Lakefront Airport murals completely restored for first time since the ’60s
Near the end of her restoration work, art historian Elise Grenier found that the murals of the Lakefront Airport were relatively still in good condition, having survived both man-made intervention and the natural disaster of Hurricane Katrina.
The murals were made by American artist Xavier Gonzalez, as a result of the WPA sponsorship of federal arts and public arts and are finally completely restored and on public display, for the first time since 1964. Before Hurricane Katrina, the Lakefront Airport was covered in two feet of concrete in 1968 to potentially be a nuclear fallout shelter, so hired architects protected the art work by placing the murals behind the dry walls.
When first entering the Lakefront Airport after the storm, Grenier said she had to have a map to locate each mural inside, especially because she couldn’t see outside the building.
“What cues me off that it was a bomb shelter is that there are 144 windows in this terminal,” Grenier said. “They covered all of them but three, and that takes time, thought, and money.”
Two of the eight paintings were revealed to be missing after Grenier cut through the drywall. Gonzalez’s “Flight Over Bali” was never found, and pieces of the painting were left stuck to the wall. Grenier believes that in a conservator originally trying to take all the murals down before the airport’s transformation to a bomb shelter, the process didn’t go well and was abandoned.
The “Flight Over Rio” went into the custody of the Louisiana State Museum and was returned for the restoration process.
The six murals affected in 2005 had their plaques left moldy from the storm, had to be restored, as well as their broken glass. The paper’s restoration involved a bath to de-acidify the material.
Grenier explained that the architects that encased the murals were probably sorry that they had to cover them up in their work, and she said that they were true to their ethic.
“After Katrina, when this place flooded and we were given the funds to restore it, I’m not going to say it was easy but it was literally a matter of peeling all those layers away.”
Grenier first made cuts in the drywall to find the murals, confirming that the architects’ work before her, which was well documented, was correctly filed. Metal studs and Japanese rice paper were left on the murals.
“We put a box around each one (mural) during the demolition, and each one had their own air conditioning, and that stayed in place until the very end.”
Grenier was the last person working on art restoration at the airport after the building’s renovations were completed in 2014, and she brought in interns from University of New Orleans, Tulane University, and Loyola University New Orleans to aide her. The first phase in actually restoring the murals consisted of testing with the removal of adhesives, like chemicals.
“The testing phase was to find not only the optimum result but the best way to do it that’s least harmful for the painting.”
The assessments for each painting, like finding where detachments and cracks were, were made in the next phase of restoration.
Grenier’s art restoration team started with no documents about the murals’ status beforehand.
“Art restoration is a new science. That’s part of it,that I need to leave this kind of documentation of how I work and what I found for the future.”
The only places that required retouching on the murals were tiny abraded areas in the very lower portions of the paintings. Grenier said she doesn’t want any additional physical barriers besides the brass and velvet roping now placed that courts off the murals.
The last phase of the restoration with each painting included a conservation approved, archival quality varnish that is invisible and is easily removed with water. The murals are left being composed of a preparatory layer, then a layer of paint, and finally the varnish.
Grenier explained how the only reason that the missing mural, “Flight Over Bali” was restored from scratch was because the painting was the only missing piece of the project. She said that since the Bali painting depicts nude imagery, that could be a reason it was removed from its wall and and never returned.
“Does it still exist? I don’t know, but if it it does it’s full of holes.”
The case of the missing murals led Grenier to think that the Japanese rice paper left on the murals were not left to protect the paintings in place but to remove them all. The attempt to remove the murals may have been abandoned then, but Grenier said she is willing to restore the actual Bali mural if it ever turns up.