Restored Lakefront Airport regains its former beauty

Calvin Moret wasn’t there for the dedication of Shushan Airport back in February 1934, but that doesn’t mean a walk around the airport’s newly restored terminal doesn’t bring back memories. At 88 years old, Moret is the last remaining Tuskegee airman in Louisiana, and he remembers well the role the New Orleans airport played in aviation history.

“I flew out of this airport many times,” Moret said Saturday. “And my father-in-law was a plasterer who worked with John Lachin, the company that did the plaster work here.”

Moret was among a group of several hundred who turned out for the rededication — after a four-year, multimillion-dollar restoration — of the terminal building at what is now known as New Orleans Lakefront Airport. After being covered by concrete since a 1964 renovation, features like bas-reliefs by sculptor Enrique Alferez and murals by Xavier Gonzales are now once again on view for all to see and appreciate.

“After Hurricane Katrina, we made the decision not just to repair the building but to restore it to its original appearance,” said Joe Hassinger, chairman of the Non-Flood Protection Asset Management Authority, the Orleans Levee Board successor that now has authority over the airport. “We were able to work with FEMA and use some funds that would have gone to repairing hangars we weren’t going to rebuild to get the work done.”

The renovation removed not only the bricks and casing obscuring the terminal’s fa├žade, but also the walls and floor coverings that hid original architectural features like the two-story atrium and the decorative stone, plaster, tiles and artwork on the interior. The original terrazzo floors with multi-pointed compasses pointing the way to exotic destinations combine with Art Deco light figures and abstract aluminum screens to complement the five types of granite used to embellish the public spaces.

Except for Louisiana political boss Huey Long and his close relationship with Abraham Lazar Shushan — then the president of the Orleans Levee Board — the airport might have been built in a totally different style.

“The first plan was for a Spanish Colonial building,” said Vincent Caire, a historian of Louisiana aviation who works with the Non-Flood Protection Asset Management Authority. “It isn’t clear whether that design was for the current site or for a site elsewhere in the city.”

The Young Men’s Business Club had thrown a wrench in the works while the airport was in the planning stages, decrying the proposed location on the Lake Pontchartrain shoreline east of the Industrial Canal and promoting instead the idea of building the airport in what was known as the City Park extension.

Another hurdle that needed to be cleared was a lawsuit brought against the Levee Board by owners of some of the 290 camps along Lake Pontchartrain that would be displaced by the project.

Ultimately, though, the City Park idea died and the camp owners were assuaged, clearing the way for construction of a seawall extending out into the lake to form a peninsula.

Backfill inside of the floodwall created the 300 acres of land on which the airport’s administration building, hangars and runways were constructed.

National Airport Engineering of Los Angeles was awarded the contract to design the facility in June 1931, and plans developed by the firm were approved by the levee board in February 1932.

The Spanish Colonial-style administration building was to be 300 feet by 70 feet and would house offices, space for handling airmail, a lunchroom on the first floor and sleeping quarters on the second floor.

But by June 1932, National Airport Engineering was abruptly replaced by Long’s hand-picked local architects, Weiss, Dreyfous & Seiferth, who also designed the new state Capitol and Governor’s Mansion in Baton Rouge, as well as Charity Hospital in New Orleans.

Although the terminal’s Art Deco beauty was disguised for the past 50 years, the airport never ceased operations, even after passenger travel migrated west in 1946 to Moisant Field, now Louis Armstrong International Airport. In fact, said Hassinger, Lakefront Airport remains a favorite arrival and departure point for private planes.

“A lot of sports teams and celebrities like to fly in and out of here because it’s more private and convenient,” he said. “Planes were parked wing to wing here for the Super Bowl, when we logged a landing every 45 seconds and a takeoff every 90 seconds.”

With the restoration of the building complete, the next step in the process will be to restore the seven remaining murals created by Xavier Gonzalez for the second floor and, if funds allow, the Alferez fountain known as “The Four Winds.”

“The murals are under rice paper now to help conserve them,” said Wilma Heaton, chairwoman of the airport committee of the Non-Flood Protection Asset Management Authority. “We’ll be holding a fund-raiser in February to raise money to properly conserve them.”

One of the eight murals — named “Bali” by the artist — was accidentally destroyed during the 1964 remodeling. Another one had been in storage at the Louisiana State Museum since the 1970s, but it was returned and placed on view in its original location.

A second relic of the original building was also returned in time for Saturday’s event: The original dedication plaque that had been housed at the Earl K. Long Library of the University of New Orleans. The plaque is now on permanent loan to the airport.

Within a few months, officials expect to announce an operator for the airport’s restaurant, the once-fabled Walnut Room. The atrium, bar and space on the second floor will be made available for special events. The first lease for office space has been signed, and a second is in the works. Meanwhile, atop the building, the beacon lights up the night sky.

“You can see it from the causeway,” Caire said.

For all of the glory that the airport brought to the city of New Orleans in its early years, the man for whom it was named, Long crony Shushan, did not fare so well. He was convicted of income tax fraud and went to prison. While he was incarcerated, the airport was renamed simply the New Orleans Airport, later gaining the name New Orleans Lakefront Airport to distinguish it from the Moisant facility in Kenner.