When Long Beach Airport wraps up a $17.8 million renovation project early next year, travelers will be able to enjoy the renovated meeter-greeter plaza, several new concessions, and probably the most opulent car rental customer lobby they’ve ever seen.

Once the meticulous restoration work is done, car rental agencies will do business from the ground floor of the airport’s historic terminal, a Streamline Moderne building that dates to 1942.

The non-car renting public will also be welcome, and the building will be worth seeing. Colorful mosaics on the first and second floors depict a net full of salmon, a sailboat on the water, a trio of gulls in flight and other vignettes, some of which were recently revealed after being covered by carpet, vinyl tiles or other flooring for decades.

The mosaics, designed by artist Grace Clements as part of the New Deal-era WPA arts program, used more than 1.6 million tiles, said John Thomas, the project’s historic preservation consultant.

Part of his job was to ensure the construction contractor would “pump the brakes” to avoid damage in sensitive areas, and in some places, workers even used plastic hand tools to protect the tiles, he said.

Two men in construction garb work on hands and knees to clean the tiles in a floor mosaic from 1942.
Workers carefully clean the tiles in a mosaic of an old prop plane, uncovered as part of a Long Beach Airport restoration project. Photo courtesy of Long Beach Airport.

They were hoping to uncover the top part of a world map overlaid with airline flight paths, and they did, Thomas said, but they also found one unusual piece that no one knew to look for because it wasn’t documented: a signature tile that reads “WPA Art Project, Southern California 1941.”

“It really was a great surprise, so we’re thrilled that this large, fairly well-intact piece of art of well over a million tiles has been rediscovered. They’re in good shape,” Thomas said.

Five or six wall murals Clements personally painted on both floors of the building have long since been covered over and are considered lost, though Thomas hopes to work with airport officials to recreate them from photos and other records. (He even went frame by frame through a late 1940s Doris Day movie that shot scenes at the airport so he could see where the murals were.)

The murals that depicted stars, moon and planets call to mind celestial navigation, but taken together with a mosaic of a compass encircled by the signs of the zodiac, they also could be seen as foreshadowing the artist’s future interest in astrology.

Always an “independent spirit,” Grace Richardson Clements was a Post-Surrealist painter who was born in Oakland, spent most of her life in California and ultimately married five times, said her nephew, Robert Richardson.

Though she didn’t have a formal college education, Clements followed her career as a working artist by becoming a critic who wrote for art magazines and produced a radio program about art. Her fifth husband was a devotee of astrology, and Clements picked up that interest, spending nearly a year in India to learn about it, Richardson said.

“She was certainly a modern woman in the sense of, she didn’t feel the need to conform to any particular expectations of what a woman should be doing,” he said.

Richardson thinks his late aunt, who died in 1969, would be pleased to see her work preserved, and he’s gratified to see the city take an interest in it, he said.

Two construction workers in hard hats peel back a covering revealing a mosaic floor tile design.
Workers on the Long Beach Airport renovation project uncover a fish mosaic that was part of a 1942 decorative art project. Photo courtesy of Long Beach Airport.

To complete the effect created by the mosaics and Philippine hardwood accents, the terminal will be adorned with period-appropriate furniture and fixtures. Thomas said it’s been easy to find recreations of Art Deco/Streamline Moderne light fixtures because the style is popular now, but furniture hasn’t been chosen yet.

The original clock is being restored by professionals before resuming its place in the terminal, and interpretive plaques will be installed to explain the building’s historic elements, Thomas said.

The overall project also includes seismic upgrades to protect the building. A new baggage claim area opened last April, and the city is accepting proposals until later this month from concessionaires who want to run the second-floor restaurant (last known as Legends of Aviation and closed since 2014), a separate cafe-type space or a vending kiosk, airport spokesperson Kate Kuykendall said. (All three will be outside the security checkpoint, so all visitors can access them.)

And even though people check in and wait for flights in newer facilities, the terminal will be more than a time capsule of an early era in commercial flight.

With car rental service on the first floor and airport executive offices returning to the second floor, Kuykendall said, “It makes me happy that the historic terminal will still have a part of daily operations at the airport after this renovation.”

The airport hosts about 58 commercial flights a day and last year saw more than 3.2 million travelers. Thomas said he’ll help the city try to get the painstakingly restored terminal onto the National Register of Historic Places, and he can’t wait to share the finished product with everyone.

“I’m anxious for the public to be able to come and see these pieces that haven’t been seen for decades and learn more about the art and the artist.”