Uncertain future for World's Fair relic
by Michael Perlman
Dec 11, 2013 | 5569 views | 2 2 comments | 36 36 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Matthew Silva on left, NYS Pavilion documentary producer & People For The Pavilion founder
Matthew Silva on left, NYS Pavilion documentary producer & People For The Pavilion founder
NYS Pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair, Courtesy of Michael Perlman Postcard Collection
NYS Pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair, Courtesy of Michael Perlman Postcard Collection
Remember when New Yorkers rallied with “Save Penn Station” signs, only to witness the strike of the wrecking ball? How about when other monumental buildings, such as Grand Central Terminal and Carnegie Hall were on the brink of demolition, until the heroic acts of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Isaac Stern respectively proved otherwise?

It is difficult to grasp how sites, once applauded for their architectural and cultural distinction, are all too often neglected, abandoned, and demolished.

Now a debate is unfolding over whether the New York State Pavilion, a symbol of the 1964 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, should be restored for a new use at $72 million, be stabilized as a ruin for $43 million, or undergo demolition for $14 million.

As the 50th anniversary of the fair approaches, the NYS Pavilion is largely fenced off from the public and covered in rust, algae, weeds, and occasional graffiti. Situated at the geographical center of Queens, its potential exceeds a relic earning a passing glance from the Grand Central Parkway.

Meet 28 year-old Matthew Silva, a technology and video production teacher from East Northport, who founded the nearly 1,700-member Facebook group “People For The New York State Pavilion.”

“It is the Eiffel Tower of Queens, and it wouldn’t feel like Queens if you drove on the Grand Central Parkway and didn’t see those towers in Flushing Meadows Park,” said Silva.

The NYS Pavilion, an experimentally spirited Modernist creation by famed 20th century architect Philip Johnson, consists of the Tent of Tomorrow, three Observation Towers, and Theaterama (now the Queens Theatre).

“Philip Johnson was such an advocate for the arts and architecture, so as New Yorkers, we need to reciprocate that affection and advocate for his work,” Silva said.

Silva would occasionally pass the NYS Pavilion as a child, and wondered about its history. Two years ago, he assigned the topic of the 1964 World’s Fair to his 8th grade students.

“I gave them the challenge of repurposing the NYS Pavilion,” he said. “We studied Penn Station’s demolition and how The High Line was almost demolished, but turned into a brilliant park.”

Silva began producing a documentary about the pavilion in February 2013. Very appropriately, “Modern Ruin” is the working title of Silva’s documentary, the trailer for which was released this week.

It features interviews with people who attended the fair, architects, critics; even a woman who operated the Tent of Tomorrow as a roller skating rink. He hinted about unreleased archival material, such as photos of the Tent of Tomorrow’s terrazzo road map being produced in the factory.

“When I saw the NYS Pavilion in the sunset en route to a show in Manhattan, I said this has an opportunity to be a destination, rather than a shadow in the sky you pass at night,” he said. “Let’s try to imagine a time when the NYS Pavilion will be lit up and host events. People can see a show, attend a wedding, meet friends, and see views of all boroughs from the Towers.”

Today, the Towers’ futuristic elevators have been stripped. In addition, the colorful fiberglass panels on the Tent of Tomorrow’s largest suspension roof in the world were cracked and removed.

The terrazzo road map on the floor has extensively corroded, and in 2008, the University of Pennsylvania School of Design Graduate Program in Historic Preservation began removing 13 surviving terrazzo panels out of 567 for restoration.

The site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2009, which could open the door for restoration funding, but since it has not been designated a city landmark, the site is not barred from demolition.

Silva is working on creating a nonprofit group to advocate for the pavilion, and plans on organizing an ideas competition in 2014, reaching out to universities, architectural firms, and preservation organizations.

“It would be a real tragedy if the Pavilion stood for 50 years, only to be demolished,” he said. “When it’s repurposed, people may wonder how they ever lived without it, just how they feel about The High Line. The story will be about a small group of people who rallied to turn it into one of the greatest thriving icons of Queens.”

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Bruce Sanders
December 15, 2013
Here in New York, they demolish things FIRST and cry about it afterwards. Maybe some day they'll get smart and THINK about what they're destroying FIRST! I don't know if the Landmarks & Preservation Commission is corrupt, but it certainly seems as though they are.
Nelson Sievers
December 14, 2013
I was in my early teens when the NY World's Fair opened. As a Flushing resident, I made frequent visits there, and was intimately acquainted with the NYS Pavilion. My first impression of the design was that it was kind of cheesy; that it was done in the pseudo-futuristic motif of the time, a la "The Jetsons". But then again, it was a fair and exposition where you expect to see gaudy caricatures of real and imagined structures. The IBM pavilion, for example, resembled a giant egg. I only learned in later years that the NYS Pavilion was designed by the famous architect Philip Johnson.

When the park reopened a few years later, I was actually surprised that the structure was not demolished. In my late teens I attended the terrific rock concerts that were held there, featuring the top acts of the time.

As time went by, the buildings became a symbol of Queens. A number of movies and TV shows filmed scenes at the site. It became an old familiar friend, and indeed a landmark.

I agree with those who want to repurpose it. The NYC Pavilion survived the 1939 World’s Fair and in 1946 became the headquarters for the newly formed UN during construction of its current complex. Later on, it was repurposed as an ice/ roller rink. When the 1964 fair opened, it was once again a pavilion. Recently, it became the Queens Museum of Art. Repurposing the Pavilion will not only help to secure funding for renovations, but could be use to generate a continual stream of income to maintain it. As long as its basic design is not altered it will not violate the terms of landmark status. Just look over to the other side of Flushing Creek at Flushing Town Hall which almost saw its demise, but is now restored and used as a host to culture and arts.