Art deco Lakefront Airport to shine again

Advocate Staff Photo by Eliot Kamenitz----Following Hurricane Katrina, the Lakefront Airport has undergone a multimillion dollar renovation designed to return the terminal to its original 1930s Art Deco grandeur. The exterior of the building on Friday, June 7,2013.
Advocate Staff Photo by Eliot Kamenitz----Following Hurricane Katrina, the Lakefront Airport has undergone a multimillion dollar renovation designed to return the terminal to its original 1930s Art Deco grandeur. The exterior of the building on Friday, June 7,2013.

When it opened in early 1934, the terminal building at Shushan Airport, as it was known at the time, was a grand example of art deco architecture with seemingly no expense spared on its construction.

But decades of interior renovations destroyed much of its character, and the installation of a plain concrete encasement on the exterior during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis to create a fallout shelter hid the unique exterior and its ornamental panels.

Now, though, the architectural gem that Gov. Huey Long commissioned as a personal showpiece will shine once again as a painstaking, years-long restoration nears its end.

Architect Alton Ochsner Davis and his colleagues from Richard C. Lambert Consultants have worked since 2011 to restore everything from the two-story lobby with its colorful painted ceiling, closed off for decades when a false floor was installed to create office space, to minute details, such as door frames and pay phone signs that help to give the building its antique feel.

“We tried to be really, really true to the original character of the building,” Davis said during a recent tour of the building.

A team of about 80 people has been focused on that effort, said project superintendent Karl Magner, of BelouMagner Construction.

Beyond the removal of the concrete tomb that hid the original facade and its 150 windows, which were bricked over, the next most prominent feature of the $18 million restoration was the removal of a slab installed sometime in the 1960s that closed off the two-and-a-half-story lobby.

Today, a layer of dust and dirt on most of the terrazzo floors and marble walls hides the true appearance of the lobby as crews put the final touches on the restoration, which is expected to be finished in late July or early August. But the ceiling once again pops with the same bright orange, pink and blue hues that visitors saw when the terminal opened in February 1934.

“Most people have never seen it this way,” Davis said, noting that even before renovations began to chip away at the interior’s original appearance, it had dimmed over the years thanks to sunlight and layers of nicotine from cigarette smoke.

A series of renovations also changed the flow of the building.

“In the ’50s and ’60s … they kind of butchered the building,” Davis said. But, he said, there did seem to be some effort made to not damage parts of the building beyond repair.

Using the original blueprints, which were stored at Tulane University, as well as some forensic work, Davis and his team were able to restore the building to its original floor plan.

Davis said restoring the building was often as simple as following the paths on the terrazzo floors. In other cases, there were surprises when walls were opened up and doors were found behind them, untouched for decades and in perfect condition.

Murals by artist Xavier Gonzalez that depict the story of flight were covered over, but the work was done in a way that protected the murals.

The bland concrete panels that architects from Cimini and Meric installed were added-on in a way that would do as little damage as possible to the exterior of the building in case someone someday wanted to remove them.

“Technically, there were whole sections of the building that were never touched,” Davis said.

Plaster motifs throughout the building are being restored, and art deco wall sconces have been hung, all in an effort to restore the public spaces to their original appearances.

The process of turning back the clock included buying a wooden phone booth on eBay to complete a bank of three booths that are tucked away in a corner of the lobby.

The building was designed by the architectural firm of Weiss, Dreyfouth and Sierth, which also designed the Long-era State Capitol building and Charity Hospital in New Orleans.

The airport cost $3 million at the time, and some journalists declared the Depression-era terminal the finest in the country.

It featured everything from space for commercial airlines to a post office, medical exam rooms, a surgical suite and sleeping quarters — which once hosted Amelia Earhart as she made her way to Miami to begin her ill-fated around-the-world flight. The terminal also housed the two-story Walnut Room, a popular restaurant that got its name from the walnut wood used on its walls.

An effort is underway to find an operator for the restored Walnut Room, though these days it is only one story. Davis said it was not cost effective to remove office space that was built over the restaurant during a previous renovation.

Today Lakefront Airport is one of only a few art deco airport terminals that remain in existence.

Many other terminals of the era met the wrecking ball as the jet age began since more space was needed for runways.

The move of commercial airlines from the lakefront to Moisant International in 1946 likely saved the terminal, which was named for Levee Board Abe Shushan. His surname was dropped after he was convicted in the late 1930s on mail fraud charges, though it was not an easy task to remove his name from the building since he had it, or the letter S, installed in as many places as possible throughout the facility.

Though it existed long after many other art deco terminals fell, Lakefront Airport’s terminal’s future was uncertain after Hurricane Katrina.

Vincent Caire, an aviation historian who also works for the Orleans Levee District Non Flood Protection Management Authority that oversees the facility, said there were basically three options for the building after the storm: restoring the building to its 1960s appearance, restoring it to its original condition or demolishing it.

A pool of FEMA money earmarked for historic restorations led to the rebirth.

“It’s well spent,” Caire said of the money. “There’s not another building like it in the United States.”

Noting that the “golden age of aviation” led to the building’s creation, he said it was only appropriate that it would once again look the way it did when it first opened.

“This building quite possibly was facing a bulldozer if the right people hadn’t stepped in,” Caire said.