Long Live the Ephemeral Optimism of the 1939 and 1964 NY World's Fairs!

Posted by: Jennifer Minner - Assistant Professor at Cornell University on Tuesday, October 15, 2013 at 12:00:00 am


The optimism and innovation of early and mid-twentieth century modern architecture lives on in the remaining buildings and structures of the 1939 and 1964 World's Fairs. John Krawchuk, the Director of Historic Preservation for the New York City Parks Department led a troupe of APT conference attendees on an extensive tour of the elegant and astounding fair artifacts at the Flushing Meadows Corona Park. The tour began at the entrance of the park, where an exuberant zig zag googie entrance is punctuated by the last remaining 1960s-era park benches.  Curved walls remain from the 1939 World's Fair and were incorporated into the 1964 entry.  



Krawchuck described how the 47-foot tall Rocket Thrower sculpture, designed by Don Delue for the 1964 World's Fair, had been restored to its former glory.  The sculpture represents humanity's accent into space. This is a theme carried through in the Unisphere, a 140-foot sculpture that is locked into both a thematic and axial relationship with the Rocket Thrower. The atomic symbol-like circular bands around the Unisphere commemorate the launch of the first satellites into orbit around the earth. The stainless steel globe has also been restored to gleaming magnificence, although there remains an opportunity to restore additional architectural lighting elements on this iconic sculpture. The Unisphere stands in front of the Queens Museum of Art, which is the former New York City Pavilion. The stately building was originally designed for the 1939 fair. It was adaptively reused for the second fair and it still contains a large-scale panoramic model of New York City from 1964.

The New York State Pavilion stands as a lonely and largely neglected structure.  Many questions remain as to how this giant structure might be incorporated into future plans for the park. Designed by Phillip Johnson, the great rusting and spalling wonder is comprised of observation towers that climb to 226 feet, the Tent of Tomorrow, and the Theaterama. Now exposed to the elements, the Tent of Tomorrow served as a rock and roll venue where Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Janis Joplin, and other canonical rock bands played. It was later converted to a skating rink that has since closed. The structure requires an estimated 14 million dollars for stabilization and an estimated 50-70 million for full refurbishment.  The echoes of wind ripping through the open structure seem to whisper of an outstanding opportunity to bring yesterday's vision of tomorrow into the future. Just beyond the structure is the former Astral Fountain, which has been adaptively reused as a skate park.

The Terrace on the Park was the next stop on a destination to the stars.  This building is somewhat reminiscent of Brutalism, which wouldn’t take off as a stylistic mode in the U.S. for another several years. At the 1964 World’s Fair it housed the Port Authority Heliport, where VIPs would land via helicopter. This includes a landing of The Beatles! It was home to the Top of the Fair restaurant and an exclusive private club that served the elite transportation officials of the time. (Yes, brought to you by none other than Robert Moses.) The building has since remained and houses the highest grossing privately operated restaurant in the New York Parks system. From the Terrace on the Park one can still see the beauty of the 1964 World’s Fair half submerged in the greenery of the surrounding park. 

Perhaps the most astounding of all buildings on site, is the great Hall of Science. Best described as a cathedral to science, this building is undergoing restoration. The building is covered with jewel-like Dalle De Verre, a technique that elevated beautiful U.S. manufactured glass into a matrix of concrete and epoxy. New Dalle De Verre panels were created to replace damaged ones. A former reflecting pool outside of the Hall of Science will be replaced with a green roof, as a demonstration of sustainability. The Hall of Science retains beautiful curving elevator doors.  The restoration architect and engineer for the project shared their techniques and enthusiasm inside this incredible monument to the beauty and wonder of science.  Outside of the building are two rockets that were on display at the 1965 fair. One of them is actually "space-worthy," having returned from a journey to space. Both have been restored.

The legacy of World’s Fairs is being preserved through lovingly and expertly applied technical procedures. One hopes that the remaining reminders of the fair will be just as successfully incorporated into the future of Flushing Meadows Corona Park.

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