50 Years on, a World’s Fair Ruin Might Finally Find a Future

by Allison Meier on January 30, 2014

The New York State Pavilion (photograph by Thomas Angermann, via Flickr)

The New York State Pavilion (photograph by Thomas Angermann, via Flickr)

The 1964 New York World’s Fair was meant to be an idealistic vision of the future propelled by technology and design, but 50 years later the pavilion created to showcase the best of the state of New York is its most visible ruin. The New York State Pavilion was designed by architect Philip Johnson as a “county fair of the future,” with a modernist “Tent of Tomorrow” and three observation towers, the tallest stretching 226 feet. Unfortunately, no logical use was ever found for the whimsical behemoth, and it’s been rusting for decades. Now, however, a documentary filmmaker and the Parks Department are bringing its possible futures to the forefront.

Observation towers at the pavilion (photograph by Jason Eppink, via Flickr)

Observation towers at the pavilion (photograph by Jason Eppink, via Flickr)

This past week the Parks Department held three public meetings on potential options for the pavilion. They basically boil down to an estimate of around $14 million to tear the thing down, and at a minimum $52 million to restore it, the New York Daily News reported. (Other sources cite this figure as $70 million.) According to the Queens Chronicle‘s report on the Tuesday meeting, the public was largely in favor of restoration. Suggestions included basics such as the addition of lighting to make it more visible, to more extreme musings like hosting skate board competitions.

Another meeting is planned for March or April. Meanwhile, filmmaker Matthew Silva recently launched a Kickstarter for post-production of a documentary on the pavilion’s history, both as an icon of the fair and its short-lived history as a concert venue and rollerskating rink. Silva is also a co-founder of the People for the Pavilion group which had their own kick-off event on January 25 to promote more public interest in revitalizing the structure. The filmmaker has been interviewing architects, fair participants, historians, and other figures associated with the pavilion since February of 2013, and the film has the potential to give the old pavilion more visibility than even some after-dark lighting.

And that’s really what the New York State Pavilion might most be lacking. Although it’s far from invisible — its towers shoot up in all vistas in Flushing Meadows Corona Park and it is a hulking presence alongside its more elegant fellow World’s Fair relic the Unisphere. But unless you sneak through the hole in the fence to wander around the massive Texaco road map in the Tent of Tomorrow, rough with age and wear, or are intrepid enough to use a grappling hook and scale the sides of the observation towers, all you get is this strange view of a mess of faded red and white stripes (repainted by volunteers in 2009), spikes of rusted metal, and a net of cables where there was once a colorful screen of transparent panes.

View inside the pavilion (photograph by Erwin Bernal, via Flickr)

View inside the pavilion (photograph by Erwin Bernal, via Flickr)

Philip Johnson, that late architect of glass houses and ominous water gardens, stated of the pavilion in his reluctant introduction to The Architecture of Philip Johnson:

“In a way, the ruin is even more haunting than the original structure. There ought to be a university course in the pleasure of ruins.”

Unfortunately, haunting ruins aren’t what most people want for their parks. The pavilion is something of a sad reminder of all those worlds of tomorrow promised by the fair that never arrived (the smoking, talking robots, the utopian homes). It’s also a reminder of the fact that the fair was far from the financial boon it was hoped to be, which is part of the reason its repurposing was neglected.

The nostalgia for returning it to its glory days might be nostalgia for something that never existed, as the pavilion was an odd building from the beginning, an experiment in inspiring wonder rather than something as sturdy as its successfully repurposed neighbor the Queens Museum. However, it is an icon of Queens nonetheless, and one of the city’s most unique structures. While some might find beauty its its abandonment, most would prefer it be restored into something that’s a resource, not a relic.

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