It’s a world of laughter, a world of tears
It’s a world of hopes and a world of fears
There’s so much that we share
That it’s time we’re aware
It’s a small world after all
—from Disney’s “It’s A Small World” by Robert B. Sherman and Richard M. Sherman
If visitors to the 1964 World’s Fair remembered nothing else, this song, in the form of a round, did just that: it went round and round in their heads!
What with the Golden Anniversary of the opening of the 1964 World’s Fair having past on the 22nd of April, I rode the #7 subway train to where the Fair took place, the 1,255-acre Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. The site, for 30 years the Corona Ash Dumps, had been cleared by New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses for the 1939 World’s Fair, was used again 25 years later. This same area serves as a prominent locale in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel “The Great Gatsby.” The filling station where Tom Buchanan’s floozy, Myrtle lived—and died—with her husband, was located next to the Corona Ash Dumps.
Iconic remnants can still be visited from the two fairs, including the New York State Pavilion, the New York City Pavilion and the Unisphere. The adjacent United States Tennis Association Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, sight of the US Open Tennis Tournament, has made use of the 1964 Fair’s Singer Bowl, now the Louis Armstrong Stadium, since 1978.
Named for the 106th mayor of New York City, David Dinkins Circle is the promenade that marks the entrance to Flushing Meadows Corona Park when a visitor, such as me, arrives from either the Long Island Railroad or the NYC #7 subway train.
Colorful mosaic medallions, commemorating attractions at the 1939 and the 1964 World’s Fairs, are arranged around a paving-stone version of the Trylon and Perisphere, the symbol of the 1939 Fair. This tribute dates from 1998.
Billy Rose’s Aquacade was an aquatic show featuring music, dancing and swimming; Rose originally produced it at Cleveland’s 1937 Great Lakes Exposition. The original show starred Olympians Eleanor Holm, Johnny Weissmuller, who later replaced by Buster Crabbe, and Esther Williams. The Aquacade moved to the 1939 New York World’s Fair; it was the most popular attraction at the Fair.
Salvador Dalí created a dream world pavilion for the 1939 Fair; he called it “A Dream of Venus.” The mustachio’ed Surrealist brought his version of a “girlie show,” the sort his American audience would have known from traveling circuses, to fairgoers. This surreal experience had patrons purchase tickets from a booth shaped like a fish’s head and enter through a pair of women’s legs! Strong stuff for 1939.
Westinghouse buried a time capsule scheduled to be open in the year 6939. The actual time capsule is not buried here, but elsewhere within Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. The mosaic lists the time capsule contents. I would not want to eat those carrots! Beetleware is a type of plastic made by American Cyanamid. It is only 75 years since this time capsule was buried, and it is unlikely that few people today would know what beetleware was. And you did not have to wait until 6939 to find out!
Elsie the Cow was one of four cows that appeared in series of 1936 magazine ads. By 1939, Elsie was featured in her own ads; this campaign was voted the best of the year at the 1939 Annual Advertising Awards. Borden decided to feature a live Elsie at its World’s Fair exhibit. Company executives interviewed 150 cows; they selected a 7-year-old Jersey named “You’ll Do Lobelia.” By the end of the 1939 Fair more than seven million people had seen Elsie in person.
The New York City Pavilion is all that remains in Flushing Meadows from the 1939 Fair. Designed by Aymar Embury, today it houses the Queens Museum of Art. Aymar Embury also designed the red granite plinth that supports the Jagiello Monument in Central Park, as well as the Central Park Zoo.
The 1964 Fair’s Fountain of Planets used more than 400-tons of water passed through 2,000 nozzles. This was the location of the water and fireworks show, held nightly during Fair season; it was free. During the show 10,000 tons of water were recirculated and 150,000,000-candle power lit up the waters with changing color lighting. The fireworks were fired from 464 mortars. Over 1,000 different patterns of water and light effects are produced. On the two occasions where w visited the Fair, we did not stay long enough to see this. It must have been spectacular!
Based on an Andy Warhol silkscreen of Robert Moses, the driving force behind the 1939 and the 1964 World’s Fairs, this likeness was hated by Mr. Moses. Warhol created it as a replacement for his original mural, “Thirteen Most Wanted Men,” which was rejected by Governor Nelson Rockefeller for political reasons. “Thirteen Most Wanted Men” had already been installed on the side of New York State Pavilion; it was whitewashed, literally painted over.
Designed by Philip Johnson, America’s most enthusiastic practitioner of Mid-Century Modern architecture, the New York State Pavilion was among the most striking buildings at the 1964 Fair. It was the tallest and largest building.
The Pavilion’s main building was the Tent of Tomorrow, consisting of sixteen 100-foot columns supporting a 50,000 square foot roof of multicolored panels. The pavilion remained in use for years as a roller rink. It was also used as a performance space by the Council for International Recreation, Culture, and Lifelong Education. The roof of the tent became unstable and was dismantled in 1976, leaving the detailed floor map of New York State severely damaged because it was exposed to the elements.
Next to the Tent of Tomorrow were three towers, standing 60, 150 and 226 feet tall. Fairgoers could zip to the top of the towers by way of capsule-shaped elevators. From the tallest tower’s observation platform observers could see New Jersey, Connecticut, the Atlantic Ocean and most of Long Island on a clear day. The middle tower sold refreshments; the third was a lounge for visiting dignitaries.
Inside the pavilion, there was a scale model of the new St. Lawrence River hydroelectric plant, information about industry in New York State, artwork from the 19th-century Hudson River School, and portraits of NY State colonists. The Pavilion’s main feature was a 9,000 square-foot map of New York State, sponsored by the Texaco Company. It was made up of 567 terrazzo panels, featuring the state’s cities, towns, roads and highways with Texaco gas stations highlighted along the way.
When it opened the architectural critic for the New York Times, Ada Louise Huxtable called the New York State Pavilion “a sophisticated frivolity … seriously and beautifully constructed. This is ‘carnival’ with class.” In June of 2010 the Pavilion was listed on the New York State and the National Registers of Historic Places. Admission to the pavilion was free. For the Observation Tower, adult admission was 50¢; for children it was 25¢.
The Port of New York Authority built a pavilion with a rooftop-landing pad where helicopters made scheduled landings and takeoffs. There was a restaurant, a private dining club and a cocktail lounge. The supporting structure showed a film and exhibits about the Authority’s work. Today it is a high-end event space. I recall this pavilion so clearly, seeing the helicopters take off and land. The building appeared so strange to me as a child.
New York City Pavilion has housed the Queens Museum of Art since 1972. Inside is one of the 1964 Fair’s most remarkable exhibits, the Panorama of New York, a scale model of the entire city. It shows off the city’s seven bridges, its highways and subways, the Empire State Building and more than 800,000 miniature replicas of every building in the city. Queens’ two airports, LaGuardia and the recently renamed JFK, have with tiny planes overhead.
The New York City Pavilion served as the temporary home of the United Nations from its organization in 1946 to 1952, when it moved to its newly finished headquarters in Manhattan. The state of Israel and UNICEF were established in this building.
“Dedicated to man’s aspirations toward Peace through mutual understanding and symbolizing his achievements in an expanding universe.” This theme was the Fair’s goal; these words are taken from a plaque at the base of the Unisphere. This 700,000-pound, 140-foot tall, 120-foot wide gift to the Fair from the United States Steel Corporation, like the Trylon and Perisphere of the 1939 Fair, was the logo of the 1964 Fair.
The 12-story structure was called the miracle in Flushing Meadow Park. It was—and still is—the largest replica of Earth ever built. Nothing resembling the Unisphere had ever been attempted before. Its 500 separate parts create a unified whole that stands over a reflecting pool; in the summer and early autumn fountain jets toss water into the air.
Since the late 19th century world’s fairs been symbolized by one structure that captures the imagination of everyone. The Paris Exposition of 1889 offered the world the Eiffel Tower; the 1939 New York World’s Fair had its Trylon and Perisphere; the Brussels World’s Fair of 1958 presented the Atomium; and the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair had its Space Needle. The Unisphere joined them, more than living up to great expectations. Except for the Trylon and Perisphere all these structures—these symbols—still stand, beloved and making their cities proud!
Although Earth does not have rings, as do Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, the Unisphere has three. These rings show the orbits of the first American astronaut, the first Russian cosmonaut and the first communications satellite to orbit Earth. It was a great an engineering accomplishment to hold the Unisphere in place. The Pacific Ocean side is much lighter than the Africa, Asia and Europe area. The Unisphere tilts at approximately 23.5 degrees; that is the same angle Earth tilts as it orbits the sun.
New York-based artist Matt Mullican created a series of granite panels on which he has etched the history of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. From prehistoric times through the World’s Fairs of 1939-40 and 1964-65, this 3,000-square-foot effort is made up of 464 four foot square black granite slabs. They tell a hieroglyphic-like story of the park, including some of the technological and artistic achievements showcased at both World’s Fairs. This massive work of art was installed in 1995 near the Unisphere.
Michelangelo’s “Pietà” was the most important work of art displayed at the Fair. He was only 25-years old when he carved his masterpiece in Carrara marble. It had never been removed from St. Peter’s Basilica until Pope John XXIII granted permission that brought it to the Fair. I vividly remember seeing the Pietà at Vatican Pavilion. What an impression it made on me!
The Swiss Sky Ride carried visitors in multi-colored cabins, each holding four passengers; they were suspended on cables 113 feet in the air. The cables ran between the Korean and Swiss pavilion; a one-way trip covered 1,875 feet, taking four minutes. Not only could passengers see the fairgrounds but Manhattan Island too. For a one-way ride, adult admission was 75¢; for children it was 35¢ on weekdays, 50¢ on Sundays and holidays.
Designed by Donald De Lue (1897–1988), “The Rocket Thrower,” a massive sculpture of bronze, follows the 1964 Fair’s central themes of space exploration. It is in keeping with other Fair features, including the Court of Astronauts, the Fountain of the Planets, the Space Park and the Unisphere. Because of the Socialist Realism style of the art, I first thought this had been part of the 1939 Fair.
The 43-foot high figure, my favorite holdover from the 1964 World’s Fair, hurls a rocket toward the heavens with his left hand; with his right hand he reaches for a constellation of gilded stars. De Lue based this work on a design he had made in the late 1950s for an unrealized sculpture that was meant to be placed at the Union Carbide Building, 270 Park Avenue.
In 1962 the Fair’s Committee on Sculpture granted De Lue a contract to create “The Rocket Thrower.” He was paid $105,000 and given less than six months to execute the work. He completed the full plaster model by June 1963, and it was shipped to Italy to cast, which took almost a year. The sculpture was installed just prior to the fair’s opening on April 22, 1964.
“The Rocket Thrower” was one of the largest and most visible sculptural commissions in America in 50 years. De Lue had a lofty vision of his work, seeing it as “the spiritual concept of man’s relationship to space and his venturesome spirit backed up by all the powers of his intelligence for the exploration of a new dimension.” John Canaday art critic at the New York Times called the sculpture “the most lamentable monster, making Walt Disney look like Leonardo Da Vinci.” Robert Moses, ever the spinmeister, consoled De Lue, by saying “this is the greatest compliment you could have…[Canaday] hates everything that is good.”
The Municipal Art Society’s Adopt-A-Monument program raised $100,000 for the restoration of “The Rocket Thrower.” Phyllis Cohen, director of the program said, “This spoke to a generation that had a lot of hope.” I am hopeful that people care about such monumental works of art and are willing to invest time and energy in their upkeep. The restoration work was completed in August 2013; the same program will contribute to the sculpture’s maintenance.