NOLA 300: Lakefront Airport, when New Orleans began looking to the skies

NEW ORLEANS -- When the new terminal in Kenner is ready to go next year, the New Orleans area will basically get a new airport. But, our original airport is still in use.

In 1934, the New Orleans Lakefront Airport opened--with a different name.

"The original name was Shushan Airport, named for Huey Long's good friend and buddy and an inspiration to implement this airport," says Wilma Heaton of the Lakefront Management Authority. "It was planned under Abe Shushan, who was president of the Orleans Levee District. Abe got Into a little trouble and went to jail and he was later pardoned by Harry Truman."

The state legislature still thought it was best to change the name to the New Orleans Lakefront Airport.

While Shushan oversaw the creation of the airport, the inspiration came from a well-known aviator.

"When [Charles] Lindbergh flew from New York to Paris in 1927, he stopped in New Orleans promoting aviation and told the city fathers they should have an airport in New Orleans, as in other major cities across the United States," says Heaton.

At the time it is was built, the Lakefront Airport was one of the most prestigious airports in the country. And today, it is one of the best representations of a time when Americans were first looking to the skies.

"If you live across the country, there's not another airport Art Deco of this caliber," says Heaton. "You look at all the components of the WPA artisans. A lot of folks fed their families on the beauty of this building."

At the center of the airport's atrium is a compass that points to some of the great cities of the world, including Paris, Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, and Tokyo. Looking up from the compass, there are eight murals by the famed artist Xavier Gonzalez surrounding the atrium on the second floor.

"This artwork was created to tell the story of the different parts of the world," says Heaton. "People get on a plane now and go to Europe. They go anywhere. They don't think a thing. But, in that time, that was a big deal."

In the 1960s, changing cultural trends led to a redesign of the airport that hid much of Art Deco elements. Workers covered the reliefs on the exterior, the Spanish marble, and more than 100 windows. The Xavier Gonzalez murals were either covered or moved to other locations.

The building stayed that way until it was damaged by Hurricane Katrina. FEMA gave the Lakefront Management Authory $8 million to restore it to the way it was after the 1960s redesign, what Heaton described as a "glorified bomb shelter." Instead, the authority used the FEMA money and raised $11 million more to give Lakefront Airport a more authentic renovation.

"This lady had such good bones, we were able to restore it to the way it was," says Heaton.