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Road Trip, Part II

- procyon - Wednesday, September 27th, 2006 : goo

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I apologize in advance, because this is yet another tome of an article. The other two posts in this series will not be nearly as wordy. But I felt I had to try to explain why a structure I'd never even visited was so important to me, as most of the pictures I took don't do it justice.


Late that night we stopped for automated coffee at a truck stop in Pennsylvania where we were the only human beings in sight and the sky was clear enough, even so near to the highway, that we could see the Milky Way. Later still we ate de facto Bel-Gem waffles at a Perkins in New Jersey that was a like a physical manifestation of myspace; everyone there was thirteen and explained their social lives loudly and in the third person. It was only 2 or 3 in the morning, but I was almost asleep when Nick parked the Kia at our hotel in Maspeth.


Before going any further, I should explain that over the past few years, I've become increasingly interested in the concept of World's Fairs. It's not that surprising, given that I live on the 1892/1893 fairgrounds and my parents visited the 1982 fair on their honeymoon, but the combination of intense commercialism and largely wrongheaded but apparently well-intentioned Progress optimism resonates with me in a weird way I can't quite place. There's a James Rosenquist painting called "That margin between that which men naturally do and that which they can do is so great that a system which urges men to action and develops individual enterprise and initiative is preferable in spite of the wastes that necessarily attend that process." Louis Dembitz Brandeis (1856-1941). It has the Unisphere in it. I'm inclined to think that the idea Rosenquist was expressing is not the same thing I'm feeling, but I know very little about him.

Like many people who have worked for NASA and/or hope to make a career out of doing so, I understand that there are far more important concerns in the United States right now, but would still love to see more public interest in the space program (and more ambition from space policymakers)--so the prevalence of space race imagery at the 1964 fair makes it even more interesting to me than the rest.

The mostly-abandoned New York State Pavilion, designed by Philip Johnson, is a physical avatar of [my I-wasn't-actually-there perception of] American space-race Jetsons-futurist technology optimism (and subsequent "Where are our flying cars?" disappointment). It looks like a UFO in flight, a crown of thorns, and a broken amusement-park ride. Johnson on the building: "The New York State Pavilion at the 1964-65 World's Fair is now a ruin. In a way, the ruin is even more haunting than the original structure. There ought to be a university course in the pleasure of ruins." (from the foreword to The Architecture of Philip Johnson, the coffee table book I mentioned in dfwtiger's Water Gardens article's comments section)

So, ever since I first saw the State Pavilion (in a They Might Be Giants music video Nick and I were watching about two years ago), I've been irresistibly drawn to it. And now that Nick had agreed to go there with me, I was childishly excited and weirdly nervous. For two nights leading up to the trip I had adventure-nightmares about sneaking in--even though we no longer really planned to do so, having heard from an internet group of '64 World's Fair experts that a gentleman who worked nearby was sympathetic to fans of the building and would sometimes unlock the closed-off parts of it for them.


Our first morning in New York, we walked about a mile to the train stop. On the way there we passed a small restaurant surrounded by dozens of six-foot-high stacks of colorful pop cans in translucent blue bags. People from inside were stacking more on top of them. It felt like the volume of the pop must have been larger than the volume of the restaurant itself. I wanted to take a photo, but didn't because I'm still usually too shy to take pictures of strangers, with or without asking, and I thought maybe giant pop-stacking was a common sight for those of you who are from New York City.

We got on the 7 train. I was pressed against the window the whole time, looking for the NYSP towers as if I was 7 and the 7 was the Polar Express.

We got off at Willets Point. Flushing Meadows Corona Park was flooded with people who were there for the US Open. I'd heard that the Unisphere fountains are turned on for the occasion every year, but they weren't yet running that day. People were sitting in the empty pool, reading.

But there, next to the Unisphere, was the State Pavilion.

image 16012

image 16013

image 16014

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We made a circle around it, looking for unlocked entry gates. On a tip from one of the internet '64 World's Fair people, I found some pieces of broken blue glass on the ground that had once been one of the globe lanterns adorning the tall observation towers.

image 16016

I took two small pieces home. I keep them in my jewelry box.

Finding no means of entry on our own, we went into the building where the helpful man was said to work. I made an ass of myself, accidentally using the wrong terminology (even though I knew the right way to say it) when asking the lady at the desk about something else going on at the park that night, then awkwardly asked whether the man in question was around.

"Oh, he's on vacation," she said.

Of course he was on vacation.


image 16017

image 16018

The man who parked that elevator there (one of the aforementioned internet experts) wrote that he did so in 1970. It hasn't moved since.

We headed back to the NYSP for a last look. As we left for the train, I noticed a hole in one gate that was probably big enough for me to fit through, but not quite big enough for Nick.

"Should I try squeezing through the hole?" I wondered out loud.
"Go ahead," said Nick, "but I'm not posting your bail."

I eventually decided not to go in, not because I actually thought I'd get arrested, but because I still hope that (a) I will visit again in the near future (b) the State Pavilion will neither have collapsed nor have been demolished by that point

image 16019

image 16020

and (c) when I return, the mysterious Benefactor of Architecture/World's Fair Nerds will not be on vacation, will not have gotten in some sort of trouble because I am stupidly exposing him a little more to Google by writing this, will be willing to help me out, and I will be able to see the place legitimately and therefore to take my time doing so. I did stick my camera through the hole, though:

image 16021

and found weeds, dumpsters, barricades and an empty case of Corona. The terrazzo floor map of New York State, which cost one million 1964-dollars and was the largest two-dimensional map in the world when it was made, was not visible under the debris.


We took the same train to Manhattan and wandered around there on foot for the rest of the day. I managed to take only one picture the entire time. Several days after returning to Cleveland, however, I noticed that Catherine Penfold-Waxman had taken and posted nearly the exact same photograph (except better-composed) a year or so previous. I present my version now for this reason alone.

image 16022

I don't even have dirty martinis to blame* for the blurriness in mine.

We woke up relatively early the next morning and headed down to Coney Island.

image 16023

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I was amazed to see jellyfish there. This was a silly thing to be amazed about.

image 16026

Soon it was past time to leave, though, and we came back down the boardwalk to Washington DC via Delaware via the Kia.


* Excuses I do have: (1) poor holding-things-steady-enough-for-night-shots technique, even when sober (2) food deprivation at the time of photo (3) well-loved but careworn entry-level digital camera my parents gave to me for Christmas when I was 14 or 15**. I am currently investigating the price of camera surgery, because yesterday it abruptly stopped working altogether.
** I'd asked for one that year after having seen hool's work on swinney.

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procyon: 28th Sep 2006 - 04:10 GMT

I forgot to point out that some of these photos are Nick's. We were swapping cameras throughout, and we took a ton of very similar pictures, so we aren't sure exactly which of these are whose (pretty sure Nick's are the two in b/w).

Sirhcbre: 28th Sep 2006 - 04:49 GMT

This is great. That Unisphere is creepy as hell! Is that the same one as in the Simpsons when bart rented a car?

Is ther more to the series or is this the last one?

aer suzuki: 28th Sep 2006 - 08:10 GMT

fantastic post. i may not be able to look at the space needle again without feeling cheated somehow.

little ukraine: 28th Sep 2006 - 16:12 GMT

really really great post. stupidly, the strongest associations I have with the '64 world's fair are the Grand Central Parkway and the New York Mets, two things of which I'm not particularly fond. However, "Ana Ng" - probably TMBG's best song.
Also, I think Bart was at the Knoxville world's fair, where the unisphere was being used to store wigs. Awesome.

jack: 28th Sep 2006 - 20:58 GMT

WELL NOW, A TRIP TO THE PAST...the last time i was at the fair was when it was in it's actuality. it was in full bloom, you kids should have seen it. it had just opened when i came home for a 30 day leave. my friend joe, a graduate of a military school, brought me there to see the wonders of the fair. i was in uniform and the girls were flirting with me like crazy. the fair was simply the greatest thing to happen to new york city in a long time. i enjoyed the GE pavillion and the world of tommorrow, (which by the way i am living in today). they predicted a type of cell phone, like the one dick tracy used in the comics. they predicted every home would have a computer, which we do, but i don't think they could envision the enormity of the internet. i look at the world's fair as i pass it on the grand central and see a skelton of a ghost that once was the most exciting thing happening. things change.. for a while there, in the movies, when they showed manhattan, you would see the empire state building and the chrysler building, then it became the world trade center in all the movies, and now we are back to the original buildings that made our city famous. so much for longevity. and then coney, the first building was used in the movie, 'two weeks notice', but now you see it in its original form. the boardwalk, not broadwalk, (the 'broadwalk' was a joke used by the guys during during the second world war) get it, 'broad' girls walking. well anyway you can see the old parachute jump and next to it was steeplechase where you paid for a circular card which they poked a hole in on every ride. and the fun house where you could catch a glimpse of nylon stockings and garter belts when a women walked over the air holes in the floor and the skirts would go up in the air. thrills, laughter, making out with a girl under the boardwalk, positioning yourself under the water fountain on the boardwalk to look up through the slatted wood and look under a skirt as a girl would stop for a drink of water, getting a cheap feel on a gypsy girl in the dark alley ways, watermelon, franks at nathans, the smell of the beach, the fries, the suntan lotion (non-protective,non sunscreen) the perfumes. ah, yesteryear, when i was young and strong. but i would give it all away for what i have today, my grandchildren, and my newest granddaughter, a beauty if i say so myself, to play with my grandchildren, to hear them laugh and giggle, that is life. that is what makes facing your end days a little easier. so my friends, be nice to older people, they have seen too much and remember too many loved ones and be nice to a soldier, he is lonely and like Jesus, is ready to give their lives for us.

procyon: 29th Sep 2006 - 23:08 GMT

Sirhcbre: 2 more, I think, but they're about the mostly-Nick-directed parts of the trip so I will have more photos than commentary and they'll be shorter altogether. :)
aer suzuki: Really? The '64 World's Fair fans I was talking to all seem to point at the Space Needle as the pinnacle of Really Cool World's Fair Structures That Are Still Really Cool.
little ukraine: Someone tells me about that episode every time I wear my Knoxville '82 t-shirt, but I still haven't gotten around to seeing it (my Mom had a Simpsons ban in the house when I was growing up and we only ever got to watch it when Dad was the only parent home). It sounds hilarious, but are you sure it was the Unisphere ( and not the Sunsphere? (
Jack: I was hoping you'd have a story about it. :)

aer: 30th Sep 2006 - 03:12 GMT

when i first moved here i disliked the space needle. then i realized it was a good navigational tool and after i started telling tourists that george jetson lived in the space needle i began to like it. now, i'd better like it because i can see it out my front window. i think i just take it for granted a bit - it's constant presence has dulled it's edge for me. the different-ness of new york's structure was striking...but don't get me wrong, i still like the needle.

karina: 30th Sep 2006 - 20:42 GMT

me too jack, awestruck by all of it.Going with my steady on a type of scarey ride,oops, hold on tight , the spagetti strap of my pink sundress snapping oops !Then with family getting mementos, now are they still in that box ? Do people really want to share...I was always nice to soldiers....married one too...happily ever after ..the worlds fair of 64.

Peter: 2nd Oct 2006 - 14:44 GMT

wow. now this was a nice read. curiously, ive been to the fair site a couple of times, even ridden my bike in the empty unisphere fountain and gazed forlornly at the decay of the structures, but never thought much of it, as i was always in a hurry to get somewhere else or had some other matter on my mind...

but this entry makes me want to go back- its a mere subway ride away for me, so i might head out there and get some more pictures... maybe carry along the telephoto lens and see what i can see way up there.

the park itself is huge and has some amazing tidbits in it- i hope you managed to see some of them.

on a less-related note... the building you posted the photo of, on the boardwalk seems to have fallen victim to the ... last time i saw it, it looked like this:

image 3531

image 3536
(yes, that sane...)

image 3537

thanks for this entry. this is definitely one of my favorites...

Susannah: 8th Nov 2006 - 13:53 GMT

So glad this popped up - loved the comparison of Perkins to Myspace - If citynoise were a restaurant - which one would it be? I think it lacks defining - which is what makes it so great, but this post fuses alot the elements I really like. I really appreciate the way you captured those "retro-futuristic" structures in Queens, I saw them in a new light.

procyon: 3rd Feb 2007 - 22:15 GMT

peter: too bad about the sane stuff getting painted over! i read somewhere that someone is rehabilitating the place, though... as a resident of a beautiful old building with a lot of terra cotta sculptural details, i'm always happy to see another one being taken care of on a structural-integrity level, but it's unfortunate that these things happen at the expense of the art the buildings acquired while being neglected by their original owners.

relatedly, the New York State Pavilion: if the Tent of Tomorrow ever is restored, I'll be thrilled that it's not going to fall down, and that it will see public use again, but also sort of furtively disappointed to lose the beautiful desolation in the way the roof looks now. I guess ideally I'd like to see it return the way it apparently looked in the late '80's and stay there: At that point it looked sturdy and clean, but still had that gravity to it. Of course, I never saw it with the original "stained glass" roof and pop art decorations, so who am I to judge?

Anyway, my original point in commenting was to say I'd be really psyched to see some more pictures at Flushing Meadows. I guess some grad students from Penn (?) are in the NYSP from time to time now, chipping up parts of the NY State map to restore them, so it might be even harder to get into the Tent of Tomorrow itself, but I'd love to see shots of anything in the park.

Nando: 31st May 2007 - 11:01 GMT

Hey guys I have to say this is definitely one of my favorites entries ever. I am a native of Corona (on which the park lies) and I can honestly say that my life revolves around it. As a young one (LOL, I'm only 18), i dream of having been alive during the World's Fair and see our park shimmer in all of its glory--the pavilions, the water displays, the hundreds of thousands of people swarming through the promenades. I have studied much about the park, especially the second World's Fair that took place in it, mainly because I have always been interested why the park is filled with hundreds of landmarks (at least in my eyes) that are just facing their demise with no hope for rehabilitation. I feel Flushing Meadows has potential for a massive reconstruction project, where the past will once again thrive, but with a touch of 21st century glamour and modernity. As a hopeful city planner, I am hopeful that this wonderful piece of land will be able to be revitalized once again... and everything from the rusting space needle to the waterless pools surrounding the Unisphere will become more than just artifacts of the past.
I have never underestimated my proximity of living so close to Flushing Meadows-Corona Park (about a 5-10 minute walk) and have visited it frequently. I have participated for countless community events in the park, have volunteered to maintain the park clean and healthy, have met with several local and park officials, and am currently working in the Queens Museum of Art (built for the World's Fairs). So email me ( if you want some pictures!!!

Also, I thought you guys may enjoy this email. I recently wrote to the Queens Parks Commissioner about any future plans for Flushing Meadows, and she responded with this!:
"Thank you for your email regarding the Flushing Meadows Corona Park Pavilion. I do recall our meeting and I am pleased that you are pursuing a career, which will allow you to better our great city. Moreover, I am flattered to learn that I played a small role in your decision.
In its prime, the Pavilion stood tall over Flushing Meadows Corona Park, representing our state's achievement and unity in 1964. Sadly, today, though the structure still stands, it has lost much of its original luster and has largely fallen out of use. With the exception of the vibrant Queens Theatre in the Park that occupies one of the historic structures, the Pavilion has been vacant for many years. Our hope is to revive the unused portions of the facility and maintain this important icon of the Queens skyline.
To that end, NYC Parks has undertaken several projects to revive the Pavilion. This coming summer and fall, students of the University of Pennsylvania will complete their documentation of the New York State Texaco Road Map that serves as the floor of the Pavilion. This work, plus the conservation of portions of the map, will be on display at the Queens Museum in late 2007. Also, in the coming year, NYC Parks will undertake an extensive structural study to better understand the stability and conservation costs for the Pavilion.
The Pavilion elicits a lot of strong feelings and we recognize that you are not alone in wanting to see it recovered. We also are aware that there are a great number of people who see this as an important work of a major American architect that deserves preservation.
Dorothy Lewandowski"

I would love to talk in person with individuals who experienced the World's Fair(s) back in the day, if anyone would be able to.
Thanks for the great entry,


Synthetrix: 26th Feb 2008 - 09:56 GMT

Excellent post! I thought I was the only freak obsessed with the observations towers. I have even dreamed about being up in them. I will hopefully see them in person this September.
Until then,

Chris: 25th Aug 2009 - 04:38 GMT


Thanks for posting the photos. I live near the Observation Towers and am planning to head down there this weekend to take a closer look (its been a while). I was hoping to get inside the fenced off area. I'd appreciate if you could drop me a line with some info on the gentleman who is sympathetic to those of us who are intrigued by the NYSP. My e-mail is Hopefully in the two years since you visited he hasn't moved on to a new post!

Thanks in advance.

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