The turbulent history of Lakefront Airport
When Lakefront Airport was dedicated on Feb. 9, 1934, as Shushan Airport — named after Huey Long ally Abraham Shushan, then the president of the Orleans Parish Levee Board — it was more than the city’s first real commercial airport. With tennis courts, a swimming pool, a post office, a surgical suite and exquisite Art Deco details inside and outside, the main terminal building was an architectural marvel — and a source of genuine excitement for the city’s populace leading up to its opening. “It’s like seeing the Grand Canyon,” gushed a Navy flier who was among the 1,200-plus people to get an early look at what was billed as “the Air Hub of the Americas” during a pre-dedication event on Jan. 9, 1934. “You’ve heard about it and read about it, but you never really know how wonderful it is until you see it with your own eyes.”
When the far larger New Orleans International Airport — now Louis Armstrong International Airport — opened in 1946, most of the city’s commercial air traffic was re-routed there. That, along with a 1960s redesign that hid much of the terminal’s original grandeur, left Shushan/Lakefront Airport to become a largely overlooked relic of days gone by. But after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina flooded the terminal with 4 feet of lake water, a $17 million restoration once more made Lakefront Airport a gleaming architectural jewel.
- Construction on the airport started in 1929 and cost $3 million, according to a 1932 story in The Times-Picayune. Adjusted for inflation, that’s the equivalent of $57.4 million in 2017.
- As an airport for traditional planes as well as seaplanes, it was built on a man-made peninsula formed of land dredged from the lake bottom. To cater to seaplanes, the paved runways were built to lead down into the water of Lake Pontchartrain.
- Local residents were so excited about the airport that Shushan found himself issuing a request in November 1933 that they stop visiting the facility, as crowds of sight-seers were interfering with construction.
- Among the airport’s many amenities were sleeping quarters for pilots and passengers. Among the guests of its VIP suites was famed aviator Amelia Earhart, who stayed there in May 1937 on her way to California to launch her final flight a month later.
- Even before construction was completed, critics complained about naming the airport after Shushan, whose name or initials appeared on nearly every surface in the terminal. “The name ‘Shushan’ is stamped, embossed, imbedded, sunk and countersunk, engraved, interwoven and printed upon everything out there from the runways, ramps, gardens, facades, lamp posts and light globes on the outside to the floors, walls, doors and even toilets on the inside,” read a story in the New Orleans Item in Aug. 8, 1939.
- In 1939, as momentum built behind the so-called Louisiana scandals — which at the time threatened to ensnare Shushan — the Levee Board voted to rename the facility New Orleans Airport. Two weeks later, Shushan was indicted and four months after that he was convicted.
- Today, the only sign of Shushan’s name in the terminal appears in a commemorative plaque in the building’s lobby that notes his instrumental role in getting the airport built.
- In the 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, the main terminal building — originally designed by architects with Weiss, Dreyfous and Seiferth, the same firm that designed the state capitol building — was encased in cement panels. In addition to covering the then-out-of-fashion Art Deco exterior, it served to convert the building into a nuclear fallout shelter.
- T. Sellers Meric and business partner Benedict Cimini, the men behind the 1960s redesign, took care to preserve elements of the original design when installing the new façade. That cleared the way for a restoration of the original façade as part of the work done in the wake of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.
- During the 1960s renovation, six of eight aviation-themed murals in the terminal building’s two-story atrium — all painted in the 1930s by Xavier Gonzales — were covered with steel and concrete. The other two were removed all together. As part of the five-year post-Katrina rehab, seven of the eight were restored, with the eighth being re-created.
- In addition, the terminal houses friezes by artist Enrique Alvarez, who also designed the “Fountain of the Four Winds” in front of the building.
- The airport has appeared in number of film, including in its original form in the 1952 thriller “The Steel Trap”; in its mid-century form in 1973’s “Live and Let Die”; and in its restored form in 2011’s “Green Lantern.”
As was the case during the time of its initial opening, Lakefront Airport today is more than just an airport. It is an Art Deco marvel. It is a testament to the work of preservationists. It is a living museum. It is a touchstone to New Orleans’ rich aviation past. And, as known by anyone who has ever visited the airport’s restored Walnut Room — once a popular dance hall, now a restaurant with a runway view — it is one of the most unique places in the city to grab lunch.