Day 1000

Remnants of the World’s Fairs

September 25th, 2014

The Queens Museum in Flushing Meadows Park was originally the New York City Building at the 1939-40 World's Fair. From 1946 to 1950, before the United Nations moved to its current headquarters in Manhattan, the U.N. General Assembly met here. The building reprised its World's Fair role in 1964-65, featuring an amazing exhibit that's still on view today: the Panorama of the City of New York, a 9,335-square-foot three-dimensional scale model of the five boroughs that includes some 895,000 individual buildings — "the world’s largest architectural model of a city". (The Panorama is supposedly up-to-date as of 1992, but at least one building was missing when I last visited in 2011: the Bronx's circa-1963 Executive Towers.)

At left is the old New York State Pavilion from the 1964-65 World's Fair. You can see the observation towers as well as part of the Tent of Tomorrow. Just out of frame is the third part of the pavilion: the Theaterama, which is now the Queens Theatre. (As we learned a couple of years ago, the Theaterama was the site of Andy Warhol's Thirteen Most Wanted Men, an ultimately nixed artwork with a fascinating story.)

Before the World's Fairs, Flushing Meadows wasn't a park at all, but rather a vast ash dump run by a Tammany crony named Fishhooks McCarthy. This befouled landscape was immortalized in the pages of The Great Gatsby:

About half way between West Egg and New York the motor road hastily joins the railroad and runs beside it for a quarter of a mile, so as to shrink away from a certain desolate area of land. This is a valley of ashes — a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens, where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally, a line of gray cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak, and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-gray men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud, which screens their obscure operations from your sight.
Realizing that a tremendous amount of money would be required to convert the old dump into parkland, Robert Moses seized on the idea of holding a World's Fair here in 1939, using the financial resources available for the fair to level the ash mounds, dig out lakes, and lay down topsoil, turning what Moses described as "a cloud of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night" into one of the largest parks in New York City.

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