BRIAN GAUVIN PHOTOGRAPHS THIS PAGE TOP, FACING PAGE BOTTOM; PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY UNIVERSITY OF NEW ORLEANS EARL K. LONG LIBRARY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, THIS PAGE BOTTOM AND FACING PAGE TOP
Both economically and politically, Louisiana in the 1930s was one of the nation’s great contradictions. It ranked among the poorest states in the union, yet it was poised to become the cornerstone of the most potent challenge to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s early presidency. Most citizens of the state, either by desire or desperate lack of options, placed their trust in Gov. Huey P. Long. As the Great Depression continued to take its toll, and Long’s popularity expanded from the Old State Capitol building in Baton Rouge to the halls of Congress in Washington, the rest of the U.S. was at least prepared listen.
If, as some say, Huey P. Long’s legacy is simply one of, “bricks and mortar,” perhaps two of the finest examples of this legacy, the Louisiana State Capitol Building dedicated on May 16, 1932, and the Shushan Airport Terminal Complex, which opened on September 9, 1934 in New Orleans, reflect that same contrast of wealth and abandonment.
First, there is the Louisiana State Capitol Building in Baton Rouge: the beauty within its grand entrance lobby today, is nearly that of the day it was completed. Visited annually by thousands of the state’s schoolchildren and tourists, it is one of the finest examples of original 1930s art deco design in the world.
Then, there is the State Capitol Building’s younger – though practically twin – sibling, the Shushan Airport Terminal Complex, better known today as New Orleans Lakefront Airport, located on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain. Although the same architectural firm – Weiss, Dreyfous & Seiferth – conceived the pair, Shushan Airport’s identical art deco splendor has not been as fortunate. The condemnation of its mixed legacy had evolved so extensively that few contemporary Louisiana taxpayers know that they are the owners of one of the most historic, one-of-a-kind air terminals in American aviation history.
Lost Treasure Rediscovered
The Shushan terminal complex is the oldest continuously operating art deco air terminal in the U.S. Hundreds of other such art deco air terminals were constructed between 1935 and 1940, but only a handful remain. The majority of these artistic buildings were demolished within 20 years of their construction in order to make room for the demands the jet age made on America’s commuter airports. The Shushan terminal likely survived demolition only because the commercial airlines serving New Orleans had been relocated to Moisant International in 1946. Of the remaining art deco airports constructed in the 1930s and ‘40s, the majority are now struggling with restoration campaigns of their own.
One of the reasons this state treasure fell out of favor is that its name, “Shushan,” was linked to Abe Shushan, who conveniently named the grand airport project after himself. Within a decade, Shushan, one of Long’s most trusted confidantes, was convicted of income tax fraud. With Huey’s machine in disarray following the Senator’s assassination, Abe Shushan’s fate was inevitable. He served a prison sentence before being pardoned by President Harry S. Truman. While he was behind bars, the facility was renamed “New Orleans Airport.”
On the airport’s 30th anniversary in 1964, the art deco-styled air terminal was renovated; the painstaking labors of its original artisans denied rightful recognition of their influential innovation. Just as in the late 1930s, when the Shushan name was removed from every possible location in the building, including his initials on the doorknobs. In 1964, Abe Shushan again watched from afar – only two years prior to his death in 1966 – as the remaining non-Abe Shushan tainted portions of the innovative airport complex he arrogantly intercepted to be his personal legacy, were hidden away.
State Capitol Building in Baton Rouge. The exterior sculptures andAlthough provision of the bricks and mortar was provided through Abe Shushan’s profiteering hands, in 1934 it had been left to two of the world’s most renowned contemporary artists – sculptor Enrique Alferez and painter Xavier Gonzales – to create the masterpiece that Long wanted. Since 1964, their work has been safely tucked away behind that renovation, which covered much of the interior artwork with sheetrock and false ceilings. Additional Levee Board office space was created by closing in the second floor balcony that overlooked the terminal’s grand lobby, once as ornate as the entranceway that greets guests into the artwork were covered with concrete plating.
To this day, Lakefront Airport remains an art deco wonderland. No less than a treasure trove of one-of-a-kind aviation murals, WPA styled marble, trim, ironwork and molding, these works remain hidden beneath a “modern” façade. This Louisiana treasure awaits a rescue mission … a mission that, with public and private support, perhaps, is within reach.
FEMA Steps In
Hurricane Katrina caused significant damage to the historic terminal and hangars. Following the storm, FEMA’s division dedicated to historic building preservation was introduced to the splendor of the original terminal. The team of inspectors concluded that the terminal and its original hangars were candidates for restoration with FEMA funding, which is specifically set aside to save such endangered historic buildings. The buildings would have to be returned to their original 1934 designs to be eligible for the funding. Negotiations for restoration support with FEMA are currently underway with the Orleans Levee Board, the state’s caretakers of the airport property.
If the restoration is a success, the Shushan Terminal can rightfully celebrate its legacy of being the oldest original art deco airport in the U.S. For a state such as Louisiana, and a city such as New Orleans – where history can be such a powerful force in the economy – the benefits of the restoration exceed the cost.
From Amelia Earhart to the NBAA
In 1937, Shushan Terminal and its adjoining two art deco hangars hosted one of their most famous guests, Amelia Earhart. During the first stage of her unsuccessful 1937 flight around the world, Earhart landed at Shushan Airport, storing her aircraft in one of the terminal hangars. Arriving from Tucson at approximately 4:30 p.m., Earhart spent the evening of Saturday, May 22, 1937, in New Orleans. Earhart departed at 9:10 a.m. Sunday, on a five-hour flight over the Gulf of Mexico to Miami, Fla. An absence of records of the visit is an historic irony. Fearing American paparazzi might endanger the flight, Earhart’s husband and publicist, George Putnam II, did not announce her intention to fly around the world until she successfully departed Miami and entered open water over the Atlantic Ocean.
The old “Shushan” airport continues to be a popular stop among the business and general aviation industries. The airport taxiways and parking areas are regularly filled with modern jet and turbine aircraft that are either destined for New Orleans, or halfway through a transcontinental flight. Further demonstrating the attraction, for the past 30 years, the National Business Aircraft Association (NBAA) has repeatedly selected Lakefront Airport as its annual convention site co-hosted with the Morial Convention Center. “Throughout each convention,” says Lakefront Airport Director Randy Taylor, “those attending marvel at the interior of the terminal and ask why the building was ever covered up?”
The answer to that question is twofold. Following the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Levee Board thought the terminal would make a practical fallout shelter. Yet another objective was to modernize the building in an attempt to recapture scheduled airline service. One route the airport pursued unsuccessfully at the time was a proposed operation by Southern Airways between Huntsville, Ala. and New Orleans, intended to support transportation of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center employees working on the then upcoming Apollo program.
Sore Thumb or Soaring Gateway
Those in favor of restoring the historic Shushan terminal understand that the building has the unique ability to support itself through a wide range of self-generated revenues, the least of which might very well be support of Lakefront Airport’s daily aircraft operations. For instance, prior to Katrina, the art deco lobby had already earned a “Hollywood of the South” reputation as the perfect movie set. Motion pictures were continuously filmed on the property, including Ray and Glory Road.
The capacity of the historic terminal building to welcome Louisiana’s guests who have arrived by private plane in a grand, unique style, be they tourists visiting the area, corporate business travelers or VIPs and official dignitaries, is arguably unmatched by any other resource in the state.
Revisiting the Legacy
The renowned artisans that created this magnificent structure should neither be convicted nor incarcerated by the same ball and chain that sought justice from the man Abe Shushan. Their work, some of the finest in the world – and having nothing to do with the fact that Abe Shushan was president of the Orleans Levee Board during its construction in 1934 – is to this day an original and unique art deco masterpiece.
The potential for the terminal complex to become an economic catalyst for business and tourism into the state, welcoming our guests through a facility that is simultaneously historic and modern – unequaled in the country – is limited only by this generation’s capacity for rejuvenation. The Lakefront Airport’s “Shushan” terminal, a structure without equal in the U.S., begs for redemption.