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

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What's left of the New York State Pavilion, built for the 1964 World's Fair.

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).