The Story of New Orleans’ Lakefront Airport
Interior of the Shushan Airport lobby upon its 1934 opening
First the victim of political backlash and later, a hurricane, the New Orleans Lakefront Airport is being restored to its original glory.
reyfouth and Sierth (which also designed the State Capitol and Charity Hospital) created such a masterpiece that it served as a model for other art deco airports that followed. But those other airports were demolished to make way for more modern buildings.
Originally named Shushan Airport, after Orleans Levee Board President Abraham Shushan, the airport was a feather in the cap of Gov. Huey P. Long’s tenure. Shushan (who was part of the Kingfish’s inner circle) finagled construction of the airport and the peninsula it sits on, so impressing Gov. Long that he told Shushan to give the airport his namesake.
When it was completed, Shushan was the largest airport in the U.S. and was also the first combined land and seaplane air terminal in the world. It had a post office, medical exam rooms, a surgical suite, an outdoor swimming pool and a hotel where Amelia Earhart spent a night on the way to begining her ill-fated global flight attempt.
Abe Shushan flexed his political muscles in the airport’s construction, adorning every doorknob, countertop, plumbing fixture, and windowsill in the airport’s terminal building with his name or the letter S. When Shushan was convicted of mail fraud in the late 1930s, the airport dropped his name, and his signatures were removed.
When Moisant Field (now Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport) opened in Kenner in 1946, Shushan became New Orleans Lakefront Airport, and major airline traffic relocated to Kenner. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, the terminal building was renovated into austerity. Thick concrete panels covered the exterior’s art deco flourish when the terminal became a bomb shelter during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The two-story lobby was partially enclosed to create offices for the Orleans Levee Board. This renovation also covered up several aviation murals by artist Xavier Gonzalez. Hurricane Katrina flooded the terminal and destroyed seven hangars beyond repair. But when FEMA officials saw the art deco façade beneath the damaged 1964 cement panels, the ball started rolling on repairs.
Since 2011, architect Alton Oschner Davis and colleagues from Richard C. Lambert Consultants, LLC, have worked to restore the airport to its former glory. Using the original blueprints, a team of 80 has worked to dismantle the offices in the former lobby and restore its colorful ceiling.
Crews have restored door frames, pay phone signs, frescos, marble and granite floors and walls; they’ve also replaced chandeliers and wall sconces. They’ve removed asbestos and lead paint and cleaned mold and mildew.
The Walnut Room, once a popular entertainment location, is being restored, too. Gone are the concrete and brick encasements that covered the façade and its 150 windows. The effort has cost $18 million and was completed in September.