[FoRK] Classic article on airport architecture/"airspaces": YQX
khare at alumni.caltech.edu
Mon Mar 28 04:37:11 PST 2005
> Airport Code YQX
> Airport name Gander Airport
> Runway Length 10500 ft.
> Runway Elevation 496 ft.
March 20, 2005
Gander Airport: When the Going Was Good
By ADAM GOLLNER
Visitors to the island of Newfoundland, the easternmost part of Canada,
are traditionally welcomed with a Screech In. This ancient ceremony, by
which one attains honorary citizenship, involves kissing a cod on the
lips -- or, absent that, a puffin's posterior -- and downing a shot of
Screech Rum, Atlantic Canada's ''golden elixir.'' Foreign dignitaries
and heads of state are not excluded. His Royal Highness Prince Philip
was treated to a variation of the ritual when he was the guest of honor
alongside the queen at the inauguration of a new terminal at Gander
International Airport in 1959.
At that time, Gander was the most important airport in the world. On
the route between New York and London, trans-Atlantic flights had to
land there to refuel, so everyone flying between North America and
Europe stopped off at the Crossroads of the World, as it became known.
Opened in 1938, it had the biggest landing field ever constructed.
Business boomed following the onset of mass commercial flight after
World War II, and major renovations were undertaken in the late 50's to
accommodate the stream of passengers. Seeking to project a modern,
stylish image of Canada, the government commissioned a futuristic
terminal filled with avant-garde art and furniture. The Beacon, a
newspaper in Gander, declared that the refurbished airport was ''bound
to convince every first time arrival from overseas that this, then, is
But paradise soon became frozen in time. With the advent of jet fuel,
stopovers became unnecessary; in the 1960's, traffic slowed to a
trickle. (These days, traveling to Gander, population 9,650, is itself
like going back in time; Air Canada only flies there on tiny
twin-turboprop planes.) Perfectly preserved, the terminal is a time
capsule from the heady days when travel was exotic and airports were
beacons of the future. ''It's still one of the most beautiful, most
important Modernist rooms in the country, if not the most important,''
says Alan C. Elder, the curator of the Canadian Museum of Civilization.
A 72-foot mural by Kenneth Lochhead, its paint tempered with more than
500 dozen eggs, looms over it. The terrazzo floor is a Mondrianesque
caprice that children once used for hopscotch. ''There's a playfulness
to the room,'' says Elder, ''but it's also so sophisticated.'' The
midcentury furniture, mainly Canadian originals, is impeccably arranged
on the geometric flooring: the Prismasteel seating was designed by
Robin Bush for Herman Miller; the sleek black leather chairs and
couches on the mezzanine look like they were designed for space travel.
Not everything has survived, however. Charles and Ray Eames's Aluminum
Group chairs, covered with an Alexander Girard fabric, are gone, but
their fiberglass chairs can still be found, notably opposite a long
mirror in the pink, maroon and gray powder room.
''A lot of very important people have sat in those chairs,'' muses Gary
R. Vey, the airport's president and chief executive. Vey's office is
filled with the orange leather Jacques Guillon seats that once occupied
the Distinguished Visitors Suite. Ron Jones, the former head of
catering, remembers those chairs well: ''I was getting everyone wets''
- drinks - ''and the empress of Iran stopped in with the embassy
entourage. When she went to sit down, the straps on the bottom of the
chair gave way, and her tail feathers hit the deck. Boom!'' The V.I.P.
room guest list reads like a who's who of 20th-century arts, ideas and
politics. The Beatles first set foot on North American soil at Gander.
Frank Sinatra tried to butt in line at the bar and was asked to wait
his turn. Jackie O., Churchill, Khrushchev, Marlene Dietrich, the king
of Sweden, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, Richard Burton, Elizabeth
Taylor, Ingrid Bergman - the list of signatories fills
encyclopedia-size ledgers. Gander resembled a real-life version of
those Edward Hopper ''Nighthawks'' knockoffs with Marilyn Monroe, James
Dean, Marlon Brando and Elvis Presley all at one desolate - but
spectacularly lighted - terminal.
The anecdotes are like a mainline into the Twilight Zone. ''My memory
is very vivid of the night I chatted with Albert Einstein,'' Mary
Smeaton MacDonald, a former gift-shop employee, says in a pamphlet for
Gander's 1997 Airlines Reunion. What did they talk about? ''Oh, the
theory of relativity.'' Marilyn Stuckless, who was the airport's
commercial developer, says: ''When I was a teeny-bopper, we were out
tobogganing when Castro and his bodyguards came to join us. It was the
first time they'd seen snow, and they were playing like children.'' On
Sundays, the entire town congregated at the terminal to eat Brookfield
ice cream and watch the jet set swoop into town. Because security was a
nonissue, the locals were able to mingle with travelers in the
terminal. ''It was like a big club,'' Stuckless says. ''You'd go up to
someone and start speaking to them. I sat down next to Muhammad Ali
when he was here, because that's what Newfoundlanders do. This is a
little island in the Atlantic, and it's very relaxed compared to what
most people are accustomed to. You could almost call us a bunch of
innocents.'' Indeed, that laid-back, charming demeanor is what put the
Rock (as Newfoundland is known) on the map again. On 9/11, dozens of
planes had to land at Gander, and locals took thousands of stranded
travelers into their homes. This hospitality was reciprocated with an
outpouring of gratitude culminating last December with President Bush's
first and only official trip to Canada, where he offered thanks to the
Today, the gigantic runway handles predominantly cargo and military
planes. It also serves as an alternate landing base for space shuttles
and an emergency drop-off point for air-rage passengers. It's not
unusual to see soldiers in fatigues, returning from Iraq, reclining on
the modular furniture. Private jets stop regularly to refuel: John
Travolta, Mariah Carey and Bill and Hillary Clinton are among recent
visitors to the V.I.P. suite. (Gander's main source of income was once
Soviet-bloc aircraft, but mass defections, wherein passengers would
flee into the surrounding woods, led to a crackdown by immigration
authorities.) Gander still exerts a magnetic attraction. A glass
corridor has been built to accommodate those who come to view the
international terminal. Though surrounded by turnip farms, moose and
the occasional polar bear, this small town was, for a brief spell, the
most cosmopolitan destination in the world. But one that embraced
newcomers, at a time when the idea of the world's getting smaller
filled us with hope, not fear.
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