Gander’s Glorious Room

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.