Once an aviation marvel, the New Orleans Lakefront Airport terminal and the developments surrounding it have transformed it back to — and perhaps better than — its former glory
The object of Jesse Noel’s affection is more than 80 years old, proving once again that true love knows no age and that the right makeover can do wonders.
Not a work day goes by that the Interim Director of Aviation at New Orleans Lakefront Airport doesn’t take a moment to admire his surroundings, namely the restored terminal building that serves dually as a preserved piece of the past, and a reassuring symbol of what lies ahead for this area of the city.
“To me, there’s not a better building in the entire city. Every day I come here, it feels like you’re stepping back in history,” Noel said. “This entire area around the airport and the lakefront is really a hidden gem with so much untapped potential.”
Untapped? Maybe. Undiscovered? Hardly.
Over the last decade, the entire Lakefront area of the city has taken the first steps in what will be a decades-long civic makeover that, once complete, will transform it forever. Investors and developers have already put their brainpower and bucks into various projects, following the lead of those who decided to renovate the airport terminal post-Katrina.
HISTORY COMES ALIVE
The cool thing about the terminal at Lakefront Airport is, though it has changed – drastically changed, to be specific – it has somehow managed to stay almost exactly the same as when it first opened in 1934.
On Feb. 10, 1934, 10,000 spectators attended the airport’s dedication, making it the “Air Hub of the Americas.” Built on a man-made peninsula, Lakefront Airport cost $4.5 million back then. Part of that price tag obviously included the terminal, which received rave reviews for not only its functionality, but more so for its artistic and architectural splendor.
“I’m in awe of this building,” said Wilma Heaton, Chair of the Lakefront Airport Committee. “I’ve had an office here since 1996, but I’m still in awe of the whole thing. Guess the day that stops is the day I shouldn’t be doing this anymore. I still pinch myself. My attachment to this building increases with time. It doesn’t diminish.”
However, much of the terminal’s original architectural charm was lost in a massive renovation project in the mid-1960s. The rework covered more than 100 windows, encased the exterior in cement panels and closed off the second-floor balcony overlooking the lobby. The cold, generic vibe lasted for 40 years until Hurricane Katrina flooded the terminal with four feet of water, causing millions in damage.
While some wanted to do away with the terminal to make way for other commercial projects, airport officials fought hard to save this historic building. Close to $19 million in federal aid was poured into repairing and beautifying the terminal, making it a prime commercial space for aviation businesses, but also lawyers and financial investment firms.
“Katrina really did give us an opening to restore it to the splendor of 1934,” Heaton said. “I like to say we restored it to 1934, not 1964, because there’s no comparison to the original design. This is history. This is a part of the Golden Age of Aviation.
“So it was important to restore it properly. And we’re glad we did, because it’s been a spark in the revitalization of the whole area.”
ENTERTAINMENT DESTINATION ON THE LAKEFRONT
The vision of Ronald and Mary Von Kurnatowski, owners of Tipitina’s and the newly-restored Orpheum Theater, is to connect entertainment, recreation, boating, music, food and more on 20 acres of picturesque lakefront.
The reality — once all phases are complete in the next two to three years — the area will be a must-experience destination for locals and tourists alike in a city already full of them.
In 2015, the Orleans Parish Non-Flood Protection Asset Management Authority approved the plan for a project now known as Lakeshore Landing New Orleans — a multipurpose facility and entertainment venue. In the Fall of 2017, Lakeshore Landing hosted a “sneak peek” free concert featuring local bands and various food trucks as a defacto early invitation to the site.
While much of the project is still being built, there are existing reasons to check it out mid-process. Lakeshore Landing staff can host special/private events on the waterfront. For a less-complicated affair, the Landing’s pop-up marina bar and café is open on the weekends and features live music in the summer and football watch parties on fall Sundays. Lastly, the Landing is home to a fully refurbished PT-305 boat from the National World War II Museum and is fully operational for tours and even rides.
Upon completion, the Landing will have a 5,000-seat outdoor theater, multiple retail and dining options and an open-air market.
“The efforts made possible by private donations have been remarkable,” Heaton said. “It’s creating a great synergy, starting with the terminal restoration and now the revitalization of what surrounds it.”
MORE THAN A MEAL
It’s fitting that it took an Old School method for Catering Colossus George Messina to breathe new life into a classic Old School venue.
“How did this all begin?” he repeats. “Actually, my mother read a newspaper article that the Walnut Room was coming back, and she told me to check it out. So I took a chance, and fell in love with the building.”
Of course, Mother knows best.
Back in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, the Walnut Room at the Lakefront Terminal was THE place for high school proms and weddings. And thanks to Messina and his mother’s loyal readership, it is again, more than a half-century later.
Known today as Messina’s At The Terminal — a culinary venue with a stand-alone restaurant and multiple Art Deco rooms to host a variety of large-scale formal gatherings — the spot has recaptured its former glory under George and his family, becoming a must-book destination for an entirely new generation.
Mix this one-of-a-kind setting with an ambitious yet true-to-the region menu, created and executed by chef Leon West, and it’s understandable why Messina’s won the 2017 Best Independent Caterer Award and was named a Top 3 venue by New Orleans CityBusiness Magazine.
“In the catering business, you’re always looking for unique — in this case, a unique building,” George said. “You need something that separates you from everyone else in the city. And that’s what this place does. There’s nothing like it in the city of New Orleans that looks, feels, or gives you the ambiance of this venue.”
“I knew it the first time I laid eyes on it,” said George.
Messina’s substantial floor plan at the Lakefront Terminal offers both indoor options for receptions approaching 200 patrons and outside options that overlook Lake Pontchartrain and the airport runway. With enough notice, Messina’s crew can accommodate almost any request, including some newlyweds’ wish to have a private plane take them around the city before, during or after the reception.
“We want you to come and have a meal, and have bottomless mimosas on the weekend, or a Bloody Mary, and just get away from your week,” George said. “But, in the end, it’s all about creating memories. It’s the pictures you take here, whether it be for a wedding or high school prom or a gala, and the nostalgia that comes with the Art Deco decor.”
There’s really just nothing like it.