Canadian Architect


Gander’s Glorious Room

Dialogue is developing around the fate of the International Departures Lounge in Gander’s air terminal, a 1959 Modernist gem in need of costly repairs.

March 1, 2015
by Jane Severs

Kenneth Lochhead's 22-metre-long mural Flight and its Allegories adorns the lounge.

Kenneth Lochhead’s 22-metre-long mural Flight and its Allegories adorns the lounge.

TEXT Jane Severs

PHOTOS Zach Bonnell

In April 2014, the Gander International Airport Authority (GIAA) announced plans to replace its existing terminal with a smaller, more efficient building. Their rationale was simple. Passenger traffic was up. In fact, it had doubled over the last decade, with forecasts for continued growth. At 106,000 square feet, the current terminal building provides plenty of room to grow, but that room is in all the wrong places. A new terminal building could accommodate three times the current capacity in the critical arrivals and departures areas, and dramatically reduce operating costs.

The news set the heritage and design communities abuzz. Within days, freshly minted Facebook sites implored government and the GIAA to “save Gander’s International Terminal,” an online petition quickly garnered more than a thousand signatures, and by July, multiple nominations had earned the building a spot on Heritage Canada’s 2014 list of the nation’s top ten endangered places.

At first glance, Gander’s terminal has none of the obvious hallmarks of an architectural wonder. But look past its utilitarian exterior, beyond the recently added glass-and-aluminum security corridor, and you’ll find the International Departures Lounge—a near perfectly preserved 1959 gem widely considered to be one of the most important Modernist rooms in Canada.

The lounge features a Mondrianesque floor and a bronze sculpture by Arthur Price entitled Welcoming Birds.

The lounge features a Mondrianesque floor and a bronze sculpture by Arthur Price entitled Welcoming Birds.

In May 2014, the Association of Heritage Industries NL (AHI) assembled a coalition of organizations and individuals interested in preserving the lounge. Meetings were held. Efforts were coordinated. But by late summer, when the standard tactics of lobbying and advocacy failed to produce any tangible results, frustration set in. Despite months of press eulogizing the lounge’s Mad Men-esque interior and countless impassioned admonitions that the space must be saved, heritage advocates had achieved…not a whole heck of a lot.

The reasons? With many of the building systems deemed beyond their useful service life, necessary repairs and maintenance costs pegged in the millions, and energy expenses nearing $900,000 in 2013, no level of government was interested in designating the terminal an official heritage site, regardless of its significance. Then there was the lounge itself—a historic interior replete with original furnishings and finishes. Could it be adapted and reused without destroying much of what heritage advocates sought to save? The GIAA quickly pointed out that they are in the business of managing an airport, not a museum. And with 20% of Gander’s total labour force directly tied to airport activity, the impact of their management decisions extends far beyond the airport’s boundaries.

Among heritage groups, there were grumblings about a lack of local grassroots enthusiasm for “the cause.” Some blamed apathy. Some blamed a lack of historical consciousness—a natural condition, perhaps, for a town that did not exist before 1933. But many suspected it was a simple case of income over ideals. Like so many battles over built heritage, the debate surrounding the future of Gander’s International Departures Lounge pitched preservation against progress and the result was inertia.

Mid-Century Modern designer furniture occupies the generous space.

Mid-Century Modern designer furniture occupies the generous space.

Heritage advocates are often quick to brand opposition as single-minded, short-sighted and inflexible—while being guilty of the same crimes. Must preservation always equal stasis? Is there room for creative transformation? Have we become so averse to loss that we are unable to recognize opportunities? Is it time to stop criticizing each other and start critiquing the process?

Heritage preservation begins with an assumption that a significant resource must be saved in a manner that involves as little loss as possible. The problem? That assumption immediately places heritage advocates in opposition to some property owners. But more importantly, it eliminates avenues of opportunity before they can be explored, things like partial preservation, creative recycling, or even preservation by record with the original eventually being removed. In the case of Gander’s International Departures Lounge, rethinking the process required letting go of the emphatic demand to save the space, and replacing it with a question: can the lounge be saved? This is more than semantics. In addition to economics, there are structural, mechanical and code compliance issues to be assessed. These are serious challenges that must be approached methodically and rationally.

Earlier last summer, a representative of the Newfoundland and Labrador Historic Trust, an organization known for its commitment to the built heritage of the province, spent considerable time in Gander, initially to inventory and record the heritage features of the lounge. But his presence—and patience—led to conversations with GIAA staff and eventually its board. By summer’s end, he had gained the confidence of the GIAA and the necessary groundwork was in place to begin considering the problem in a cooperative and creative way.

A view of the terminal's vintage signage.

A view of the terminal’s vintage signage.

In the fall of 2014, AHI and the GIAA agreed to partner on a study. This is explicitly not a plan to preserve the lounge. Instead, it’s an exploration of the problem. And with only partial funding in place, it’s not a done deal yet. The information collected will not only inform AHI’s next steps, but potentially the GIAA’s course of action.

The hope of reaching a solution that maintains the lounge’s qualities in some form remains precariously alive. As Reg Wright, GIAA President and CEO notes, “there are potential aviation applications of the lounge and also for concepts that dovetail nicely with the airport’s goals. I am really hopeful of an adaptive use of the space that is commercially sustainable and at least keeps the spirit of the design intact.”

A lesson for all involved—and for others concerned about preserving historic spaces—is that creating an atmosphere of mutual respect and dialogue involving all stakeholders is more than a courtesy. It’s at the core of heritage: finding ways to bring our inherited resources into the here and now, in ways that remain relevant and viable.

Jane Severs is the Executive Director of the Association of Heritage Industries NL, and principal of Jane Severs Interpretive Planning.

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6 Comments » for Gander’s Glorious Room
  1. Candace Mercer says:

    One half of Gander International Airport is an art Deco gem – Canada’s loveliest airport, the additional newer domestic half is without a doubt the ugliest barn in the world and I believe paid for by wasting Transport Canada dollars. Admit the injustice of the horrific add on and move beyond this. Tear down the metal barn and revert back to the lovely airport of the past.

  2. Kent Peyton says:

    I was encouraged to start a facebook page to keep the public informed of this site being at risk.i grew up in Gander and spent much of my childhood in this glorious room and have great memories of witnessing many global events and VIP’s including the Queen in 1964.It is one of the most important rooms in Canada and was designed to showcase Canada to the World.Nothing was spared in design and materials 72 foot long mural by Kenneth Lougheed and sculptures as well as terrazzo floors and marble pillars.It truly is a glorious room and was and is timeless; the airports best asset.Millions of people have passed through.For many immigrants it was their first impression of Canada.While it is true traffic is not what it was building another terminal to the tune of 40 million is folly.The lounge is their best hidden asset and surely there are proposals to better utilize it.Many are concerned, both ex pats and the travelling public from all over the world.Please visit facebook page Save Gander International Airport Lounge as Protected Heritage site.

  3. Tacita says:

    I have campaigned in heritage preservation before and I feel like reminding to everyone weighing on the cost VS. relevance debate, that this debate is too often very short sighted, as it refers purely to the situation today and crucially not the situation tomorrow. Preserving is (nearly) always preferable because architecture and design trickling down to future generations in a good state are painfully few. Have you ever heard yourself or someone else today saying “they should have torn that building down 200 years ago”? The answer is that we value what the past has given us and therefore we should do all we can to preserve significant slices of our present for the future. Similarly, in 50 or 100 years from now the cost of preserving now will most likely look insignificant VS the gap in knowledge and emotions left by destroying something considered beautiful and a great example of its time. Preserve, preserve, preserve… there is never regret in taking the conservative course.

    • Lloyd says:

      Respectfully, Tacita, it sounds like you are guilty of the horse-blindered, inflexible view the author condemned. There would be a lot more preservation and heritage “wins” if the more ardent heritage lovers moved on and let more pragmatic people carry the torch. Too many heritage advocates don’t care about cost – which is near always a driver of change – and don’t volunteer to share in it either. Jane Severs is right. There has to be a better way.

  4. Sam says:

    I visited Gander a couple of weeks ago just to see it (flew into St. Johns from the US) – it’s definitely not highlighted as a site worth seeing in the Gander airport. We were on the verge of leaving the main area but thought to see where the sign to “observation deck” led. It was great to witness it from above. I wish there were times in the day when folks could go in and see it up close, even if there were some admission fee that might help the cause to preserve it.

    The mural kiosk in the observation deck, which I gather gave some further oral background, was broken. We did see the vintage Gander airport sign through the window on the other side.

  5. Geoff Radnor says:

    “Birds of Welcome” by Art Price is in the middle of the lounge. If nothing else is saved this wonderful piece of Public Art must be. Two out of three copies exist. One is in the Sunnylands sculpture park in the Annenberg former home in Palm Springs. The other is in the Donald M. Kendall Sculpture Gardens in the Pepsico HQ in Purchase NY. There it is amongst some of the greatest names in sculpture, Calder, Rodin, Max Ernst, Henry Moore, Joan Miro, Claes Oldendenburg and others.
    Art Price, a neglected Canadian artist, created many great pieces of Public Art.

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