Editor's Note: The New Orleans Lakefront Airport Terminal Building was built in 1933. It received a makeover in 1964, which covered up the 1933 Art Deco look. After Hurricane Katrina destroyed the building in 2005, organizers decided to restore the building and bring it back to its original Art Deco look. The result is the newly restored historic terminal building, which will be presented at a ribbon cutting at 10 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 28, 2013, at the airport (6001 Stars and Stripes Blvd.).
The video below features Vincent Caire, program specialist and historian with the Non-Flood Protection Asset Management Authority, and Alton Ochsner Davis, senior architect with Richard C. Lambert Consultants, LLC, two leaders in the restoration. Keep reading after the video for a brief history of the airport and more details about the restoration written by Caire.
Historic Airport Terminal Embarks Upon a New Mission
By Vincent Caire
The year 1930 belonged to Huey P. Long. The "Senator-Elect," euphoric in his January victory over incumbent Joseph Ransdell, managed to split his remaining "Old Regular" opponents based in the Crescent City to near incapacitation. A number of powerful anti-Long campaigners, including New Orleans Mayor Semmes Walmsley, made peace with the inevitable outcome of the election, ensuring the city would not be bypassed in Huey’s promised statewide building program.
With Walmsley now tamed, albeit temporarily, Southeastern Louisiana became the recipient of windfall projects including the Trans Mississippi River Bridge (located in neighboring Jefferson Parish and renamed the Huey P. Long Bridge in December 1935 three months after Long's assassination), a new Charity Hospital and what was to become the nation's first masterfully crafted modern Art Deco Land and Sea Airport.
The Shushan Collection, Louisiana and Special Collections, University of New Orleans, Earl K. Long Library
The terminal's first floor lobby in 1934
Abe Shushan, president of the Orleans Levee Board, talked Long into building the airfield on a landfill peninsula in Lake Pontchartrain, thus keeping it out of the city and in control of this state political subdivision. Long was so impressed by the maneuver that he instructed Abe to name it the Shushan Airport, after himself. Completed in late 1933, a weeklong official dedication celebration took place during Mardi Gras in February 1934.
Regardless of its origins and associated Long era political spoils, the Shushan Airport, now known as New Orleans Lakefront Airport, has over the past 80 years, provided the city with an economic engine many communities in the United States can only dream about. To this day, Shushan’s legacy is that the citizens of New Orleans are not burdened with financial support of the daily aircraft operations that arrive and depart at the south shore facility, yet nearly every dollar spent by passengers and flight crews upon arrival is channeled through the city’s economy.
The Shushan Airport terminal building was host to every airline serving New Orleans from 1933 through 1946, until Moisant Field (owned by the City of New Orleans and operated by the New Orleans Aviation Board) opened in Kenner. Since that time, Shushan Airport – twice renamed, New Orleans Airport in 1940, then New Orleans Lakefront in 1964 – has consistently remained one of the most active business and recreational airports in the nation.
In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina ravaged the airport, destroying seven aircraft hangars beyond repair and flooding the historic terminal. A 1964 facade covering the original Art Deco opulence was damaged so severely, that FEMA, upon seeing what lay hidden beneath, agreed to return the terminal building to its original design.
Non-Flood Protection Asset Management Authority
The terminal's second floor balcony in 2013
The fully restored Art Deco terminal now proudly displays seven of the original eight aviation murals by artist Xavier Gonzalez, a one of a kind treasure matched by no other historic airport in the country. The missing mural was damaged beyond repair, the victim of an accident during the 1964 renovation. The work of another great New Orleans based artist made famous through his Works Progress Administration (WPA) era contributions, Enrique Alferez, has also been reawakened. Central among timeless pieces, his "Fountain of Four Winds" sculpture that welcomes patrons to the airport will also undergo restoration.
Each of these meticulous recovery projects has been overseen and executed by the Non-Flood Protection Asset Management Authority, the political subdivision created by the Louisiana State Legislature and tasked with operating and managing the real estate assets of the Orleans Levee District.
The process has been challenging. Recapturing the beauty of the 1930s airport lobby involved removal of an entire second floor addition that was enclosed in 1964 to create office space. For this purpose, craftsmen and artisans from around the country were recruited to ensure that detail and reconstruction of the lobby was identical to its original appearance. Every necessity, from the designs within the frescos throughout the open public areas, restaurant, cafeteria and marble staircase, to replacement chandeliers, has been researched and brought back to life.
The famous Walnut Room, a combined restaurant and ballroom used for functions ranging from wedding receptions and anniversaries, to proms and political campaign victory parties, will once again invite the terminal's guests to relax in an airport atmosphere unlike any other.
Today, this restored Art Deco airport terminal building is a one of a kind portal into commercial aviation in its infancy, a time when Lockheed Vega, Curtiss Condor and Douglas DC-3 airliners filled the sky with the sounds of piston engines and propellers. Passengers walked directly to the awaiting aircraft, with hardly a fence in site. The terminals, two "East and West" porticos, offered shelter from the outdoor heat and rocking chairs to family members and others awaiting the arrival of passengers.
Few restored Art Deco airport terminals exist in the United States. Among them are the LaGuardia Marine Air Terminal, Washington D.C. "Regan" National Terminal and Houston's 1940 Air Terminal at Hobby Airport. The Shushan Airport terminal is by all indicators and its early completion date, 1933, is possibly the oldest surviving Art Deco terminal in the nation restored to its true original grandeur. This restoration also reminds Louisiana citizens and visiting passengers of the vision of prosperity that inspired so many individuals to find strength on the road to recovery during one of our nation's darkest periods, the Great Depression.