New Orleans History -- Lake Pontchartrain
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Chronicles of Recent History: Memories from the Quiet Birdmen

Earl Gray couldn’t afford a ticket to the air show marking the grand opening of Shushan Airport on Lake Pontchartrain. But he stood on the nearby beach to see what he could.

He saw two men die.

It was 1934. Near the end of the five-day show, parachutist Ben Grew jumped from an open-cockpit plane. His lines caught on the aircraft’s tail. The pilot tried frantically to shake him loose by twisting and turning.

He tried too hard, fell out of the aircraft himself and disappeared into the lake.

“I thought he was bailing out,” Gray recalls. “I thought, what’s the matter with that guy, leaving his parachutist like that – but he was falling.”

The plane promptly nosedived, killing Grew.

This was not the air show’s only tragedy. Gray is part of a group that gathers every weekend at the airport’s restaurant to indulge in breakfast, coffee and stories about the old days. Most are World War II veterans and former aviators. They call themselves the Quiet Birdmen. But they are not quiet.

They often retell the story of the air show. And they talk about what happened to Capt. W. Merle Nelson on the first day. Gray didn’t see Nelson’s performance, but he knows the story well. Just after dark, Nelson was flying loops while his plane discharged rockets. The light from the rockets apparently blurred his vision, and he crashed in front of the grandstands. The plane burst into flames, and although would be rescuers could hear him screaming, they couldn’t rescue him.

It was not an auspicious beginning for an airport. But it was perhaps a harbinger of things to come.

The airport’s main building was an artistic gem. Famed artist Enrique Alferez designed graceful wall sculptures for the exterior and friezes for the interior.

He also created the “Fountain of the Four Winds” to decorate the grounds. Four larger-than-life nudes, three women and a man, are in the center of an oval pool. The male figure is so anatomically correct that the fountain caused an uproar. Alferez became so afraid his work would be vandalized that for a while he guarded it himself with a rifle.

The fuss eventually died down. But there was more trouble to come. Abraham Shushan, a pudgy man with hair as black as patent leather, was head of the Orleans Levee Board, which oversees the airport. It was Shushan who was the foremost advocate for state aid to build the facility – it cost $4.5 million – and it was Shushan for whom it was named.

The airport was created in the style of art deco, with no space left undecorated. Alferez’s friezes, of tools and machine parts, circled the top of the two-story lobby. Elaborate art deco railings ringed the mezzanine. Eight murals of 1930s planes flying over various exotic locales were mounted on the lobby walls. Two chandeliers hung from the ceiling, which was covered in aluminum-leaf tiles suggestive of airplanes. The center of the terrazzo floor was inlaid with a huge compass.

And in every nook and cranny was Shushan’s name: on the front of the building, on the roof and the floor, on the doorknobs, and even, some say, on the plumbing fixtures.

Then, in October 1934, only eight months after the ill-fated air show, Shushan was indicted on an income-tax charge. The federal government decided to get the goods on former Gov. Huey Long, and they started with his cronies, one of whom was Shushan. The investigation was part of what came to be called the “Louisiana Scandals,” although to many Louisianians what they investigated was just business as usual.

In 1940 Shushan and four other Long associates were convicted and sentenced to 30 months in prison. The state decided to change the airport’s name to Lakefront.

Shushan may have had a premonition some years before. According to the book Huey Long by T. Harry Williams, when someone asked Shushan why his name appeared so often on the airport buildings, he said, “We may lose out sometime; and they may change the name of Shushan Airport – but it’ll cost ’em $60,000 at the least, and I doubt whether they could do it for $100,000.”

He was paroled after 11 months and pardoned by President Truman in 1940. But by that time, his name had been stripped off every accouterment in the airport.

Clarke Harper, one of the Quiet Birdmen, has an airport doorknob from those days. It originally had an airplane in the center and the name “Shushan” engraved around the edge. The name has been drilled off, along with a bit of the nose and tail of the airplane.

And Louisiana passed a law against naming public facilities after people who were not yet dead.

Which was, perhaps, why the international airport built in 1946 was named Moisant Field – after John Moisant, a flyer who had been killed nearby in 1910.

But why was Moisant (now New Orleans International) even built when the city already had a perfectly good airport?

Some say Lakefront could hardly have expanded to meet the demands that would have been placed on it. It was a triangle jutting out into Lake Pontchartrain, and you can only jut out into the lake so far before you run out of either lake or landfill. Others, such as Nicolas Caridas, who ran the airport’s Walnut Room restaurant for many years and is the airport’s unofficial historian, disagree.

The environmentalists hadn’t come around yet – holding up progress to save a few crabs, he says. It was politics. “The state owned Lakefront Airport, and the city wanted its own airport, so they went out to Jefferson Parish to stir up trouble. New Orleans and Jefferson have been fighting over that airport ever since.”

Be that as it may, the passenger-ticket counters that once stood in Lakefront’s lobby have closed. The big commercial passenger airlines land at New Orleans International in Kenner, and the smaller commercial and private planes land at Lakefront.

But even though it lost out on the big business, it still boasted a beautiful facility – until 1964.

That was when the exterior friezes and high windows were covered with stucco, and the lofty ceiling and mezzanine disappeared to make way for second-floor offices. Five of the eight murals were covered or destroyed.

The resulting building is a hybrid – a spartan ’60s exterior with traces of art deco inside.

There are dissenting theories as to why it happened. One is that the metal-frame windows were being eaten away by the salt spray from the lake and had to be replaced, and as long as repair work was taking place, it seemed like a good idea to bring the building into the ’60s.

“Somebody stood to make a lot of money,” remarks one of the Birdmen.

This was about the time the federal government wanted to plant an interstate highway between the French Quarter and the Mississippi River and before preservationists had organized. Most people in the ’60s regarded art deco as cluttered and old-fashioned and probably thought that covering the windows and the beautiful detailing with flat slabs amounted to a face lift.

The other, more dramatic theory, is that the place was being turned into a bunker of sorts. Caridas and airport manager Randy Taylor lean toward that idea. The airport could double as a fallout shelter. This was during the Cold War, remember, when a Civil Defense bomb shelter for certain city officials was built underground at West End Boulevard.

But no bomb was dropped, and Lakefront Airport kept on keeping on. Today it averages 200,000 takeoffs and landings a year. And no one can argue that its facility – even after the renovation – is grander than those of most airports that cater to private planes. (Remember the sitcom “Wings”?)

Twenty years ago, the Flight Deck restaurant was added to the back of the Walnut Room. It is glassed in on three sides and affords a panoramic view of planes landing and taking off.

And there the Quiet Birdmen drink their coffee and watch it all.•

January 2001 - Vol. 35 - Issue 4 - Page 14 - #354