Gander is known for opening its arms to stranded passengers in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, but the central Newfoundland town’s history has been linked to aviation since long before the planes were rerouted to its airport almost 20 years ago.
Reg Wright, president and CEO of the airport, says the “glamour of aviation really coloured what the community was.”
“It’s not the warm centre of the universe, Gander isn’t, but it always did have that sort of a glittering constellation of stars that were coming through, and people from all over,” says Wright.
No space represents that legacy better than the airport’s international lounge, opened by the Queen in 1959. After being sealed off from the public for decades, the lounge – which Wright calls a “time capsule” – is set to reopen this year.
It’s considered one of Canada’s best-preserved examples of modernist architecture. Bright orange and yellow seating overlook a stunning lower level that features an expansive mural, “Flight and Its Allegories,” by Canadian painter Kenneth Lochhead and a sculpture, “Welcoming Birds,” by Arthur Price.
At the lower level’s airport bar, locals used to congregate in hopes of a chance encounter with a Hollywood star or other luminary. That was when planes would stop to refuel in Gander, a convenient mid-way point for transatlantic flights – a relatively new luxury in the mid-20th century.
That changed when security measures tightened in the late 1970s and the lounge was closed off. History buffs feared the space could be lost due to the high cost of preserving it, but those fears have abated amid a recent wave of tourism.
Wright estimates more than 200 bus tours and even more solo guests visited the airport this year to see the legendary lounge – more guests than staff can accommodate, on top of running an airport.
“I thought it would be better that we fling the doors open, let people enjoy the space and learn about Gander’s stories, rather than keeping it behind the seal,” Wright said.
A $1.5 million restoration project was announced last year, with the airport authority putting up $500,000 and another $1 million split between the provincial and federal governments.
Wright attributes the recent interest in the space to pop culture, pointing to the success of the Broadway musical Come From Away, set in the days after 9/11 in Gander, as well as a renewed interest in modern design aesthetics from fans of the 1950s-set drama Mad Men.
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Travellers with an eye for architecture and design also pop in after visiting the famous Fogo Island Inn, a few hours north of the town.
Admission will be free, Wright said, with the hope of eventually licensing some local guides. The room will be left mostly as-is, with some fresh paint and interpretive materials like storyboards to help people guide themselves through the space. There are also plans for a small theatre to screen films.
An ambitious June opening date has been set, and Wright hopes to have at least some of the touch-ups ready for the summer tour season.
It’s not expected to be a huge money-maker for the airport, but Wright is hopeful the reopening can introduce younger generations to the airport lounge as a place for the community and its visitors to gather.
“It’s always been a hub for the local community, and a conduit to the international world,” Wright said.
“We can do that again, which is pretty exciting.”
Peter Blackie grew up in Gander, witnessing the many changes as the small forest town grew around the aviation industry. He remembers waving to the Queen as she drove through Gander in 1959, the year he worked a summer job at the airport.
“It was kind of a magic place for most of my life,” Blackie said of the lounge he saw open to the world that summer. “All of a sudden we came from World War Two terminal buildings into this rather fancy, gorgeous facility.”
Dean Cull, another Gander native who works with the Gander Airport Historical Society, started working out of the international lounge as an airline dispatcher in the 1980s. His job put him in contact with some high flyers: Tom Cruise became a weekly guest in his office when he was flying back and forth to Ireland shooting a film in the 1990s.
Such interactions with celebrities, generals and political leaders became part of a day on the job for Cull, but his strongest memories come from meeting crew members and passengers from around the world.
He was working during a time when the airport was better known for its frequent defections rather than brushes with celebrities. Some local residents called the airport the “hole in the Iron Curtain” for the hundreds of refugee claimants, mostly from Eastern Europe, who de-planed at Gander and told officials they wished to stay in Canada.
Cull remembers seeing Kim Phuc, a Vietnamese woman who was famously photographed as a child fleeing a napalm attack during the Vietnam War, who claimed asylum in Canada during a stop in Gander.
One of Cull’s favourite features in the lounge speaks to the history of everyday people passing through the space: the top of Arthur Price’s “Welcoming Birds” statue, worn down by passengers who touched the artwork for good luck.
“You’ll notice that the top of the birds are actually smooth because of so many people over years actually rubbing the statue,” he said.
Cull hopes the reopening shares some of the airport’s hidden stories and invites community members back into the space he remembers enjoying as a kid.
“We just want to open it up to the to the people again,” he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 1, 2020.