45 Years Late to the World’s Fair

By the time I got there, it was gone.

The World’s Fair, you ask? Nope. I am referring to something far more unbelievable…

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That’s right: Queens once had an honest-to-God Parks Department-approved fountain named “Fountain of the Planet of the Apes.” And if that’s not odd enough, an identical fountain on the opposite side of the Queens Zoo was named “Fountain of the Planet of the Grapes of Wrath.” You can see them labeled on this park map, courtesy Flickr user Joshua:

fountain of the planet of the grapes of wrath

Sadly, when I arrived, the signs were gone, and the fountains now appear to be nameless (below is the former “Fountain of the Planet of the Apes”). Originally called “Fountain of the Planets” for the World’s Fair, former Parks Commissioner Henry J. Stern added the “of the Apes” to the name in the mid-90’s because, according to his quote in this NY Times article, “‘It’s a great movie which is also a treatise on the dangers of war.”

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Why “Fountain of the Planet of the Grapes of Wrath?” According to Stern, “We thought since we were paying tribute to a motion picture with an animal title, we should pay tribute to a motion picture with a vegetable title.” Makes sense to me. Very disappointed to see their signs removed – here’s hoping they return.

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While in the area, I figured it’d be a good time to explore a little-known section of Queens known as Flushing Meadows Park.

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Kidding, of course! I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to visit the site of two World’s Fairs. Originally, I wasn’t even going to put up a post about it – how could I even begin to find an original way to present material most New Yorkers are familiar with, a post people have done countless times in the past. Heck, there are World’s Fair aficionados who run sites chock full of every tidbit of World’s Fair info you could ever possibly hope to learn! Why add to the mix?

I decided to do a post anyway, for three reasons. One, if you haven’t been, maybe this will finally convince you to go. Two, if you have been, maybe this will bring to mind the park’s beauty.

Three, last Friday marked the anniversary of Queens Borough President Helen Marshall advocating the demolition of the iconic Philip Johnson-designed Tent of Tomorrow, seen below. According to Marshall: “It should be demolished. We have great artists. He’s not the only artist in the world.” Wow.

Well, since then, the Tent of Tomorrow site has gained Landmark status, protecting it from narrow-minded politicians. I present this post as a late celebration of an important victory.

Though a shell of its former glory, the Tent of Tomorrow is still an incredible structure, the future as envisioned in 1964:

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How it looked during the 1964 World’s Fair:

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Measuring in at 350 ft x 250 ft, the surrounding 100-foot columns originally supported a 50,000 sq-ft roof made up of orange and blue panels.

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The Tent featured numerous New York-themed arts and sciences exhibits. Most incredibly, an enormous map of New York covered the floor, rendered in in 567 mosaic panels weighing 400 pounds each and described by the NY Times as “an exuberantly overstated mix of small-town parochialism, space-age optimism and Pop Art irony.”

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Following the end of the fair, the tent became a roller rink, and then a performing arts space. When the roof was removed in 1976 over fears of its impending collapse, the map was largely destroyed by the elements, and vandals took care of much of the rest.

Abutting the Tent of Tomorrow are three towers, which once held cafeterias and an observatory.

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The towers were accessed by “Sky Streak” capsule elevators. The elevators were removed in recent years, one of which had been stuck about 150 feet up for decades.

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Though it cost tax payers $12 million and was supposed to become an arts center following the fair, the Tent of Tomorrow has basically sat rotting for 45 years. Though the structure is still generally sound, roof cables are apparently in danger of snapping.

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As mentioned, the Tent is now a State Landmark, and pro-bono architects are considering ways of saving it (according to engineering reports, portions of it would have to be rebuilt to meet safety standards). In the meantime, the floor map, which was being restored by a group from U. Penn, will be (or has been?) covered in a layer of sand and gravel to help it survive the winter.

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Meanwhile, two New Yorkers recently took to repainting the walls, though much work needs to be done. I wish they had been a bit louder in putting the word out – I for one would love to help!

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Next door is a World’s Fair structure that’s been completely renovated: the former Theaterama, now the Queens Theatre in the Park.

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During the fair, the Theaterama exhibited works by such artists as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, as well as showing a 360-degree film about the wonders of New York in the actual Theaterama space. Since the 1970’s, the building has been through a number of renovations, beginning with this (pictures from the Queens Theatre in the Park website)…

Followed by this (which I love):

And finally, the above picture, which, while certainly modern, seem pretty bland. But what do I know? At least they left these great transistor-like adornments:

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I don’t think they were around for the fair, but I love the water fountain design right outside:

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And now, the Unisphere!

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I really can’t think of anything more iconic in Queens than the Unisphere. Measuring in with a diameter of 120 feet, the Unisphere was designed in accordance with the theme of the World’s Fair: Peace through understanding. The three lines encircling the globe represent the first man in space, the first American to orbit the Earth, and the first communications satellite. The Unisphere was rehabilitated in the early 90’s and received Landmark status in 1995.

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The globe is built on the former site of the Perisphere, the symbol for the 1939 World’s Fair. Originally 180 feet in diameter, the interior of the Perisphere depicted a utopian world of the future. It also featured, at the time, the world’s longest escalator.

Currently, the pool surrounding the fountain is undergoing renovations to fix leakage problems. The design of the fountains was intended to obscure the base of the sphere, so as to make it seem as if it’s floating.

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How old is this sign?

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During the fair, lighting at night would simulate sunrises across the globe.

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The capitals were once marked with lights, though this seems to have been removed:

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Nearby, a number of tablets have been set to commemorate both World’s Fairs, and I wanted to share some of my favorites.

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Looks almost like the Diner of Tomorrow, which was allegedly present for the ’64 Fair.

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The silhouettes:

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I love this one of a woman encountering a robot:

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As reader David points out, this is actually Elektro, the Westinghouse robot! And he can smoke!

What are they looking at? A TV? A jukebox? Record player? All of the above?

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So cool:

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Great retro-space-age feel:

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A satellite:

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I’m dreading the day when a iPod and a flat screen TV seem antiquated:

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Apparently, this fair-goer has traveled to another planet. Any ideas on this one?

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Ah, water sports:

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Down past the now empty pools leading up to the Unisphere is the Rocket Thrower statue, yet another space-themed sculpture, depicting a giant throwing a rocket up to the heavens while reaching out to a constellation with his other hand.

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The sculpture received mixed reviews upon its installation (the NY Times descirbed it as “the most lamentable monster, making Walt Disney look like Leonardo Da Vinci.”). In 2008, donations were being sought after for its restoration.

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Closer to the NY Hall of Science is my favorite park sculpture, Forms In Transit, meant to depict all aspects of flight:

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While the statue lost part of a wing to weathering, the visible corrosion is actually part of the original sculpture, perhaps intended to show the effects of atmospheric re-entry.

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Around the corner in front of the NY Hall of Science are Queens’ very own rocket ships: a Mercury Atlas and a Gemini Titan:

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The two rockets were originally manufactured to carry nuclear warheads, and later were acquired by NASA. Unused, they were donated to the World’s Fair Hall of Science Space Park in 1964. Having deteriorated badly since then (one of the interior support structures had a termite infestation!), they were refurbished in 2001 and now look absolutely stunning.

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Next: There’s an episode of the Simpsons in which a treasure is reputedly buried beneath a “Big T” (a reference to It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World – note the W on the left).

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I always think that if Homer lived in Queens, his first stop would be Flushing Meadows Park:

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Now a catering hall, the above structure was original built as the Port Authority Pavilion (the “T” is for Transportation), intended to serve as a landing spot for helicopter transport.

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The top floor featured an 1,100-seat restaurant called the Top of the Fair; the lower floor, a 400-seat cocktail lounge known as “Drinks Around The World,” which served drinks from 24 international locales. Note the helicopter on the roof in the bottom picture:

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Though a lot of films shoot here, I’ve never been up it.  It almost looks like a playground on the roof!

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Though it has great views, you might want to check out some online reviews before booking your next wedding here. Just sayin…

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This is the lower floor – what is all that junk? Does the cocktail lounge still exist?

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This random column in the middle of the park, known as the Column of Jerash, was donated to the Fair by the King of Jordan:

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Originally from a Roman temple in the Jordanian city of Jerash built in 120 AD, it is known as one of the “Whispering Columns.” As Forgotten NY points out, it’s probably the oldest man-made outdoor object after Cleopatra’s Needle in Central Park, which is 3,500 years old.

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Last but not least, the site of both the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fair time capsules, buried to endure for 5,000 years.

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A picture of this spot in 1964 (ha, that white cylinder reminds me of Doc Brown’s DeLorean fusion reactor in Back to the Future II):

Click here to read more about the time capsules, how they were designed to last so long, what they contain, and to see pictures:

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From the tablets I wrote about earlier, I believe this one commemorates the insertion of the 1939 Fair capsule, which was lowered at the exact moment of the Autumnal Equinox in 1938.

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The top of the monument covering the capsules, featuring the now-closed hole through which they were lowered:

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Fall has hit Flushing Meadows Park pretty hard:

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Finally, as I biked back, I passed by the Pan American Hotel on Queens Boulevard. I’m not sure how old it is, but it feels to me like it goes hand in hand with the world of the 1964 Fair.

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Other than a website address, I don’t think any changes have been made to the building since it was built:

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The two pyramids light up at night. The future is now!

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Whew! There it is, my trip to Flushing Meadows Park. Again, I realize that what I wrote about is nothing new, but hopefully, this post has reminded you of the beauty of the Park.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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-SCOUT

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33 comments

  1. Great post! “Woman encountering a robot” isn’t encountering just any robot. That’s Elektro, the Westinghouse Motor Man from 1939. Color film of Elektro at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T35A3g_GvSg

    There’s another interesting plaque at the fair grounds: it memorializes two officers who were killed by a bomb at the 1939 World’s Fair. The bomb supposedly had Nazi connections. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/03/nyregion/thecity/03fyi.html

  2. What are they looking at? A TV? A jukebox? Record player? All of the above?

    It is a mirror in the lid tv. An early attempt to over come the problem of he then current picture tubes being small. The mirror allowed viewing by groups.

  3. I love this blog, and this post was great. As an FYI, there is actually a volunteer opportunity this Saturday, the 28th, to help restore the New York State Pavilion before they cover the map. They are still looking for more people (as of Wednesday morning) – RSVP as soon as possible at Michelle.Langlie@Parks.NYC.gov or at 718.760.6677

  4. “I decided to do a post anyway, for three reasons”
    I’ve got another reason:
    You made a young german,currently living in spain and dreaming of living in nyc one time, very happy with this post. The only clue I had about the world’s fair site was the globe. Isn’t this the one from the movie Men in Black?
    Again, thanks a lot for the post!!!

  5. As someone who only visited New York City once in her life (briefly as a teenager) I love your site and your posts as glimpses of a city that I would love to visit again and a unique place like nowhere else.

    So keep posting the routine, please. If and when I ever get to New York again I’ll have quite the list of places I want to see. And in the meantime I can visit vicariously through your camera.

  6. See CSI:NY Tonight!!!!

    FLUSHING MEADOWS & the 1964 Fair are featured heavily in Tonight’s (11/25/09) CSI:NY episode “ManhattanHenge” !!!
    Shot in the Park late Sept. 2009

  7. Wow. WOW. Helen Marshall really said that? WHY?? Does some developer who wants the land have her in his pocket?

    Thank heavens it got Landmark status!

  8. The tablet that appears to be a fair-goer on another planet is almost just that: It depicts the “Moon Roof” atop the ’64-’65 Kodak pavilion.

  9. Scout, you are awesomesauce. I just drove by the Unisphere yesterday with a friend, talking about how we can never forget Flushing Meadows Park. Good work! :-D

  10. I took a photo on the Fountain of Planet of the Apes sign about seven years ago while visiting the Queens Zoo. It was a funny photo op with the people standing around the fountain and that sign. I’ll dig it up and post a link to the photo when I get home this weekend. I’m surprised to see it’s gone now.

  11. great article, but you forget to mention that the beatles landed on the roof of terrace on the park arriving at their shea stadium concert in 1965 :)

    also, i shot an interior panorama in the tent of tomorrow last year – http://www.samrohn.com/360-panorama/tent-of-tomorrow-1964-worlds-fair/

    sam

  12. Neat stuff. When I was a kid I used to play in the park with my buddies. This was before the ’64 fair so the facilities we used were the detrius from the ’39 fair. I used to live at 40th St. and Queens Blvd. so it was a straight shot down the Orient Express.

  13. As to the early TV’s from late 30’s early 40’s: the mirror in the lid was not to compensate for the screen being small. It was to allow the picture tube, which was quite long or deep, to be mounted vertically so that the cabinet would not be so deep. Later development allowed horizontal mounting and direct view of picture tubes as they were designed to be not so deep. Some smaller screen tubes in the late 30’s were in fact horizontally mounted for direct view.

  14. Hi,

    I heard about this place last winter and have been meaning to go ever since. You’ve convinced me – I have to check it out. Thanks for the post.

  15. Hi:

    Great site! Found you through Huff Post. Just one thing. It wasnt the elements that destroyed the map of the state of New York. It was the boneheaded decision of the parks dept to park garbage trucks and dump trucks on top of it. See the video for “Dont Stop” by They Might Be Giants. You can tell the map is still in good condition then as they roll over it. Just like alot in NYC, it’s the city gov’t that brings it to ruin.

  16. I grew up across the street from Flushing Meadow Park back in the 1970s. I remember sneaking into the Roller rink way after its demise and seeing its decay and I wondered how could they let this place fall apart? The map on the floor was awesome.

    I didn’t read your whole blog post, but I believe they filmed Michael Jackson’s version of the Wizard of Oz there. Big dance scene.

  17. I live in Maine and found this blog via your article about the prohibition era bowling alleys. I read this article about the ’64 World’s Fair with great interest since, at the time, I was totally unaware of it. Truly enjoyed all the wonderful pix – past and present – and will definitely plan a stop at Flushing Meadows Park!

    I’ve got one thing to add as an FYI. My husband and I were married in November of 1963 and spent our 2nd night of marriage in the Pan American Hotel! The place was no where finished at the time and as a result, the nightly fee was minimal. So, I’m pretty sure that you are right on in thinking the place was built for the World’s Fair.

    (BTW, if anyone is wondering why in the world we’d spend our 2nd night of marriage in, of all places, Queens, we had an excellent reason! My husband-to-be had promised me that he’d take me to the Peppermint Lounge after our wedding and he kept his promise! Too goofy, huh??)

  18. I am VERY glad you posted about this because I never would have known about this place or the wonders of it. Thanks for taking time to document it for us newcomers, and for history in general!
    (and commenter Donna- how VERY cool of your husband to keep that promise!)

  19. Someone in the Queens Parks Dept had a sense of humor.
    There is a small park with an adjacent triangular traffic island “park” on Broadway where it crossed the BQE in Woodside.
    Up until two years ago the traffic island had an official Parks Dept sign that read “The Isle of the Squab” and yes it was always covered in pigeons. The sign disappeared during a DOT construction project. Oh and the small park adjacent to The Isle of the Squab? It’s called “Eight Oaks Trapezoid” and yes there are 8 oaks planted around the trapezoidal park.

  20. Thanks for finally doing a piece on this, I was waiting for one.
    My father was the park administrator under Henry Stern, I basically grew up there and I remember all that Planet of the Apes business.

  21. I just saw Iron Man 2 and this article was the first thing I thought of when I saw the Stark Expo location. i wonder if they did anything to restore the site when they filmed there?

  22. The elevators on the towers were deliberately jammed near the top in the late 70’s or sometime before 1981 by NYC Parks Dep’t staff stationed at Parks Department HQ in Flushing Meadows Park.
    Once the elevators were in place, the employee had to climb down the exterior ladder rungs. I guess the rungs and elevators were removed at the same time at a much later date.

    Even though the elevators were placed high to prevent people from accessing the top, people were still able to get up there.

  23. About seven years ago, I chaperoned a first-grade class trip to the Theaterama/Theater in the Park. As we drove along the highway, getting close, all of the boys started pointing at the Towers, and yelling, “MEN IN BLACK!” and “Alien ships!” They thought it was pretty cool to be going to the location where they shot the big fight scene for MIB.

    Then, they got another surprise. At the time, there was a dumpster between the Theater and the Towers. Right where the dumpster was in the movie. And it had a rusty hole in the side. And there were roaches crawling around it. Just like the movie. Freaked the kids out a bit, but they thought it was the coolest class trip ever. My son remembers that part better than he remembers the actual performance we saw in the theater.

    Keep up the good work, Scout. Digging through your archives is my favorite lunchtime reading.

  24. Excellent post!! I really like your site!!

  25. Cool!!! I do agree with you

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  27. After reading the Hall of Science Post, I hit the tag to this post. In the section you devoted to the Tent of Tomorrow and the attempts at restoration, It reminded me of a story in the NYTimes several years ago around the time of the demolition of the Marine (Billy Rose) Theatre. In addition to documenting the post-fair neglect at the hands of NYC Government, it mentioned that Andy Warhol had painted murals for the Tent of Tomorrow. Robert Moses as the State’s Park Commissioner decided Andy was a degenerate and ordered the murals painted over prior to the start of the fair.

  28. I don’t think the “Fountain of the Planet of the Apes” was originally called “Fountain of the Planets.” The Fountain of the Planets is further east, on the other side of the Unisphere, and much bigger.

  29. One of my first jobs after I moved to NYC was two long, poorly paid weeks building a scenery for Playwrights Horizons, which had a performance space in the Theaterama building. It was January 1977 during a cold snap; the ground was covered with snow, I don’t think the thermometer got above 15F the whole 2 weeks, and the whole area was a deserted, frozen wasteland. We used an (unheated) room in the base of the ‘Tent of Tomorrow’ as a shop. I still vividly remember walking over the mostly snow covered New York state map to get to the theater late at night, with the sky pink from the reflections off the snow and the wind jangling the roof cables while the planes flew low overhead coming in to land at LaGuardia. It was just surreal.

  30. Yes, that was the roof of the Kodak Pavilion as the poster above mentions. Very cool for a 9 and then 10 year old boy at the time, as was all the rest of the Fair. I grew up a mile from there and went many times. Then they let it go to shit after the Fair was gone and NYC went down the tubes. Even today you better be strapped if you go into the Park after dark, or even during the day. Sad.

  31. In one of the support columns, of The Tent of Tomorrow, there is a metal stair that goes to the top. Granted, it’s not as spectacular as being in the Towers, but the views from there are pretty good.

    I discovered this on a trip to the site years ago, and it may well be blocked off by now; but you never know.

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