The New York World's Fair Legacy
By Christian Kellberg
The 1964-65 New York World’s Fair opened on April 22 1964 and although in operation for only two 6 month seasons, closing on October 17 1965, it continues to capture the imagination. Surviving landmarks of the Fair have appeared on film and TV. The Unisphere is seen in the opening credits of the TV series The King of Queens and The New York State Pavilion provided the setting for the WIZ. Both of these landmarks show up in a float for this year’s Macy’s Day parade. They are a few of the image bytes that give one pause to consider the lasting influence of the Fair.
Flushing Meadows was fenced off for almost 2 years after the Fair closed, until “Reopening Day” in June 1967. Like the construction the demolition could be seen from the No. 7 train. The United States Pavilion was donated at the end and of the Fair and subsequently abandoned; it once housed actual copies of the Bill of Rights, the Emancipation Proclamation and other historic documents. President John F. Kennedy had broken ground for the $14 million pavilion in 1962. The slow destruction of the United States Pavilion took another 10 years to complete at the hands of vandals, another event you got to watch from the No. 7 subway. First there was graffiti, then parts of the exterior fiber glass panels were kicked out, some of the letters of “The United States” got knocked off, there was a small fire and then one day, in the Fall of 1977 the building was bulldozed.
Around this time I went to Flushing Meadows to take some photos. Like the United States Pavilion the towers of the New York State Pavilion had long been closed to the public and the “sky streak elevator frozen midway, since 1967, never to move again. The stairway was open and I was able to get up to the top platform. From this perspective the unique attributes of this structure become clear. At 350 feet across it is the World’s largest pre-stressed cable suspension roof, constructed on the ground and jacked up into place in a few days. Viewed from the towers it appears as a giant frame for the 567 piece terrazzo map of New York State, also the World’s largest, with each piece weighing 400 pounds.
I only noticed when scanning the negatives, this year, that I had captured the set of the Wiz in the background, which was being filmed at the time. Closer inspection showed a yellow taxi and other stage props.
(Update: Some map sections were restored under a $40K grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and put in an exhibition at the Queens Museum titled “The Really Big Map” this May. At the end of the exhibition in June the restored sections were removed by forklift and stacked in the open remains of the NYSP, cracking much of the restoration work.)
Flushing meadow park is now in the middle of some major improvements: the $20.45 million expansion of the Queens Theatre in the Park (actually part of the New York State Pavilion) the new Shea Stadium, Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, The Queens Museum of Art’s 2010 expansion to double it’s size, The Flushing Meadows Corona Park Olympic Pool & Ice Rink and the Hall of Science and Preschool Playground (opened in June of 2007). The conclusion of this will focus even more attention on the appearance of the NYSP, which despite 45 years of total neglect still stands prominently, with its 250ft tower and 100ft columns. Of the 142 buildings Philip Johnson designed only the New York State Pavilion has the distinction of being on Landmarks Commission’s list of the 50 most endangered buildings in New York. Studies were made by John Ciardullo Architects and Planners, in 1996 concluding that the cost of demolition would exceed the cost of stabilization. They also cautioned that the foundation needed immediate attention, since the supporting wood piles were deteriorating. So why is this towering structure still standing 12 years later with no sign of tilting or sinking? Their report noted that in conversations with Lev Zetlin Associates, who originally did the engineering for the pavilion, that steel piles were added to all of the column foundations. Since they did not have drawings they had to assume only wood piles. In 2004 there was a proposal to convert the pavilion to an Air & Space Museum, by CREATE Architecture Planning and Design, who were also unable to locate drawings. Interestingly these drawings have now surfaced and some have been posted online. I recently saw a posting, from The Villager, of a 3 year old interview with George Capsis titled “Encounters with Philip Johnson, profligate architect” where he describes a meeting with Philip Johnson at his design firm Robinson, Capsis, and Stern. They had been asked by Robert Moses to design the exhibition spaces at the New York State Pavilion, which had run way over budget. The World’s Fair Corporation required that all proposals for the pavilions also include the cost of demolition. George’s description of the highly visible The New York State Pavilion, as something NYC would never have the funds to take down, coupled with Philip Johnson laughing off the demolition question made me wonder if the NYSP cost overruns were in part due to out of scope foundation work and if Philip Johnson had the last laugh knowing, as George said, “the remaining oval Stonehenge will stand for centuries”. Should this come to pass it will not be the only grouping of 100ft tall 10ft diameter towers as evidenced by the 15 “no purpose” colored light towers at the Los Angeles International Airport:
The NYSP is the most unique of the three remaining ’64-’65 World’s Fair buildings and should be saved as it has endured and can be redefined beyond the personalities of Robert Moses or Philip Johnson.. It would be ideal if Ciardullo’s 1996 estimate of over $3 million for foundation stabilization was not a necessary first step toward restoration.
The site peacethroughunderstanding.com is a board I participate on and is a great resource for information, from the most obscure nuts and bolts detail to the most general of chats, interspersed with lots of photos. I also have an online gallery of Flushing Meadows images.
Christian Kellberg is an Aerospace Engineer and now resides in El Segundo, California. He grew up in Flushing, Queens and watched the events of the World’s Fair unfold first hand, even sneaking in a few times during construction. He makes a point to stop by the old Fair grounds whenever he visits and except for the New York State Pavilion he is encouraged to see the start of a revitalization for this the city’s second most popular park.