Do World's Fair Relics of Queens’ Past Have a Place in Its Future?

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

current day worlds fair What's left of the New York State Pavilion, built for the 1964 World's Fair. (Annmarie Fertoli/WNYC)

You can see them from at least three highways in Queens, rising up like futuristic beacons: a giant metal circle on top of 16 concrete pillars and three towers stretching skyward, topped by flying saucer roofs. They look like heralds of a new space age. But they were built for the 1964 World's Fair, as part of the New York State Pavilion. 

“It just stood out,” said World's Fair historian Pierre Montiel, who was there when he was 12. “It looked like a UFO had landed in Queens.”

Back then, bright orange, red, pink and blue panels made up the ceiling of that giant circle, known as the "Tent of Tomorrow" and on the ground was a giant terrazzo roadmap of New York State. The towers featured “Sky Streak” elevators that zipped passengers high above the fair. The tallest, rising more than 200 feet, offered an observation deck with a bird’s eye view of the city.

But those days are gone. Aside from a brief stint as a concert venue and a roller rink after the fair, the New York State Pavilion is idle, virtually unused for decades. The metal frame is rusting. Only the thick, dark cables that once held the panels in place remain on the tent. And a tarp weighed down by gravel covers what’s left of the map, in an attempt to prevent further disintegration.

The site has plenty of champions. Since 2009, members of the New York State Pavilion Paint Project, with the permission of the Parks Department, have been raising money — and using a lot of their own — to buy materials to spruce it up.

Like many of the group's volunteers, Eddie Gossett of Whitestone has fond memories of the fair. He said it was a piece of his childhood and that watching the pavilion go unused for so many years has been upsetting.

“If you live around here and you’ve been seeing these buildings decaying as they were, it’s a heartbreaking thing to look at a building that has potential and just watching it rust away,” Gossett said.

In 1964, "Sky Streak" elevators zipped passengers up to lounges and an observation deck. Today, the site sits idle in Queens (Left: Courtesy Queens Museum Right: Annmarie Fertoli/WNYC).

John Piro, who co-founded the Pavilion Paint Project, said he hopes the pavilion will get a new lease on life. “When you’re in here, you can feel the energy of all the people who were here,” he said. "There was so much fun, so much laughter. This building must stay.”

Some people say the pavilion could become a concert venue again, or a space to rent out for graduations, art exhibits, and trade shows. Others want to reopen the observation tower and include a restaurant with a world-class view.

Any of those options would come with a big price tag. A study by the Parks Department found it could cost more than $72 million to fully restore the tent and towers. Demolishing the buildings, on the other hand, would cost an estimated $14 million.

That doesn't deter those who would rather restore the space, however.

“A lot of people use this park,” said Matthew Silva of the preservation group People for the Pavilion. “But you have this one piece of real estate that’s just not accessible to the public, and it shouldn’t be that way, especially when it’s one of the most exhilarating pieces of real estate on the park.” He said there should be a design competition to determine what to do with the space.

However, even if officials reopen the pavilion to the public, it's not easy to get there. It can be seen from the road, but accessing it by car is complicated. And the closest No. 7 train stop is a mile away from the pavilion. 

“Most people don’t want to tear it down,” said Queens Borough Historian Jack Eichenbaum. “But on the other hand, where do you put your energy: into things that will cost less and be more accessible to people, or to something like this, which will be expensive to restore, and also has this transportation problem?”

Still, the pavilion has a key champion in the new Queens Borough President, Melinda Katz. She said if the city is willing to spent $14 million to demolish the site, why not put that money toward a restoration fund? Katz is looking for $46 million over the next few years just to make the tent safe and accessible to the public. She is also looking into whether she can get historical grant money from the federal government.

“This is a piece of art basically sitting in the middle of the borough that folks recognize as being Queens,” she said. “You can’t tear something like that down.”

The New York State Pavilion was part of the 1964 World's Fair in Queens. Historian Pierre Montiel said it was the first World's Fair that cost $1 billion. These structures, he added, were built as "ephemeral cities," never meant to last beyond the event. (Courtesy Pierre Montiel).

An observation deck topped the highest tower of the New York State Pavilion, rising over 200 feet into the air and offering a bird's eye view of the city (Courtesy New York City Parks Department).

Rusting metal is visible on the frame of the "Tent of Tomorrow" and the towers. The 50th anniversary of the 1964 World's Fair is sparking conversations about these relics, and whether they'll continue to have a place in the borough's future (Annmarie Fertoli/WNYC).

The Parks Department has given volunteers the go-ahead to spruce up the site by painting stripes reminiscent of its original colors on the concrete walls. Years of exposure to the elements have rusted the "Tent of Tomorrow" and disintegrated much of the original paint (Annmarie Fertoli/WNYC).

Historian Pierre Montiel poses with an original poster from the 1964 World's Fair. He said he was transfixed by the sight of the Pavilion (Annmarie Fertoli).

The towers and tent rise above the rest of Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens, eliciting nostalgia in some and confusion in others (Annmarie Fertoli/WNYC).

Above, multi-colored panels on the roof of the "Tent of Tomorrow," as seen in 1964 (Courtesy Pierre Montiel).


Julianne Welby


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Comments [32]

Probably as land fill. That's what happens to derelict poured concrete after... how many decades going unmaintained?

Memories and nostalgia (for a pseudo future?!) usually don't have much value in this city of change.

Apr. 23 2014 10:20 PM
Zanne Hall

NY has a tendency to tear things down if it's not used for more than five minutes. Unfortunately, Terminal 3 was just torn down at JFK where the Beatles & Khruschov (among others) flew in. It was a beautiful art deco bldg. with friezes. Now ... nothing but a parking lot for planes. Terminal 2 is very ugly & old. Should've torn that down instead. No history either.

Apr. 23 2014 06:20 PM
Wideimaging g

That $73M estimate is an inflated self serving WAG that was provided "free of charge" by Perkins & Will particularly when an NHL sized ice skating rink with an Olympic size swimming pool on top, also with a cable support roof could be built in the same park from scratch a few years ago for $66M.

Apr. 23 2014 04:21 PM

Tearing stuff down is never the solution. Look at Rome -- the city is filled with ancient relics, and its spectcular!

Why make it exactly the same as 1964? There's a lot of rust, and restoration is billed at a premium price always. But there can be creative workarounds.

Setting up super-colorful lights on the unisphere and the buildings at night to make them all more eye-catching is a good beginning.

Physically highlight the entire set of buildings as a historic landmark. Then drum up private fundraising and roll the ball.

Apr. 22 2014 09:07 PM
Ken from 60 years in Queens

Great memories - visiting age 11 - still have brochures from Futurama - Sinclair Dinoland - and a ticket stub - $3.

If it was good enough for LED ZEPPELIN to play there - it should be revived ! A true " Stairway to Heaven "

Apr. 22 2014 09:05 PM
Teresa from New Jersey

I was 2 years old and I have a fleeting memory of being on my Grandpa's shoulders looking up at the towers and seeing Disney's Goofy waving to the crowd (was this real or am I dreaming?). I remember some exhibit like the world of tomorrow. I'd love to see this place restored.

Apr. 22 2014 09:00 PM
Janet from Flushing,NY

Thanks so much for the photos of the wonderfully colorful transparent ceiling of the New York State Pavilion. I remember singing there in 1964 with a Chorale group from SUNY Plattsburgh. For years I've studied the supports for the colorful panels and imagined them there as they were.

Apr. 22 2014 08:34 PM
art525 from Park Slope

They spent 74 million dollars building a new skating rink in Prospect Park. It's a perfectly adequate building. I can't see where they spent all that money though. The New York State Pavillion is much more striking, a dramatice piece of architecture and an important piece of New York history. And as can be seen here it has an important place in many New Yorkers hearts and memories. Though I've lived in NYC for the past 30 years I grew up in a little town in upstate New York. The memory of finding my little town on that map on the floor was one of the exciting moments of my visit to the fair.

Apr. 22 2014 07:36 PM

Was there in 64 as an 8yr old. The place was magic! These buildings should be restored used again

Apr. 22 2014 06:12 PM
thomas from maplewood

14 in 64. The times, the girls and the future. Peace through understanding. They can take away the Tent of Tomorrow but I'll still have the memories

Apr. 22 2014 06:03 PM
Walter J Donne from Fairfield CT formally of Brooklyn

Growing up in Brooklyn from 1955 to 1966 my parents and brother 1961 and Sister 1953 went to the World's Fair one each year and it has left a lasting impact on me.
I hope they start a fund to bring it back, and I will contribute

Apr. 22 2014 06:01 PM
Pearl from Long Beach, NY

Although not a Queens resident I am very familiar with Flushing Meadows Park from having worked at the Queens Museum for many years. The final renovation of the Queens Museum has occurred and it is now a beautiful modern building. It was formerly the New York State Building a leftover from the 1939 and 64 World Fairs. The Queens Museum is a thriving significant place that is a short walk to the NY State Pavilion. Renovating the Pavilion makes a great deal of sense now because of the Museum and the history as well as exhibits related to the Fair. You have the makings of a wonderful hub of attraction with Museum, Unisphere and NYS Pavilion. The Pavilion should be repurposed as the Museum was and other fair building have been in other cities. The Pavilion is an important NYC icon and I wish Melinda Katz much luck in their redevelopment.

Apr. 22 2014 05:57 PM

I loved the World's Fair. My family travelled from Connecticut to see it twice, in 1964 and 1965. The Unisphere! Dinoland! Belgian waffles!

Apr. 22 2014 05:24 PM
alice jena from queens, NY


Apr. 22 2014 05:19 PM
muriel nellis from Washington DC

I wish the Trylon and Perisphere had been saved. ( and perhaps Billy Rose's Aquacade--where Esther Williams swam).

Apr. 22 2014 04:54 PM

The bones of George Jetson were recently found in one of the towers.
The "tent of tomorrow" should is a giant spider web.

Apr. 22 2014 03:48 PM

I have very fond memories of the 64 Worlds Fair. But at this point, the structures are just a depressing eyesore. Perhaps the city could remove the two towers and restore the 'tent'.

Apr. 22 2014 11:49 AM
Peter Steiner from Queens

It would be a travesty to let this monument be destroyed, when it could serve so many public functions. Least of all as a venue for outdoor concerts as I remember it after the Fair had closed. There were several performances held there and they were wonderful and very popular. If the McCracken Pool in Brooklyn could be refurbished why wouldn't the city do the same for this auspicious landmark designed by the late Phillip Johnson.

Apr. 22 2014 11:20 AM

RE: Nick from UWS

Bravo. Simply, perfect.

Apr. 22 2014 09:51 AM
John Harrington, Architect from Forest Hills, Queens

The round NYS pavilion is the perfect shape for combative sports. Throw/stretch some new-tech fabric over the top for year round use. This would protect what's left of the terrazzo flooring (was in very bad shape). Boxing, UFC, wrestling - perhaps gymnastics and dance would fit in the space well and give it use.

Apr. 22 2014 09:16 AM
carol from Harlem, NY

What songs are they playing. I wish I was there.

Apr. 22 2014 09:01 AM
Fred Fishel from Jackson Heights

This is an iconic symbol of Queens and should be restored

Apr. 22 2014 08:55 AM
Dean from Brooklyn

Maybe there's a 3rd way between fully restoring ($78M) and tearing down ($14M). Why not restore cosmetically but not functionally? Would the price be somewhere in the middle? Think about the parachute jump at Coney Island. Nobody expects it to ever be a parachute jump again but it is maintained cosmetically as a cultural icon.

Apr. 22 2014 08:50 AM
Clay Miller from Brooklyn

Convert the structure into a 21st Century power source: a solar array with electric charging stations at its base

Apr. 22 2014 08:48 AM
John Farrar from North Miami Beach

Maybe a tie-in to the next Men in Black movie could help raise funds? (are ypu listening out there,Will Smith?)

Apr. 22 2014 08:43 AM
Nick from UWS

David T has no idea what he is talking about, and speaks like someone who has lived here for 14 years. DO NOT TEAR ANY OF THIS STUFF DOWN. These things are as much a part of NYC history as the Empire State Building. They are beautiful and valuable, and emotionally meaningful to millions of New Yorkers. Why the fuck do we have to destroy every goddamn thing of cultural significance in this city?

Apr. 22 2014 08:42 AM
David T from Manhattan

Have lived in NYC for 14 yrs. Remember the fair as a child. These artifacts are not all that historic, nor aesthetically meaningful. For the time I've been in NYC, they're just eyesores. Time for them to go.

Apr. 22 2014 08:38 AM

2039 is the 100th anniversary of the first World's Fair and the 75th anniversary of the second. How about a third World's Fair that year, and the Olympics in 2040?

Apr. 22 2014 08:00 AM
Maxine Cohen from Pearl River, NY

We got engaged in May'64 and spent many evenings at the Worlds Fair, driving past the remaing structures evokes happy memories of walking the fairgrounds , sharing a Belgian Waffle. Everything was new and exciting.

Apr. 22 2014 07:47 AM

Either we restore it and keep it that way. If we don't then it should go.

Apr. 22 2014 07:39 AM
mitchell mcguire from Manhattan

I did a play in one of the buildings and found it to be dark and spooky with acoustics weird. My voice sounded like it died 2 feet from my mouth so I certainly would NOT turn it into a theatre.

Apr. 22 2014 07:34 AM
Katie from New York State Pavilion, Flushing, Queens

I arrived at the pavilion entrance and am third in line. They are playing old recordings from the '64 fair on the original pavilion speaker system. It sounds great! What a dreamy morning in Queens!

Apr. 22 2014 07:27 AM

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