Mid-century modernism in the most unexpected place

Travellers on our tours to New York over the past 12 months have been enjoying the latest smash-hit Broadway musical, Come From Away, which tells the story of the role played by Gander, Newfoundland, and its international airport (IATA code: YQX), in the days following the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001. Apart from being a wonderful musical, it raises the obvious question: why Gander? Answering this question offers a fascinating insight into the development of air travel and − an added bonus − reveals a masterpiece of mid-century modernist architecture.

The evolution of air travel can be traced back to the early “daredevils”, and was rapidly developed due to the military needs imposed by World War II. The glamorous days of the 50’s and 60’s followed, ending with the “superliners” that we take for granted today. Just in the past 40 years we have gone from a 2 or 3-stop flight between Australia and the United Kingdom, with pull-down movie screens and smoking sections, to non-stop services with individual entertainment, flatbeds, pyjamas and in some cases even showers. The history of the Gander International Airport follows this same evolution and is a wonderful case study of the development of modern air travel.

The Canadian province of Newfoundland is the most easterly point of the North American continent, and also the closest to Europe, so it made sense that the early pioneer aviators would take off or land there when planning to cross the Atlantic Ocean. John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown completed the first non-stop trans-Atlantic flight from Newfoundland to Ireland in June 1919 − in a modified Vickers Vimy bomber − and were presented with a prize by then Secretary of State for Air, Winston Churchill. For the next two decades nearly 100 successful trans-Atlantic flights took off or landed in Newfoundland. Amelia Earhart was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from Newfoundland to England in 1928.

 

Up to 50 further attempts have been estimated to have been made during this period, with 40 lives lost. The British Government − it wasn’t until 1931 that the Statute of Westminster removed British parliamentary power over Canada − noted the importance of these flights and commissioned an airfield in 1935. The first flight landed at the Newfoundland Airport, as it was then, in 1938. The town of Gander was nothing more than a group of service buildings between the runways.

The importance of the airfield came to the fore during World War II. When the Lend-Lease policy (or, more formally, An Act to Promote the Defense of the United States) was enacted by President Roosevelt in 1941, warplanes were among the major items needed by Britain. These were initially shipped across the Atlantic, as they were still unable to fly the distance required.

But the effectiveness of the Nazi U-Boat blockade saw more planes sinking than making it to Britain. Lord Beaverbrook, the UK Minister of Aircraft Production and himself a Canadian by origin, oversaw the modification of the aircraft with extra fuel tanks so they could be flown across the Atlantic. The Royal Air Force Ferry Command was formed in July 1941, and the Royal Canadian Air Force Station (RCAF) Gander became the jumping-off point: civilian pilots flew the aircraft to the UK, and then they were ferried home – hopefully avoiding the U-Boats! With US entry into the war in December 1941, the United States Army Air Force Transport Command began similar ferrying services from Gander.

 

Over the course of the war more than 9,000 aircraft flew out of Gander − Churchill has been reported as describing Newfoundland as the largest aircraft carrier in the Atlantic Ocean. More importantly, crossing the Atlantic had become a routine flight operation and led directly to the development of scheduled commercial air travel across the ocean. On 24 October 1945, the first scheduled commercial trans-Atlantic flight, an American Overseas Airlines DC-4, passed through Gander.

With the end of the war, the RCAF handed control of the airfield back to the provincial government and the “township” was moved further away from the airfields. The airport’s name was changed to Gander International Airport by the federal government, after Newfoundland joined Canada in 1949.

During the 1950’s and 60’s most people still travelled between America and Europe by ship, but for heads of state and those who could afford the cost, the glamour of air travel proved irresistible. Airlines such as Pan Am and TWA began to use the large former military airfields. During the 1950’s and the Cold War, Gander became an important stop for flights between Communist countries in Europe and Cuba: these flights were unable to use US airspace. Aeroflot, the Soviet carrier, had ground staff permanently based at Gander, as did other airlines such as Lufthansa, Air France and BOAC. At the time, Gander was the most cosmopolitan town in Canada – but it was still only a town centred around the airport.

 

One flight between Moscow and Havana, in December 1952, saw Fidel Castro stuck in transit for several hours. He asked some locals to take him on a tour of the town. Upon seeing some boys sledding in the snow, he asked to try it too, and a famous photo taken by one of the locals ended up appearing in Time magazine.

 

Because Gander was a stop in the West, during the Cold War a significant number of travellers from Warsaw Pact nations defected there. These included Soviet chess-player and pianist Igor Vasilyevich Ivanov in 1980, Cuban Olympic swimmer Rafael Polinario, and the Vietnamese woman famously photographed as a naked girl fleeing a napalmed village, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, in 1992. Phuc had been granted permission by the Vietnamese government to continue her medical studies in Cuba, where she met her fiancée. On the way to their honeymoon in Moscow, they left the plane while it was being refuelled at Gander and applied for political asylum. This was granted and Phuc now lives near Toronto.

To cater for the increase in passenger traffic, and to provide an introduction to Canada for air travellers to North America, the newly-formed Canadian Department of Transport commissioned new airport terminals at most major cities.

Gander was the first to undergo a facelift, thanks not only to its gateway status but also because it was a major source of income: all airlines and travellers paid arrival taxes. As this was still the period of glamourous air travel, the terminal was built to showcase a cutting-edge modernity. Features of modern architecture and design were incorporated, along with artworks and contemporary furniture. A significant requirement was that all items were to be primarily designed and manufactured in Canada.

The utilitarian exterior has none of the obvious hallmarks of an architectural wonder, however the terminal’s interior is a veritable time-capsule of late 1950’s style.

 

The two striking art features are Art Price’s Birds of Welcome sculpture and a 22-metre-long mural, Flights and its Allegories by Kenneth Lochhead. It was painted in situ in egg tempera and Lochhead is estimated to have used over 500 dozen eggs to paint the mural!

 

 

The terrazzo floor designed by Robin Bush is a homage to Mondrian – children are rumoured to have used it for hopscotch – and the mid-century furniture (mainly Canadian originals, as mandated) is impeccably arranged along its axes. Bush also designed the Prismasteel seating for Herman Miller: the original aluminium chairs by Ray and Charles Eames in the dining room are long gone, but the duo’s fibreglass chairs are still featured in the Ladies Powder Room. These seats have been graced by the bottoms of celebrities and royalty, from Marilyn Monroe to Queen Elizabeth!

 

Another modern touch is the first escalator installed in Canada, in the main departure lounge.

 

There is a good reason why this time-capsule has been preserved, and not renovated or replaced as in so many other airport terminals. Within only a couple of years of Gander’s opening, planes could fly directly between New York and Europe without needing to refuel. There was no need to land in Gander anymore, so apart from the Eastern Bloc flights, the airport was barely used during the 1970’s and 80’s.

The guest list of the V.I.P. room howevr 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 queue-jump 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 – there are encyclopedia-size registers with lists of famous signatures.

 

Gander is still in use today. It’s an emergency landing field for flights across the Atlantic, and this is why it was part of the post-9/11 response. When all American airspace was closed, all flights currently in the air had to be diverted. Gander played host to 38 airlines, with their 6,122 passengers and 473 crewmembers − not merely for several hours, but for several days! The story of how the townsfolk of Gander housed and fed so many people forms the basis of the musical, Come From Away. It’s easy to see why the heart-warming story particularly resonates in New York City.

 

In April 2014, the Gander International Airport Authority (GIAA) announced plans to replace its existing terminal with a smaller, more efficient building. The rationale was simple: a new terminal building could accommodate three times the current capacity in the critical areas of arrivals and departures. This would dramatically reduce operating costs.

This news set the heritage and design communities abuzz. Within days, freshly-minted Facebook sites implored the Canadian 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. The long-term mayor of Gander, Claude Elliott (also one of the main characters in the Broadway musical) has promised that the terminal will remain intact during his lifetime.

You’re very unlikely to visit Gander International Airport today. It’s only reached on scheduled services by twin prop aircraft from St Johns, and the gigantic runway predominantly handles cargo and military planes. It’s not unusual to see soldiers in fatigues, returning from Iraq or Afghanistan, reclining on the modular furniture. Private jets do stop regularly to refuel: John Travolta, Mariah Carey and Bill and Hillary Clinton are among recent visitors to the V.I.P. suite. And Gander is also an emergency drop-off point for air-rage passengers.

If you do manage to get to Gander, there’s now a glass corridor allowing visitors to view the international terminal and they have even started offering tours. The next best thing is of course, if you’re in New York, to go and see Come from Away.

Stuart Barrie

Stuart Barrie

Stuart Barrie is a social historian with strong interests in modern history, and in particular Europe and the USA in the twentieth century, and lately modern architecture, especially the residential architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. The development of his latest interests arose from the intersection of the Bauhaus Movement and the Prarie style of architecture developed by Wright. Stuart has a BA from Macquarie University and a MComm from the University of NSW and has been leading tours for over 30 years.

Upcoming tours led by Stuart Barrie

Subscribe

Sign up to our mailing list for tour updates and latest news.

Order