This is Then & Now , a monthly column on the history of buildings by Adrian Shirk. Shirk has previously written about the feminist takeover of an abandoned building, the death of shopping malls, the Robert Moses building in New York, and Brooklyn's Admiral Row houses.
Agent J : “So these are real flying saucers and the World’s Fair was just a cover-up for their landing?”
Agent K : “Why else would we hold it in Queens?”
― Men in Black
In the 1997 film Men in Black, Tommy Lee Jones’s character, Agent J, offers a compelling revisionist history of how the second New York World’s Fair came to be; the first, of course, was held at the end of the Great Depression in 1939. In preparation, the city had transformed a giant sooty tidal marsh into what is now Flushing Meadows-Corona Park as a stage for the event. That first fair was sleek, modern, multicultural, and its most famous exhibit—The World of Tomorrow—is still talked about today. The fair to end all fairs! But, Agent J adds, when in 1964 two interstellar spacecrafts crashed in Queens, the MiB and city officials—in an effort to mitigate public suspicion—cobbled together a slapdash second world’s fair at that exact same park, deftly fashioning the totaled spacecrafts into the fair’s spectacular centerpiece: the viewing decks of three observation towers.
The towers were not silvery and serpentine like Seattle’s Space Needle, which had come out of their world’s fair a few years earlier. Rather, these were stolid and kind of crude, the saucer-shaped decks fixed atop three thick concrete columns and painted lemon yellow.
They were the crown of the fair’s so-called New York State Pavilion, which contained the giant circus-colored Tent of Tomorrow, the ground of which was paved with a giant map of New York State featuring all the new highways that the 1939 fair’s World of Tomorrow had promised.
The tower’s viewing decks could be accessed by long, winding staircases in the interior of the columns, and also by a matching lemon yellow elevator that traveled up an exterior shaft. The highest of the viewing decks—226 feet—provided a perspective of the borough that is still unmatched today. Once visitors reached the top, they could look out at the Manhattan skyline, and the mostly corporate pavilions at the fair, and of course the glimmering Unisphere—that giant platinum globe hovering above a cerulean reflection pool brought to life by a ring of Disney-engineered hydraulic fountains. Look! those towers seemed to say. A world united by commerce!
Of course, by the time Men in Black came out, the observation towers had been closed to the public for over thirty years. And for anyone under fifty years old passing by on a Long Island-bound expressway, they are just mysterious rusting monoliths to the space age and other spoils of modernism.
I noticed them during my first summer in New York. My boyfriend’s father had invited us out to Jones Beach to see Jethro Tull and to meet a new “woman-friend” who, we already knew, we would never see again. As we pressed east into Flushing, I saw those spooky towers emerge from that July smog. The brown corrosion of the exposed steel radiated even from a mile away. They looked like abandoned villain headquarters in a comic book, or like an ambitious idea gone south, a dream of the future that went out not with a bang, but with a whimper.
Last October marked the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair—which was, by most standards, not even a real one. The Bureau of International Expositions refused to sanction it.
For one, no country was allowed to host a fair twice in one decade (Seattle had been the seat of 1962’s fair). But New York violated some other tenets, too: they charged each of the participating countries $5,000 in rent with the intent to turn profit, and they planned to run for two seasons—another BIE no-no. Within months of the fair breaking ground, many countries had dropped out, and so the bulk of the fair’s participants ended up being big American companies: Disney, GM, Chrysler, RCA, U.S. Steel, Westinghouse, Bell.
The fair itself was to mark the 300th anniversary of New York State, and in honor of that anniversary, Governor Rockefeller requested that the tallest, most visible expo at the fair be one dedicated to the occasion. The result was the New York State Pavilion, where the observation towers were erected. Spirits were high. The towers’ architect, Philip Johnson, envisioned them being the “Eiffel Tower of Queens.” And the governing agency—the New York World’s Fair Corporation—announced, almost immediately, that the fair was going to be the “world’s single most important event.”
However desperate that optimism sounds, the fair was earnestly forward-looking. In a retrospective published by The Daily News on the fair’s fiftieth anniversary, they described NASA’s model rockets exhibit as one that “promised a trip to the moon was just years away.” At IBM’s pavilion, “visitors... sat on a moveable grandstand that carried them up to a theater.” There was General Motors’ Avenue of Progress , IBM’s Mathematics Peep Show , Bell’s Picturephone demo, Sinclair Oil’s Dinoland , and Chunky Candy Corp’s manufacturing display where onlookers could watch “the highly automated process.” There were lots of small nations that had tourist companies, rather than governments, sponsor their displays—Japan, Denmark, Thailand, Pakistan, West Germany. There were dozens of exhibits for different U.S. states sponsored by their chambers of commerce. It was rag-tag and commercial, but still appealing to the base excitement of Americans at that moment.
While that retrospective from The Daily News ticks through the fair’s highlights, the author acknowledges the feeling of a country on the verge of a consciousness change: “The social upheaval of the 1960s was waiting around the corner. But for two summers, visitors indulged in the optimistic flavor of the fair, which embraced the space age and the advent of technology that would forever change American culture.” More to the point, visitors embraced these things that they hoped would be the agents of change. Automation, cars, oil, The Jetsons: it seemed reasonable. But we are generally terrible at recognizing the true forces of a paradigm shift until it’s almost over with.
In the end, the fair was a relative fiscal failure. It fell apart in a series of shady bond swapping and near-bankruptcy. Today, the fair’s failed vision of modernity looms over Flushing in the form of those observation towers, with the Saturn-like rings, now betraying the optimism they were trying to represent.
What’s interesting is how this world’s fair fits into the general history of 20th century world’s fairs: In 1935, the fair was in Brussels, and the theme was (I kid you not) ‘Colonization.’ Thirty years later, New York’s was dedicated to “Man’s Achievement on a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe.” And ten years later, in the mid-1970s, it was held in Spokane, Washington, a veritable desert cow-town gone wild, and the theme at that one? Environmental conservation.
It seems that sometime in the mid-1960s, the American dream of a unified world came to an end. Maybe it was the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the threat of nuclear fallout; the tremblings of the Vietnam War, and other proxy wars, were positioned to do what exactly? We were forgetting. The celebratory mood of having just “saved the world” from the Nazis was exhausted, and Ezra Pound’s cry to “make it new” had begat fascism, and deindustrialization was just around the corner. The imperialists had to give those countries they’d stolen back to the people they’d stolen from, and slowly they and we had to accept that it had been, in fact, theft and plunder all along. American television had foreclosed on the curiosity of foreign lands. And, it seems, the appeal of a world’s fair ran out. We are now certainly past the old order of the world’s fair, and we were probably already past it in 1964. The observation towers captures a modernism at the moment it maxed out, the dreams having already been disproven by the time they were built. By 1966, they were already blooming with rust.
It seems fitting then that the most prominent media use of the old New York State Pavilion in recent years was that finale in Men in Black , when the rogue alien held in contempt of the interstellar courts manages to reactivate the spacecraft-turned-observation deck. Agents J and K go to Flushing Meadows-Corona Park to stop him from getting away, but right as they arrive he soars down from the columns, across the starry night sky, over Shea Stadium, and shatters the Unisphere.
The towers remain long boarded up. Restoration has been on the table for years, though no one is quite sure yet to what extent. Some of that labor has already come free of charge: last year, a league of apprentice painters restored the bright red and white stripes around the perimeter of the Tent of Tomorrow. As recently as last September, parks department design consultants started drafting plans to reconstitute the electrical and structural work on the towers, and as Meghan Lalor of the Queens Parks Department told me in an email, “Full public access is our ultimate goal, but that is dependent on funding.” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, and the city council all ponied up millions of dollars to the effort, but are still some $13 million shy of restoring three weird structures that were never supposed to last into the 70s anyway.
When two historic preservationists recently conducted a feasibility study on the pavilion’s restoration, they reminded the city of the structures’ intended ephemerality, that they had been built without rebar and foundations specifically so that they, too, could disappear into the expanding universe of 1966.
While the Queens Parks Department claims that the towers have been kept alive nonetheless all these years to “provide a connection to the original vision and fun of the fair,” an elderly Queens resident complained in a 2014 Daily Mail video that taking the structures down would be “a step forward, not a step backward” because the city would finally be “recognizing that this is a park, for people, where you can sit down in the grass, look at the trees, flowers, and the lake—and not, what I consider, this ugly steel structure.” Interestingly, Queens parks commissioner Dorothy Lewandowski told the New York Times that, “it’s a younger generation that has expressed the most support for preserving it.”
In March 2015, some kids were busted for breaking and entering into the towers; they made it all the way to the top, took photos, danced around, probably shotgunned a beer or two. When the local CBS news team went to report on it a week later, the hole in the fence through which the kids had entered was still there. (The news team made note of this.) A month later there was another break in, with a different group of kids, and both times the kids were issued tickets, scooped up in cop cars, and taken home.
I cannot imagine these are isolated events, but when I asked whether breaking-and-entering has been a consistent problem, Lalor said only that the towers were “not suitable for access and they are locked as a matter of public safety.” She then added that “Parks Enforcement Patrol monitors the park regularly” and that “thanks to a 30% increase in Urban Park Service funding” those monitors are multiplying. Did she think I was going to break in?
I recently visited Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. It was a cold, cloudy day and there was still snow on the ground. I was caught in traffic the whole way there, and when I arrived I walked straight to a bench positioned in full view of the observation towers. The park is surrounded on all sides by expressways, slipping by in the background like mercury, and the open spaces are flat, punctuated regularly by trees of the same age and size. The pathways are rimmed with old-fashioned-style street lamps, though you get the impression they were installed in the 1960s, to make it look like Central Park. They thought it would be the Central Park of Queens, but it lacks that one feature which makes Central Park so central: you can’t get there by foot.
Well, some people can. A few high school kids wander around and through, in pairs or groups. A few men on bicycles.
The towers are so silent and decrepit and cast such large shadows across the grounds. I walked toward them and circled around the chain-link fence. I found the hole where the kids had gotten through the year before. It had been covered up.