As T. Sellers Meric and business partner Benedict Cimini put pencils to paper a half century ago to redesign the Lakefront Airport terminal, preservation stood at the heart of each decision the architects made.
Not only did they want to preserve the local populace from nuclear fallout, but they also wanted to preserve the classic Art Deco building on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain that they were about to ensconce in concrete two inches thick.
At the height of the Cold War, Cimini and Meric produced an award-winning mid-century remodeling that turned the terminal at the end of Downman Road into a fortress of horizontal lines and right angles. Fifty years later, architects and engineers of another generation have restored the 1933 building to its original appearance in the heydays of Huey Long.
That final restoration will be publicly unveiled this Saturday at 10 a.m.
Meric, now 85, (Cimini died in 2007) is sanguine about the dismantling of his design, which the American Institute of Architects honored in 1964 but had fallen out of favor in recent years.
"I thought we did a great job, but I wasn't attached to it," he said from a couch in his living room. With its square angles and vertical facades, his house in the Lakewood South neighborhood architecturally nods toward his ideas for the airport. Both were built in the same era. "These are different times."Retired architect T. Sellers Meric holds the award he and his business partner, Benedict Cimini, received in 1964 for their redesign of the New Orleans Lakefront Airport terminal. Renovations to restore it to its original depression-era art deco appearance have been completed. (photo by Richard Rainey, Nola.com|The Times-Picayune)
As is the case with many things in New Orleans, change for the airport catalyzed with Hurricane Katrina.
Sitting on the bank of Lake Pontchartrain, the terminal swallowed a few feet of water and was battered by high winds and rain during the storm. Wilma Heaton, who was working for the Orleans Levee District, had an office on the second floor and was one of the first people to survey the damage.
"I just sat here crying," she recalled. "I said, 'This place has to come back.'"
As federal disaster aid flowed to New Orleans, FEMA sent $10 million to restore the Lakefront Airport terminal. Barred from rebuilding several structures outside the new levee system, officials redirected another $9 million in federal dollars from those projects to the terminal.
The consulting firm RCL Architecture of Mandeville signed onto the restoration project in 2006 and began four years of research into the building's history.
Designed by architects with Weiss, Dreyfous and Seiferth, construction on the original building began around 1929. Lakefront Airport started taking commercial flights in 1933, although it wasn't officially christened until Feb. 9, 1934.
The building is steeped in history. Amelia Earhart stayed in its VIP suites on her way to California to launch her final flight. Air races were common occurrences and spectators watched from the terminal's rooftop observation deck. Murals by the late Spanish-American artist Xavier Gonzalez spanned the central atrium's second-floor balconies.
Long, a U.S. senator by then, had a fully operating surgical suite installed onsite, preparing for the worst possible scenarios. The terminal also housed a post office, a kitchen, cafe, restaurant, a station for immigration and customs and offices for the federal departments of Agriculture and Commerce.
Inside it was a small city and an architectural marvel, unlike any other art deco site in New Orleans because of its level of detail. Built for about $3.5 million at the time, it couldn't be built from scratch today, said Alton Ochsner Davis, an architect who led the recent restoration project for RCL.
"There are so many features to this building," he said. "It would be cost-prohibitive."
Cimini and Meric understood this, but in the months following the Cuban-missile crisis, the threat of nuclear war took precedence. Still, they went through enormous pains to preserve as much of the original architecture as possible as they bricked up windows and sheathed the building in concrete and steel.
"They recognized that the completely different art deco design had value and was appreciated by many people, artisans and civilians alike," said R. Vaughn Cimini, Benedict Cimini's son. "And they thought it would be a disservice to society to destroy it."
Meric said he didn't design the 1960s renovation to be temporary, but he believes that had it not been done the building would likely be in worse shape than what Davis found it in.
"We probably protected the building for 50 years," he said.
Meric and Cimini's decisions turned the restoration project into a revelatory treasure hunt, Davis said. As each wall was removed a new feature would appear. Crews found six of Gonzalez's eight murals still hanging in their original spots, carefully covered with protective rice paper. The Louisiana State Museum has returned a seventh mural, but an eighth one was destroyed. The Non-Flood Protection Asset Management Authority plans to host a fundraiser on Feb. 9 to help pay for the existing paintings' restorations. Following the terrazzo tiling on the floor, Davis retraced the terminal's original hallways, moving walls and doors back to their original places wherever possible.
The restoration removed the large boardroom Meric and Cimini had installed above the lobby, once again opening the atrium's nicotine-stained ceiling two stories up to the open air. Davis said his team salvaged enough tiles to recreate the original colors of the painted ceiling before decades of smoking travelers had sullied it.
Davis also orchestrated the renovation of the airport's fabled Walnut Room, a popular dance hall and dining space during the war years and the 1950s.
Along with its terminal, Lakefront Airport is undergoing its own small renaissance. It handles roughly 190 takeoffs and landings every day, and in June it restored commercial airline passenger service for the first time since 1946.
"It's like a battered child," Heaton, who is now a commissioner with the Non-Flood Asset Management Authority that oversees the airport, said of the terminal. "But it survived, and it's back and it's a new day."