Gander airport renovation aims to open up historic lounge

The Gander International Airport Authority has announced the start of a $1.5-million renovation program that aims to return the celebrated lounge to the community.

Lounge will be open to the public at specific times

The National Trust of Canada once called Gander airport's international departures lounge the most important modernist room in Canada. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

The celebrated international lounge at Gander's airport should open to public use next year, thanks to a $1.5-million renovation program announced by the airport authority Wednesday.

The airport aims to add a gallery, meeting space and a heritage theatre to the lounge, while restoring some of the distinctive furniture and adding storytelling features for self-guided tours.

"If you want to preserve old spaces, they need to be given new uses," said airport CEO Reg Wright. "And that might mean, in some microform, that there will have to be some change. The key is to manage the change so that the spirit and intent of the built heritage remains intact."

Travellers sit near a 70-foot mural by Saskatchewan artist Kenneth Lochhead in this 1959 photo taken for the National Film Board of Canada. (Gar Lunney/Library and Archives Canada/National Film Board)

Wright says the goal of the renovation is to keep the room's character as close to the original design as possible — and that some elements that were added after 1959, like a "birdcage" security tunnel installed after Sept. 11, 2001, will be removed.

"So if you look for that shot, that photo of Gander that you want to see, you'll still be able to take that," he said.

Historic value

The current iteration of the Gander airport was opened in 1959, and christened by Queen Elizabeth.

If you can catch a tour of the historic lounge, you'll see the chair where staff believed the Queen sat and fixed her hair.

In a news release Wednesday, the airport authority bragged that its international lounge "is widely regarded as the best-preserved Modernist room in Canada with an historic legacy spanning multiple wars and the Golden Age of aviation."

Jack Pinsent, head of the Gander Airport Historical Society, said the distinctive 70-foot mural caused quite a stir when it first came to town — and it wasn't all positive.

"That was the talk of the town when this airport was opened, and knowing my parents and hearing my parents discuss it, they were absolutely flabbergasted," he said.

"They didn't really like that kind of thing, they thought that was — like, what are you doing putting up that kind of thing? I mean this is a terminal, why not put a picture of an airplane up there?"

Jack Pinsent is the head of the Gander Airport Historical Society. He says, despite Gander's reputation as a magnet for celebrity, he never saw any film or music starts passing through the airport, only Hugh Hefner. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

The airport head says the upcoming physical changes will also come with a new approach to the lounge, which will see it opened up to public use at prescribed times throughout the week — and he says it can all be done by next summer.

Wright said that change "solves a couple of problems" for the airport, which has seen international passenger traffic fall from 1.5 million visitors yearly to about 25,000 last year.

The airport estimates the new approach can increase foot traffic to 50,000 visitors yearly, and can also make money through retail and concessions sold inside.

"There may be a cultural or heritage lean on the project, but no mistake about it — this is using this room as an economic catalyst," Wright said. 

"I'm an enormous fan of this space, I love mid-modernist design … it's the physical manifestation of the community, but it has to do different things if we're going to be able to continue to afford to heat it. So essentially this is an important pivot."

15 minutes of fame

The cost for the renovation program is split between the federal government, the provincial government, and the Gander International Airport Authority — and the announcement comes as the Gander Airport, and the international lounge, is experiencing a bit of a tourist boom.

Fuelled by the Broadway musical Come From Away, visits to Gander and to the Gander Airport are up. Wright says more than 200 bus tours have visited the room since Canada Day.

MP Scott Simms, who represents the area in the House of Commons, says the spending is a prudent investment, and an effort to capitalize on Gander's new-found fame.

Come From Away is on stage at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa until Sept. 8. The run is sold out. (Matthew Murphy)

"If the production ends at some point, and who knows maybe it will just keep going, but if it ends then it's incumbent upon us to make sure that we have the facilities and that we can promote this to tourists who have been here and the tourists who are about to come," he said.

"You know, as [Andy] Warhol once stated, everybody has their 15 minutes, well we want to expand this 15 minutes to throughout the entire day."

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Garrett Barry


Garrett Barry is a CBC reporter, working primarily with The St. John's Morning Show.