Revisiting the 1964 New York World’s Fair, 50 years on

by Beth J. Harpaz

AP

You can just barely see them through the window of the No. 7 subway as it rattles into the elevated station in Corona, Queens: a gigantic steel sphere, two rocket ships, and towers that appear to be capped by flying saucers.

These unusual landmarks are among a number of attractions still standing from the 1964 New York World’s Fair, which opened in Flushing Meadows Corona Park 50 years ago, with marvels ranging from microwave ovens to Disney’s “it’s a small world” ride to Belgian waffles with strawberries and whipped cream. However, visiting the area today is as much about 21st-century Queens as it is a walk down memory lane. Many of Queens’ contemporary cultural institutions — like the Queens Museum of Art and the New York Hall of Science — grew out of fair attractions and incorporate original fair exhibits.

Other relics are stupendous in their own right, like the Unisphere, a 12-story steel globe so glorious to behold, you almost feel like you’re seeing Earth from outer space. There’s also a modern zoo, an antique carousel and outdoor sculptures.

On weekends, Flushing Meadows Corona Park is packed with people from the dozens of ethnic groups that populate Queens, speaking many languages, eating food from around the world and playing soccer with a seriousness of purpose often found among those who grew up with the sport. That mix of old and new makes for “a wonderful unique experience,” said Janice Melnick, administrator of Flushing Meadows Corona Park.

And yet, as you walk out of the 111th Street train station, there’s something about Corona that also brings to mind an older, simpler New York. No hipsters here; no luxury condo skyscrapers. Instead, you’ll find modest brick apartment buildings and single-family homes, pizzerias and diners, barber shops and variety stores. That throwback sensibility adds a layer of nostalgia to the experience of revisiting fair sites, especially for boomers who attended the event as kids.

“I think for many people, the fair represents this last moment of true optimism,” Melnick said. “We were looking into the future, and the future was going to be bright. That really struck a chord with a lot of people.”

The fair’s best-known symbol, an elegant steel globe located in Flushing Meadows Park outside the Queens Museum of Art, has appeared in movies such as “Men in Black” and “Iron Man 2.” Visitors enjoy setting up photos so that they appear to be holding the world in their hands.

Also, you can’t miss the towers topped by flying saucers, surrounded by 30-meter-high concrete pillars. This was the New York State Pavilion, where visitors rode elevators to an observation deck above an enormous suspended roof of translucent colored tiles. Today, the structure is padlocked, rusted and cracked, with preservationists and critics fighting over its future.

The museum is housed in a building that dates to the 1939 World’s Fair, which marks its 75th anniversary this year. It also briefly housed the U.N. General Assembly after World War II. Exhibits include posters from both fairs and a replica of Michelangelo’s “Pieta,” which was shown in the Vatican Pavilion during the ’64 fair.

The museum’s most famous display, the “Panorama of the City of New York,” is a scale model of the city that debuted at the ’64 fair. The panorama includes models of each of the city’s 895,000 buildings built before 1992, along with every street, park and bridge, on a scale of 1 to 1,200. The island of Manhattan is 21 meters long, the Empire State building 38 cm tall.

Opening April 27 is an exhibit of posters that pop artist Andy Warhol did for the ’64 World’s Fair, inspired by mug shots of the city’s 13 most-wanted criminals from 1962. The posters were too controversial for the fair and were never shown.

Two NASA rockets stand 30 meters high outside the New York Hall of Science, a museum that opened a few years after the ’64 fair, replacing a temporary pavilion. The rockets were part of a space park at the fair that captured the excitement of the era’s quest to get a man on the moon.

Towering over the Hall of Sciences is an undulating concrete building called the Great Hall, an architectural marvel that was an original fair site. Undergoing renovation at present, it’s due to reopen in October, when visitors will be able to experience the other-worldly interior covered in blue stained glass.

The Hall of Science has undergone a series of renovations over the years and today houses exhibits exploring everything from microbes to the science of basketball. It also has a small but worthwhile display in a second-floor hallway of brochures, tickets and other memorabilia from the fair, along with a first-floor display of photos of World’s Fairs going back to the 19th century.

A geodesic dome from the ’64 fair serves as a walk-through aviary of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Queens Zoo. The zoo specializes in North and South American animals, ranging from bears to pumas.

Flushing Meadows Corona Park is home to several sculptures commissioned for the fair, including “Rocket Thrower,” “Freedom of the Human Spirit,” “Form” and “Forms in Transit.”