Lakefront Airport has aviation museum potential, historian says
During her work restoring eight historic murals in the Lakefront Airport lobby, art historian Elise Grenier is uncovering a story of aviation development that she says could become the backdrop for a museum about the history of flight.
Through her art restoration work, research into the New Orleans Lakefront Airport, and conversations with art historians, Grenier said she realized that since its renovation after Katrina, this New Orleans airport is the oldest, largest, and likely best preserved airport terminal in the country.
The building was created within a year from 1933-1934 through WPA funding, featuring a restaurant, medical clinic, and sleeping quarters, while having a 1930’s Art Deco style. The building was covered in two feet of concrete in 1968, possibly to act as a bomb shelter, until it was impacted by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and then restored again in 2013 to return to grandeur style.
“So much about public art in the ’30s is about the work ethic,” Grandeur said. “Strong work ethic helps you get through hard times, on the heels of the The Great Depression.”
Grenier said the murals are each a portrait of planes and all represent the historic achievements in the history of aviation, but also maybe a reassurance to passengers of their flight safety.
“I think they were meant really to encourage people not only as a document but meant to encourage people that flying long distances was safe,” Grenier said.
The 1930s art depicted in the eight murals at the Lakefront airport act like portraits of the working class. Each mural on the walls of the upstairs lobby in the airport corresponds to a true direction with the compass on the lobby floor.
During her time at the airport and in gaps of working on the murals, Grenier gives tours of the art, décor, and history of the New Orleans Lakefront Airport. She studied aviation stories from historians and photographs from the Shoshun collection at the University of New Orleans.
“What I learned here and (what) is just kind of shocking when you think about it, we go from the experimental age of aviation to commercial aviation in less than 10 years; it just happened really quickly.”
She explained that airplanes were used for commercial use starting around 1934, and they were quickly used for military purposes, soon after their invention. The Wright brothers first successful flight with a gasoline powered plane was in 1903, 12 years before World War I.
“War accelerates the need to improve on flight, so we can attribute some of the advances to the military,” Grenier said.
When World War I ended, pilots came back to the U.S. with a brand new skill, but commercial aviation hadn’t been invented yet. Some people coming back from the war participated in a flying circus group profession and were called barnstormers. They sold airplane rides and performed stunts, showing to the United States what aviation was through entertainment. Grenier called it a novelty.
“A lot of them perished,” Grenier said. “Had those guys had been born just a little bit later, they would have all been commercial pilots.”
Mail drops were an important development for aviation work, as the U.S. postal service made contracts with private pilots, increasing the speed of communication in the country. Aviation thrived as well with the first aerial crop-dusting that began in Monroe, Louisiana with Delta Airlines, formerly Delta Air Services in 1928.
Pilot Charles Lindbergh, who’s flight is depicted in one of the murals, completed the first solo airplane flight across the Atlantic Ocean from New York to Paris in 1927, still in the period of experimental aviation, while the New Orleans Lakefront Airport opened in 1934. Pilot Amelia Earhart made her first flight in 1932 and came through the Lakefront airport in 1937, making her last flight.
Now Grenier is taking flying lessons herself at the Lakefront, which she said is a chance that she can’t pass up while working in an airport.
In doing research for establishing an aviation museum at the Lakefront, Grenier said she is planning to visit the aviation museum in Patterson, Louisiana soon. She said the idea to start one in New Orleans has been encouraged by art historians. In fall of 2016, the Southeast Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians asked to visit the airport during their annual conference in the city, so the group had lunch and a survey of the airport.
Grenier described the New Orleans Lakefront Airport site as a “living tour” and said she thinks having a museum at the airport would be a natural progression. As an art historian, Grenier said she’s attached to this place and due to her work she is on public display all day in the airport, talking to a variety of people passing through the vicinity.
Once Grenier spoke with an 88 year-old man who said he had stayed a night in the airport back when it had suites, so she did an interview with the man and taped it. She said an oral history program could be part of the museum here and received nice feedback from the aviation community on the idea.
“This place means something to a lot of people,” Grenier said.