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Relics of NYC World's Fair: Are they eyesores or icons?

NEW YORK --They were designed for the 1964 World's Fair as sleek, space-age visions of the future: three towers topped by flying-saucer-like platforms, and a pavilion of pillars with a suspended, shimmering roof that was billed as the “Tent of Tomorrow.”

That imagined tomorrow has come and gone. Now the structures are abandoned relics, with rusted beams, faded paint and cracked concrete.

As the fair's 50th anniversary approaches, the remains of the New York State Pavilion are getting renewed attention, from preservationists who believe they should be restored and from critics who see them as hulking eyesores that should be torn down. Neither option would come cheap: an estimated US$14 million for demolition and US$32 million to US$72 million for renovation.

“It is the Eiffel Tower of Queens,” says Matthew Silva, who's making a documentary about the pavilion in Queens' Flushing Meadows Corona Park, comparing it to a remnant of the 1889 Paris Exposition that was also threatened with demolition before it was saved.

Designed by famed architect Philip Johnson, the New York structures debuted with the rest of the World's Fair on April 22, 1964, and quickly became among its most popular attractions.

Visitors rode glass “Sky Streak” elevators to the observation deck of a 226-foot tower — the highest point in the fair. The two shorter towers, at 150 and 60 feet, held a cafeteria and a VIP lounge.

The pavilion's 16, 100-foot-tall concrete columns supported what was then the largest suspended roof in the world, a 50,000 square-foot expanse of translucent, multicolored tiles. On the floor below was a US$1 million, 9,000-square-foot terrazzo tile map of the state, with details of cities, towns and highways.

In the years after the fair, the pavilion was used as a music venue for such acts as Led Zeppelin, the Grateful Dead and Fleetwood Mac. In the 1970s, it became a roller skating rink until the collapse of the ceiling tiles, leaving only bare cables behind.

The towers, while still structurally sound, were abandoned as observation decks long ago for safety reasons. Their retro-futuristic look has been most widely known from its use in such movies as “Men in Black” and “Iron Man 2.”

Although occasionally opened for tours, the towers and pavilion — the last major structures still standing from the World's Fair that have not been preserved — have largely served as a stoic landmark for travelers on the Van Wyck Expressway. Two padlocked gates — one chain-link, one metal — keep the Tent of Tomorrow shuttered.

“It should be called the 'Tent of Yesterday,'” says Ben Haber, who lives near the park. “This is not the Parthenon, it's not the Sphinx, it's not the pyramids. ... So what's so special that we should keep it?”

At the heart of the debate is the cost. While the city's Parks Department commissioned studies on the cost of scrapping or renovating the complex, it is still unclear where that money would come from and, if restored, how the structures would be used. If the money comes through, work on the city-owned pavilion could begin as early as next year once officials make a decision.

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This 1964 file photo shows the New York State Pavilion at the New York World's Fair in New York. (AP)

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