Monday, May 12, 2014

Weekday Wanderings: Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens, NY

On April 22, the 50th anniversary of the 1964 World's Fair opening and just a week shy of the 75th anniversary of the 1939 World's Fair opening, the New York State Pavilion Paint Project opened the pavilion up to people for the first time in three decades. I heard about it in March and knew instantly that I'd be taking the day off to go.


I've been interested in World's Fairs for a long time, probably since I first heard about the 1964 one at Disney World. The Carousel of Progress and It's a Small World are two of my very favorite rides there, and both first appeared at the World's Fair in Queens.

Both of my parents attended the World's Fair (though not together - my dad was twelve-years-old and my mother was nine, and it would be another twelve years before they would meet in the Bronx), and my father says it was one of his favorite places to visit when he was a kid. He went many times over the two years it was open, sneaking in through a hole in the fence of the Flushing Meadows Corona Park, and since he's retired, it wasn't much of a problem for him to drive down and visit with me. The last time he was in the park was in the 70s for an Iron Butterfly concert. (It's worth noting here that when he told me this, I thought he meant Iron Maiden and I was pretty confused, since that's really not his jam.)


He picked me up from the apartment at around 8:30, because we were convinced we'd hit rush hour traffic and it would take hours to get to Queens and then we'd have to search for parking. It took 17 minutes and because we were so early, we were able to park in the lot just outside the Pavilion. So, we wandered around the park taking a lot of photos, and waiting for my friend Sheena, who lives near the park and was meeting up with us.


My dad had printed out some maps of the original World's Fair set-ups, and Shaelyn had set us up with a map of the current park, pointing out each of the sites, which was really helpful. As a result, we were able to wander around and see some of the footprints and remains of what were once crowded buildings for states, countries, and companies.

Our main target was, of course, the New York State Pavilion, where the Tent of Tomorrow, Observation Towers, and Theaterama were housed in 1964. The tent was open-air, but protected by a ceiling of colorful plexiglass panels suspended by cables, and the floor was a reproduction of the Texaco map of New York. Apparently after the pavilion was closed, there was a plan to transfer the floor to the World Trade Center, but it was never enacted and once the plexiglass was removed, much of the floor was ruined. The tent of tomorrow was also used as a skating rink and a concert hall for some time after the World's Fair. Theaterama originally showed a film about New York, and now part of it as used as the Queens Theater. The observation deck was one of the highest points in the park, and allowed visitors to see the park from a bird's eye view. The elevators that went up and down the exterior were recently removed for fear that they would fall off and hurt someone, but until then, you could still see one half-way to the top.


I can imagine that it was really beautiful when it was constructed, and the New York State Pavilion Paint Project did recently repaint the bottom, which makes it look a bit more cheerful, as you'll see in some pictures below, but without the ceiling and updated painting on the top, it's a bit gray, though it still appears as a backdrop in some movies (most famously, Men in Black). For more information on its history, DoCoMoMo is a really great resource.


We wandered over to the Unisphere, the symbol of the 1964 World's Fair, and one of the most iconic statues in Queens. According to Wikipedia, the theme of the World's Fair was "Peace Through Understanding" and the Unisphere represented the theme of global interdependence. It was dedicated to "Man's Achievements on a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe".


I'd seen images of the Unisphere so many times, but I'd never actually seen it in person, so that was a real thrill.

Me in front of the Unisphere!

A view of the NYS Pavilion, the Unisphere, and the former New York City Building, now the Queens Museum of Art.

We made our way across the high way to the other side of the park, and saw the Terrace on the Park, formerly a heliport for the World's Fair, where dignitaries and others would fly in from various points in the city and the Hall of Science, which is now a hands-on science museum for kids.

I also noted some benches from 1964, which reminded me of Shaelyn's recent post and made me pretty sad she wasn't with us in New York, since I know she would have had a blast.


And some original water fountains. I love their modernist design:


After that, we headed back toward the Unisphere, to meet Sheena, who was coming in from near Citifield. She said, "I'll just follow all the crowds," which was pretty surprising, because to that point, everything had been pretty empty, even right near the pavilion, where we'd been just a half hour earlier.


We spotted her, and the three of us headed over to the pavilion, where, to our horror, we discovered that in the half-hour we'd been gone, a massive line had developed, and we were forced to wait on the bridge across from the pavilion.

Sheena and me


And let me tell you - it was a wait. They had a little entertainment on the line, so we took some photos with their fake postcard stands, and chatted with each other. I hadn't seen Sheena in over a year, so it was great to catch up with her, and my father and I always have something to talk about. After about two hours, we finally made our way to the front of the line, where we were given a ticket to enter at the front, where a man was calling out numbers. The number he was calling at the time was 320, and our number was 970, so we were in for quite another wait.

Luckily, a few food trucks had set up to sell their wares, so we were able to grab a snack in the meantime. Wafels & Dinges was there as a tribute to the fact that the first waffles to really take hold in the US were the "Bel-Gem" Waffles that Maurice Vermersch introduced at the 1964 World's Fair. Although the waffles we so enjoy are actually called Brussels Waffles in the rest of the world, the "Bel-Gem" name stuck, so now Americans are the only ones to call them "Belgian" waffles. While I usually love mine with spekuloos, the only one that seemed appropriate to order on this particular day was the 1964 - with strawberries and whipped cream, just as they were served at the fair.




The line for waffles was nearly 45 minutes long, but since we had no where else to be, we decided it was worth it, and chatted with some of the people in line around us, most of whom had also been at the fair in the 60s, like my father. One woman was wearing a lovely silk scarf that her mother had purchased at the fair, and asked if I was wearing teal and orange because those were the fair colors. (I wasn't, but it was a happy coincidence!) She also had a children's book about the fair that she showed us, and the man behind us was happy to exchange memories of old Queens with my dad, since they were about the same age.

Before we knew it, our number was called, and we donned our hard hats and headed in!


Being inside was so cool. I usually wish I was alone during these sorts of things, since tourist attractions are mostly so beautiful but so crowded with disrespectful people, but this was different. Perhaps because it was likely only New Yorkers who were willing to take a day off, or perhaps because so many people visiting had been in this very space 50 years earlier, or perhaps it was just because they were good about not letting too many people in at once; but it was very serene and everyone seemed to realize they were in a special place. With the interior open for only a few hours, I think we all knew it wasn't likely any of us would be back.


Some of the salvaged floor tiles were also being shown off. I can only imagine how gorgeous it must have been in its heyday, because yes, I'm a little obsessed with maps.



My father and me under the pavilion!

And there were some relics from the pavilion's slightly more recent history, as well, like this sign for skate rentals:


The paint job really did make it a bit more cheerful. I hope they're able to accomplish their goal of one day restoring the building.


And one last view of the exterior main entrance:


Afterward, we took a walk to the Queens Museum of Art. Usually they are closed on Tuesdays, but they kept a few parts of the museum open for us, which was really nice. They had a little exhibit of World's Fair memorabilia, and then the Panorama of the City of New York was open for viewing. The museum describes it as "is the jewel in the crown of the collection of the Queens Museum and a locus of memory for visitors from all over the globe," which I think is just beautiful. It was enormous and so much fun to pinpoint certain locations, like our house!


I definitely hope to make it back out to the museum on a day when they're actually open, because they seem to have some other really great exhibits.

After that, we ended our day with a visit to the Ice King of Corona, another place that feels almost folkloric to me, but which I've never visited. It was delicious! The licorice and cherry flavors had chunks of each in them, something I've never had in other Italian ices before, even fresh ones. It was the perfect ending to a really lovely day, and I can't wait to visit again one day this summer!

2 comments:

  1. This post! So exciting! Thank you for sharing your experience in such detail! I am so happy to have felt like I got to be there by way of this post and your awesome social media sharing on the day!

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  2. Very interesting experiences - I went a couple times as a kid. Interesting is that Robert Moses made some decisions at the time that resulted in removal of the fair from official "Fair" status, and that he kept it open a second year to recoup expenses, and it bombed the second year. The park is very popular in the community, stays open in the evenings and remains a focal point in Queens, near the Tennis Stadium. I've take a lot of photos there, if interested, they can be seen at www.fineartamerica.com, you enter my name, Steve Breslow, and I have a separate folder for my Flushing Meadows pictures.

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