque was located in the collection of Louisiana State University and returned.

One thing that won’t likely be returning to the terminal is the Levee Board. According to Louis Capo, executive director of the Non-Flood Protection Asset Management Authority, the plan is to lease out the entire building to aviation-related, revenue-generating businesses. Already signed on are a flight school, a limousine company, even an aviation attorney's office, which will occupy a suite on the second floor. A vintage-look coffee shop, the Fly-Away Café, was due to open in the lobby, and the renovated Walnut Room (with a brand-new catering kitchen and terrace overlooking the airport and Lake Ponchartrain) was set to retrieve its mantle as one of the area’s premier event venues. The result: another shrine to the golden age of aviation has survived an uncertain past and will serve as a reminder of the heady days when flight was equal parts glamour and adventure.