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I love that it's a ruin because I love ruins. Everybody does I think.
They just don't love them enough to leave them.

— Conversation with Philip Johnson, May 14, 1999

Growing up in Flushing, New York was an urban childhood not unlike any other. Now, ask a kid to draw a skyline and the kids from Chicago will probably include the Sears Tower; young Seattleites will draw a top-heavy Space Needle; kids from St. Louis are bound to include the arch. But those of us from Flushing, if handed crayons and paper, would be hard-pressed to decide. The Empire State Building or Flushing's own skyline, one (at that time) like no other in the country.

Although we could ride the elevator to the top of my Aunt Dorothy's apartment house, and then climb the stairs to the roof (woe betide us if Dorothy actually found out we were up there) we were faced with two skylines. In the distance, Manhattan's skyscrapers formed a purplish-grey mass on the horizon, punctuated in the 1960s by the Empire State Building, The Pan Am Building, One Chase Manhattan Plaza and the Chrysler Building. But what was so peculiar about our particular viewpoint was that right there; within walking distance, was a skyline to be viewed with the naked eye in much greater detail. The high point of this skyline was a futuristic structure that looked as if it'd just landed from Mars. The distinctive three towers, next to the "mother ship" wasn't far away from several other structures, including an enormous steel globe. This was the place of the future; not some distant skyscraper that once had been climbed by an enormous Hollywood ape.

We grew up within a half-mile of what is today Flushing Meadows Corona Park, home to Shea Stadium and the U.S. Open. In the mid-1960s, the 1964-1965 New York World's Fair had just taken place. By the time we were old enough to go out and play on our own, many of the Fair's pavilions had been demolished. The goal was to leave but a few structures standing, and instead make Flushing Meadows Park a "park for all New York."

Yet right there, in front of our eyes, was a landscape; no, "sky-scape" that seemed more real to us than the concrete chasms of New York City, if only because of its proximity.
 

A Soggy Garbage Dump Becomes a Fabulous Exhibition Dedicated to the Future

Robert Moses, once New York City's parks commissioner and creator of so many fabulous public works, had, in 1933, taken a one-square mile plot of marshland, bisected by the Flushing Inlet, and created the site of the 1939 New York World's Fair. From what once was a stinking ash-dump and landfill (the "Corona Dumps") rose a magnificent public park. By 1959, Moses once again was directed by a World's Fair Corporation in its infancy to study the feasibility of mounting another fair on the same spot. In 1959, all that was left of the '39 fair were a few buildings and an expanse of oozing marshland, overgrown with trees and thicket.

Against amazing odds, the 1964-1965 Worlds Fair Corporation built a spectacle that's etched in the memory of anyone who had the privilege of visiting.

Although the Unisphere, sponsored by the U.S. Steel Corporation, (an enormous globe made of steel, with continents, in proper relief, held together by circular pieces running latitude and longitude) with its three gleaming chrome orbital paths encircling it, was the official symbol of the fair, there were plenty of other sights left after most of the temporary exhibits were demolished.

Oh, yeah, by the way. various buildings which cost a total of over $100 million (in 1960s dollars) were demolished immediately after the gates were closed to the public in 1965. It seemed such a waste, such a pity, that those of us who'd had this shining city of the future in our backyards for a mere three years watched as the wrecking balls reduced our favorite attractions to rubble. Perhaps this was even more of a heartbreak to those of us who were poor, or appreciated the architectural marvels that had arisen seemingly from nowhere, within walking distance. It underscored that Flushing was now going to return to the little city on the inlet, with its mish-mash of neighborhoods, some upper-middle-class; some desperately poverty stricken. It looked as if once again, the clock-tower of the old Serval Zipper factory on College Point Boulevard would be the structure that stood out on Flushing's skyline.
 

What Was Chosen To Leave Behind

The New York City Pavilion, a left-over from the '39 Fair, was spared the wrecking ball this time, too. The Hall of Science building, with its unique cement fabrication punctuated by colored glass (which glowed on the inside on a sunny day) was set aside as a museum. The Port Authority exhibition remains a high-rise restaurant. The World's Fair Marina still hosts vessels from around the world. For years, other pavilions, including the United States Pavilion (an elegant "glass box" structure much like Bunschaft's Lever House on Park Avenue) remained in a state of limbo. The Boathouse from the '39 fair sat, quickly deteriorating. Arguably the most important of these "leftovers" is the New York State Pavilion.
 

It's, Er, Too Expensive to Tear Down

The corporate participants in the fair spent millions creating spectacular, innovative modern exhibit halls. The architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill was hired on by the U.S. Government for the United States Pavilion, by the Bell System, for which the firm created a streamlined steel and glass "sculpture" setting upon a broad concrete base. IBM's exhibition featured a giant ovoid. General Motors, DuPont, Chrysler, Coca-Cola and other corporate players sold off what furnishings/fixtures they could, and then watched as their gleaming futuristic palaces came crashing down.

Whilst all of this was going on, those in charge of the demolition and conversion of the Fairgrounds into a newer, better Flushing Meadows Park were scratching their heads and wondering what to do with The New York State Pavilion. The Pavilion was built by then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller's administration. And the pavilion of "The Empire State" just had to be the biggest and the best. Well, it was big.

Architect Philip Johnson created a peculiar "tent," as he called it. A dozen 12-story high pillars were set in place in an ellipse-form about the size of a football field. Steel cables suspended from the tops of the pillars meet in the center, in a steel circle. Immediately adjacent to the North Pillar are three additional cylindrical cement pillars (hollow inside) ranging in height from about 24 stories to a modest 5, are topped with wide, cantilevered circular decks. During the fair, the highest was an observation deck, the second highest, a restaurant, and the lowest a V.I.P. room for visiting dignitaries. Glass-windowed elevators shot up the sides of two of the side-pillars to access the three round decks.

When the building was built, myriad colored, steel-reinforced Plexiglas tiles were installed over the steel cables atop the building, however, the drop of ten stories from the top of the "roof" to the top of the mezzanine were intended to be open to the elements (and still are). The Plexiglas panels were removed during the '70s when falling panels became a serious safety hazard.

The crowning jewel of the building is a map of the State of New York on the vast main floor of the building, surrounded by the mezzanine. This map was made to scale and includes the towns, roads, etc. all made from terrazzo (polished stone mosaic) and bits of steel, plastic and stone. Essentially, one could walk from Manhattan to Albany in a few seconds time.

Although the Architectural Association (AIA) was kinder to some of the other exhibitions, an honorable mention was given Johnson's "Tent of the Future." Students of architecture have found the structure to be both remarkably timeless in design and abominably ugly, dependent upon their outlook.

Robert Moses suggested that the building be used as a space in which to exhibit art. A few exhibits were mounted there, but that idea fell by the wayside, the most important reason being the "open-air" nature of the structure. Concerts were given there, including one by The Grateful Dead in 1970.

Well, the structure was left to sit there. The fair had been by no means a financial success, and the City of New York was not prepared to pay for the costly undertaking that demolishing a building of this size and scope would take.

Until 1974, a roller skating rink was laid down over the map of New York State, and operated with a modicum of success, until arguments over who would pay the enormous upkeep (painting, rust repair and the like) for the building caused the operator to give up. After the closing of the roller skating rink, the building was padlocked and vandalism began to rapidly take its toll. By the late 1970s, the city hadn't money for many things, the least of which being the maintenance of the White Elephant sitting in the middle of a Queens park.

One of the elevators sits smashed at the bottom of its track. The other has been suspended halfway up its track for over thirty years.

The building has been used as a background for scenes from television ("McCloud" and others) and film ("The Wiz" and "Men in Black").
 

A Multi-Million Dollar Ruin

When the building was constructed, wooden pilings were hammered into the ground to support the foundation and the pillars. All of the other 1964-1965 World's Fair buildings utilized the wooden pilings, for the structures were to be temporary. The ground upon which the New York State Pavilion literally swallowed up several of the wooden pilings. Remember, beneath the surface, there was years of landfill, high groundwater, and no bedrock to be found. So where the wooden pilings couldn't be utilized steel pilings instead were plunged into the ground. Regardless, there's not so much as a pebble, much less conventional cement pilings, holding up the building. It's essentially floating on marshy ground covered with a modicum of trap-rock and fill; the wooden pilings surely completely rotten from being buried in the wet soil.

At this point, the building is in such a state of disrepair that a few of the pillars are beginning to lean (not unlike the famous Tower in Italy). The central steel structure which holds the cables together is leaning at an angle of about 20 degrees.

The building is in close proximity to both John F. Kennedy and La Guardia Airports. Legally, due to the height of the observation deck tower, a flashing red landing light must be operational at all times, according to Federal Aviation Administration regulations. Due to vandalism and natural rust and decay caused by weather and avian droppings, the staircase leading to the warning light fell to pieces. So the City was strapped with a huge bill to have a special company rig ropes up to the fragile structure, climb up the side of it, (like a rock-climbing affair), onto the roof of the observation deck, and re-lamp the light; and then rappel down.

The mezzanine portion of the building is actually detaching itself from the pillars surrounding it. Huge cracks in the cinder block walls are visible from outside. Graffiti adorns the inside of the building, viewable through several gates around the structure. The Parks Department has put a token coat of paint on the lower portion of the building, but the steel supporting fixtures 12 stories up are encrusted with rust.

Many supporters of the building who're acutely aware of the possibility that the structure may actually topple, either piecemeal or altogether, at any moment, are trying to raise the millions of dollars that will be necessary to bring the structure back to its original status. The building does not enjoy National Historical Landmark status. The Unisphere and the New York City Pavilion do.
 

What Would Philip Johnson Do?

The quote at the top of this writeup gives one an idea of Johnson's feeling that he really didn't care much about the structure. After all, he's designed more than enough buildings which will be his legacy for a long, long time. The whimsical classical detailing atop the AT&T building in New York, The Pittsburgh Plate Glass Building, The Four Seasons Restaurant in van der Rohe's Seagram Building, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and his famous masterpiece, The Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, where he lived until his passing recently.

How sad that our disposable world has taken its toll on what once was described as the greatest architectural gem of the 1964-1965 Worlds's Fair. Its colorful skylight panels lit from top and bottom, and pillars lit with blue lights from bottom to top, some have said it had a magnificent, cathedral-like feel to it, especially at night.
 

I recall being on the rooftop of my Aunt Dorothy's building, and the New York State Pavilion, the Unisphere and the fountain lights were all lit. Some function or another must've been going on in the park. My take on the building was that from afar, it looked like a castle, but a futuristic one, not unlike the structures I saw on the television program The Jetsons.

Even though I've been there and photographed it recently, I still can't get over the vast, elegant lines of the building; larger than life when I was at the fair as a youngster, and still larger than life even now. I wonder if some fan of Johnson's work will do something about the structure. If not, who knows, perhaps the kids who still venture to the rooftop of the apartment building on 34th Road in Flushing will soon see a toppled pile of building blocks, not a castle.

UPDATE: Thanks to smartalix for informing me of a major error re: the Unisphere. I'd earlier said it was aluminum; it is actually steel.


SOURCES:

  • The Website of Photographer Philip Buehler, "Modern Ruins": http://www.modern-ruins.com/index.html (Accessed May 2, 2007)
  • "Photographs You Can't Take Anymore" by John Roberts: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jrr/92893801/in/pool-pictures_you_cant_take_anymore/ (Accessed May 2, 2007)
  • "Exploring America's 'Space Age' World's Fair" website by Bill Young: http://www.nywf64.com/ (Accessed May 2, 2007)
  • The Prellinger Collection: "Internet Archive": http://www.archive.org/details/1964NewY1961 (Accessed May 2, 2007)
  • Official World's Fair Illustrated Postcard/Folder, Dexter Press, Nyack, NY ©1964 New York World's Fair 1964-1965 Corporation.
  • JetSetModern.com "Help Save the New York State Pavilion, a New York World's Fair 1964-1965 Architectural Landmark": http://jetsetmodern.com/newyorkstate.htm (Accessed May 2, 2007)
  • Expomuseum.com "The World's Fair Website Since 1998": http://expomuseum.com/architecture/ (Accessed May 2, 2007)
  • The New York World's Fair Community http://www.peacethroughunderstanding.org/ (Accessed May 2, 2007)
  • Website of Roy Latham: http://www.cgsd.com/rlatham/NYWorldFair/index.htm (Accessed May 2, 2007)
  • Save the New York State Pavilion Association website: http://www.newyorkstatepavilion.org/legacy.html (Accessed May 5, 2007)
  • World In A Park Organization website: http://www.worldinapark.org/The%20Flushing%20Meadows-Corona%20Park%20World%27s%20Fair%20Association/Home.html (Accessed May 5, 2007)

 

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