The public was invited inside a New York City architectural monument today for a view that has been off-limits for 27 years. The New York State Pavilion, designed by Philip Johnson, was open for just a few hours this afternoon, coinciding with the anniversary of the start of the 1964–65 World’s Fair 50 years ago.
The rare event for the Pavilion in Queens’ Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, coordinated through the New York State Pavilion Paint Project with the Parks Department, is the result of growing grassroots and city official interest in the preservation of the long-neglected structure. Johnson designed the Pavilion as a “Tent of Tomorrow” — a modernist version of a state fair tent with an open air space beneath a flat plastic ceiling of colorful tiles — paired with observation spaces in the conjoining “Astro-View Towers.” (These towers remained closed during today’s special viewing day as they are still too run down to be safe for visitors.)
For decades rust has been left to overtake the broad spiked roof supported by the ring of 16 100-foot columns. Weeds grew through the Texaco road map mosaic that stretched across the Pavilion’s floor. In 1976 the colorful plastic tiles in the Tent of Tomorrow’s 50,000-square-foot roof were removed, and the space was left to nature and those adventurous enough to find a way inside.
Joining the opening today was an announcement from the National Trust for Historic Preservation that they are listing the Pavilion as a “National Treasure.” Jason Clement, director of community outreach at the National Trust, told Hyperallergic that the public viewing of the Pavilion was “just one step that New Yorkers will see over the next year that will show there is a groundswell of support” for its preservation.
To say the public was receptive about the Pavilion is an understatement. Hundreds of people were in line to see it, some hours before 11 am when the gates opened, many sporting World’s Fair t-shirts, and towards noon the crowd was coursing over the Grand Central Parkway. It definitely seemed to be way more people than organizers were expecting, but such an opportunity doesn’t go unnoticed by those with an interest in New York history and architecture.
Only 50 people were allowed in the Pavilion at a time and hard hats were mandatory; once inside people seemed reluctant to leave the space that has long been shuttered. The floor mosaic itself was covered up to protect what remains, although a few of its 567 panels were on display. They had been taken out in 2007 in a conservation project by NYC Parks with the Historic Preservation Graduate Program at the University of Pennsylvania. You couldn’t wander too far into the gargantuan space with its recently repainted colors of red, white, and yellow reminiscent of a circus tent — Ada Louise Huxtable called the modernist tribute to the state fair a “carnival with class.”
There were efforts in the past to turn the Pavilion into something else, including a skating rink and a concert venue, but none of those were successful in the longterm. In the past couple of years there has been increased community attention for Philip Johnson’s Pavilion, recently spurred by People for the Pavilion and a successful Kickstarter to fund a documentary. (Here’s Hyperallergic’s previous coverage of the preservation efforts.) The National Trust is now hosting a petition, and NYC Parks is holding a festival on May 18 to celebrate it and other surviving structures of the World’s Fair. However, to get the Pavilion out of the hard hats-required visiting state, it will take more than just attention. Clement said it would cost $40 million to preserve the structure, but $70 million to restore it to a condition suitable for public use. (During the World’s Fair it was an exhibition space for the state of New York including art, models of engineering achievements, and the million dollar Texaco mosaic map.) He said the ultimate goal is for the Pavilion “to be an attraction for everyone, but also a resource for Queens.”
With just a few open hours on a Tuesday, the New York State Pavilion is still far from being an accessible space for the public. Yet the enthusiastic response from the community with the droves who came to step inside this abandoned retrofuture ruin will hopefully signal a strong interest in the World’s Fair relic, a support it needs to continue in gaining the momentum it needs to survive.
Here’s a video from the NYC Parks Department with some footage of the New York State Pavilion at the 1964-65 World’s Fair: