NYC WORLD FAIRS: The Future Was Then – This post is about an excursion on Wednesday, February 27th to the QUEENS MUSEUM and FLUSHING MEADOW PARK to see, primarily, the famous NYC dioramas originally created for the city’s TWO World’s Fairs (1938 and 1964) and also the Museum’s collection of NYC World’s Fair artifacts. If the weather cooperates, we will then walk through Flushing Meadow Park (the former Valley of Ashes made famous in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby) to see what Fair artifacts are still apparent. Museum admission is $8 and can be purchased at the Museum – however, RSVP’s / No Show Insurance are necessary so we know how many to plan for. MWC’ers, please go to SIGN UP! to reserve your spot and get meet-up details. The intent is to take the #7 train and walk to the Museum from there – wear comfortable shoes and bring some water. There is a COFFEED Shop within the Museum for lunch. If some of you would like to drive or get out to the Museum by other means, just let us know so we can meet there.
From the moment he joined the NYC Planning Department in the early 1920’s, Robert Moses was pondering what to do with that great big heap of ash sitting near the city border on the eastern edge of Queens. For most of its modern, urban life, New York City’s homes and businesses had used coal for energy and heating. And what does coal generate? Ash. Lots of it. Identified locally as the Corona Ash Dump it was referred to, metaphorically, in Fitzgerald’s THE GREAT GATSBY as the “Valley of Ashes” serving as a cosmic divide between the super-wealthy citizens of the North Shore of Long Island and the struggling masses to be found just over the city line. But, if you were Robert Moses what would you do with an actual mountain of ash? Why, build on it, of course!
His novel solution as to how to do this was to create a World’s Fair – the 1939 WORLD OF TOMORROW – and use that as a way to secure funding to create a new park – FLUSHING MEADOW PARK. City agencies were invited to produce exhibits for the New York City Pavilion, now the QUEENS MUSEUM (built in 1937). To educate New Yorkers about our city’s famous water supply system, the WATERSHED MAP (diorama) was created – and renovated in 2008 – and is one of the most popular displays at the Museum. The New York City Pavilion was Bauhaus-like in its design and sited directly behind it were the famous modernist symbols of the fair, the TRYLON and the PERISPHERE. The Queens Museum is the only remaining building from the 1939 World’s Fair.
After the Fair, the building was used from 1946 to 1950 to house the General Assembly of the United Nations. Important UN decisions – the partition of Palestine and the creation of UNICEF – were made there. Queens is overwhelmingly New York’s most diverse borough – how fitting it is that the United Nations began there and perhaps initiated that legacy. When the UN moved to its current location, the New York City Building became a public recreational facility and skating and roller rinks created for the World’s Fair were put back into use.
Fast forward to the late 1950’s/ early 1960’s, to the late period of Robert Moses’ career – and he’s at it again! He felt that Flushing Meadow Park wasn’t done – so 25 years later he revived his original idea. At this point in the twilight of his career, Moses was eager for a career-capping project which would secure the future of the park. Hence, the 1964 World’s Fair was born! This time, the architecture was fiercely futuristic; all sleek shapes and sweeping curves and the symbol of the fair – the UNISPHERE – was built on the very same foundation of the 1939 Fair’s symbol – the Perisphere – just behind the New York City Building.
There was strong American corporate representation at the Fair (in keeping with the revenue objectives of the Fair, Moses was not above a bit of honky-tonk), and also state and international buildings and exhibits. But one of the most popular exhibits was the Panorama of the City of New York. Commissioned by Moses this 8000+ square foot model included every single building in all five boroughs and remains the single largest architectural model in the world. The crown jewel of the Queens Museum, it has undergone several restorations and a lighting redesign in 2017. The Museum has an Adopt-a-Building Program (CLICK HERE) where you can “adopt” one of the 890,000+ buildings in the model.
There are many artifacts from both World Fairs hiding in plain sight in Flushing Meadow Park. While you can’t miss the Unisphere or the New York State Pavilion (shuttered, abandoned, rusting and painted peculiar red and white stripes and featured in MEN IN BLACK II) there are many others as well. The Terrace on the Park. Park benches from both Fairs (in fact, the design of the MWC Bench in Central Park was from the 1939 World’s Fair). Many water fountains which are still in use are from the 1964 World’s Fair and are a striking mid-century design. There are TWO time capsules embedded underground. And many signs of the locations of former exhibitions and roads.
Join us for a stimulating day out – one that represents both New York’s past and present and with an historic view of the future. Please look below for a video describing the 1964 World’s Fair and the development of the Panorama.