Many important things happened on April 22nd. The New York Yankees wore pinstriped uniforms for the first time (1915). The first Earth Day was celebrated (1970). Barbara Walters became the first female evening news anchor (1976). Johnny Carson announced his retirement from The Tonight Show (1991). My sister was born (not telling). And, exactly 50 years ago (1964), the World’s Fair opened in New York City’s Flushing Meadows Park.
While not on the scale of my sister’s birth, I generally think of the Fair as a family event as well. For one thing, my brother was married there (I’ll explain). But the real connection comes from my mother. She couldn’t wait to take us! She was so excited! You see, it was going to be her second World’s Fair. When she was little, she attended the 1939 World’s Fair (this year marks its 75th anniversary), built on virtually the same piece of Queens, New York real estate, just a short walk from her childhood home. Time and again she would tell us about seeing the “Trylon and Perisphere,” the 2 iconic structures that together formed the ’39 Fair’s signature image.
25 years later Mom looked forward to sharing that same thrilling experience with her own children, not to mention getting a few updated goosebumps of her own, at the sight of the T&P’s futuristic descendant, the Unisphere.
As soon as we arrived, my brother Martin fired up his Ansco camera and started snapping:
I loved the World’s Fair the way any grade school kid loves something big, broad, fun, fascinating and totally different than anything he’s ever seen before (Disneyland in California was too far away and the Orlando version was yet to be built.) Two of my favorite souveniers were the bright red “Official Guide” to the Fair, which I kept, and re-read so many times, for years, and the one-of-a-kind World’s Fair Sunglasses (the lenses were shaped like twin Unispheres. You looked ridiculous, but who cared?) I marveled at the exhibits we were able to get into (a push-button telephone?! Wow!) and watched longingly the endless lines of people waiting to enter the popular spots like GM’s Futurama.
I remember the giant ferris wheel sponsored by a tire company and shaped like… well, what do you think?
I recall Mom’s terrified expression when the cable car we kids talked her into boarding slowly began to climb (I think she was afraid of heights). Everything looked so pretty, so perfect, and even though the Fair was a temporary affair (a few months in ’64 and again in ’65) New Yorkers were promised that this new facility, constructed largely on swamp and landfill, would become a permanent City park, with some of its buildings re-purposed for future public use.
Those promises were kept, up to a point. The New York City Pavilion became the Queens Museum of Art. The Heliport was transformed into a popular catering hall, Terrace On The Park (where Martin’s wedding took place six years later). The Unisphere still stands. Everything else, though, was demolished, with one sad exception: The New York State Pavilion.
I say “sad” because this facility received neither a facelift nor a decent burial.
During the Fair it was one of the more noteworthy sites, with its three towers and circular, multicolored tent-like base, a perfect gathering place and an ideal spot for the best aerial view of the entire fairground.
Today the pavilion is a stripped, cracked, rusted, decrepit shadow of its old self. Padlocked. Unused. Falling apart. The City says tearing it down would cost $14 million. Renovating it… twice that, at least. Hardly anyone wants to spend the money to do either.
On this coming April 22nd, a small ceremony will be held there. The padlocks will come off. Hardhats will be issued to visitors, and it’ll be possible once again, to stroll through the New York State Pavilion and remember what it was like, back in the day. Perhaps the event will motivate more people to care about what happens to the building, perhaps not. I don’t attach too much sentimentality to it, and I think public money is more urgently needed elsewhere. It would be nice to see some kind of conservancy formed to raise private funds to either preserve and modernize the site, or quietly take it down, so the space can find a new life unfettered by tons of oddly-shaped, rapidly crumbling concrete and steel.
Either way, I’m fine. Buildings come and go. Memories stay.
One more thing. Happy Birthday, Laya. We miss you.