By Len Maniace
The line of pilgrims waiting for a glimpse inside the ruin known as the New York State Pavilion today was worthy of any line at the World’s Fair 50 years ago. It was also a tribute to the importance of that World’s Fair, of shared public spaces, and their places in our memories.
Thousands waited hours at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park for the first chance in decades to venture inside the pavilion. The line snaked around New York’s “Tent of Tomorrow,” past what were the Alaska and Missouri buildings, made a left over the Grand Central Parkway, went straight between the sites of the Ford and General Motors mega-pavilions, between the lesser-known Greyhound and the Socony-Mobil buildings, before ending in a parking lot off 111 Street.
Visitors came to reminisce about the fair and this huge open-air structure designed by Philip Johnson. Or else they wanted to witness up close the building that dominates views from nearby highways and neighborhoods. Just about everyone we interviewed saw the pavilion as a symbol of another age that deserved preservation.
“I didn’t get a chance to go to the fair because I was born in 1967, but I’ve always driven by the pavilion and I wanted to finally see this thing,” said Walter Ocner of Jackson Heights, who arrived at the site at 8:30 a.m. to be the 11th person on line. The pavilion was to open at 10:45 a.m. “I can’t imagine that anyone would want to see this torn down. It’s disgraceful the way the city has let its monuments disappear.”
Estimates to preserve the pavilion range from $32 million to $72 million, but the cost of tearing it down isn’t cheap either, an estimated $14 million.
Among those waiting were Tom and Clare Murphy. Tom describes himself as a World’s Fair fanatic and don’t bother to dispute him. He wore a World’s Fair t-shirt while his hat was a tribute to the 1964-65 fair. It read, “64 NY WF 65.” Actually the hat was tribute to his license plate, which bears that legend and is the tribute to the fair. The couple recalled visiting the fair July 25, 1965 on a date. They later married, living not far away in Flushing for many years, before moving to Farmingville in Suffolk County, two years ago.
The Murphys, who arrived at the park before 10 a.m., were close, but not yet at the pavilion entrance by 1 p.m. Those who came later had a longer wait. Tom said he already knew what the pavilion looked like inside. Five years ago he and group of volunteers pulled weeds that had taken over the pavilion floor. “I wanted to be here today to be part of the experience.”
Clare and Tom hope the pavilion will be restored. “But I don’t think we’ll see that in our lifetimes,” Clare said, ”but maybe people will fight hard enough and one day this will be preserved.”
The long line was cheerful, populated with older and middle-aged folks who had visited the fair, as well as people who by age could have been their children and grandchildren. With hundreds of cherry trees in blossom and the Unisphere gleaming, one could imagine Flushing Meadows as the magical place it was 50 years ago. But once summer starts and crowds begin using the poorly maintained park, the magic will disappear.
Like the New York State Pavilion, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park has been long neglected – so severely that some city officials last year saw nothing wrong with a proposal to build a professional soccer stadium near its heart. Meanwhile the park is threatened with small bites, an expansion of the National Tennis Center, and big bites, a shopping mall to be built on parkland that serves as the CitiField parking lot .
Flushing Meadows -Corona Park is not alone, of course. It’s part of New York’s “99 percent” parks that are poorly maintained – not because the parks department fails to do its job, but because elected officials have chronically short-changed the 29,000-acre park system. There’s been little civic fuss over this because the high-profile parks that are international symbols of New York don’t depend on city budgets – much of their funding comes from wealthy business and residential districts.
This tale of two cities in New York’s parks doesn’t have to be so. The people we elect can decide to fund our parks the way other large American cities do. Then, perhaps, Clare and Tom – and many others – would get to see the New York State Pavilion preserved in their lifetime.
Pavilion declared a National Treasure
The National Trust for Historic Preservation declared the pavilion a “National Treasure” today. The designation does not protect the structure from demolition but the status could provide help in raising funds needed to preserve the building.