New York State Pavilion: The World’s Fair Site that Broke the Rules

Posted on: July 16th, 2014 by Lauren Walser 1 Comment

Three teenagers stand on the Tent of Tomorrow’s mezzanine platform, also made of steel. Credit: Bill Cotter
Three teenagers stand on the Tent of Tomorrow’s steel mezzanine platform.

World’s Fair sites were rarely built to last. Just a handful of relics of these international expositions remain in the United States -- among them, the New York State Pavilion in Queens, New York.

Built for the 1964-54 World’s Fair, the Space Age structure dazzled visitors with visions of an exciting future. And yet 50 years later, despite decades of neglect and deterioration, the futuristic pavilion still stands in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. How did it do it?

When it comes to World’s Fair structures, the pavilion doesn’t just buck trends in terms of its longevity. No, from its earliest days, the pavilion and the people responsible for designing and building it pushed boundaries, broke rules, and defied guidelines.

The pavilion features numerous feats of architecture and engineering, thanks to its key players, including visionary architect Philip Johnson, who designed such an iconic, futuristic landmark; New York’s “Master Planner” Robert Moses, who first pushed for a permanent structure to be built for the 1964-65 fair; and New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, who wanted his state to impress both national and international visitors.

Together, they created an icon meant to endure. The results, as seen in these historic photographs, speak for themselves.

The World’s Fair Corporation had a height limit for all fair structures, but the rules were bent for the New York State Pavilion. Gov. Rockefeller told Johnson he wanted a 160-foot observation tower -- well above the 80-foot limit on other buildings, and a full 40 feet taller than the two previous height exceptions given to the USSR and the U.S., once before. The WFC conceded, and the tallest of the three Observation Towers stood 226 feet in the air, giving viewers a sweeping view of the fair and the surrounding land. (The other two are 85 and 160 feet tall.) Johnson once claimed that Rockefeller’s request came from his desire to make New York State’s exhibition the most outstanding one at the fair. Credit: Duncan Kendall

The World’s Fair Corporation (WFC) had a height limit for all fair structures, but the rules were bent for the New York State Pavilion. Gov. Rockefeller told Johnson he wanted a 160-foot observation tower -- well above the 80-foot limit on other buildings, and a full 40 feet taller than the two previous height exceptions given to the USSR and the U.S., once before.

The WFC conceded, and the tallest of the three Observation Towers stood 226 feet in the air, giving viewers a sweeping view of the fair and the surrounding land. (The other two are 85 and 160 feet tall.) Johnson once claimed that Rockefeller’s request came from his desire to make New York State’s exhibition the most outstanding one at the fair.

The concrete and steel construction materials of the New York State Pavilion suggest its builders intended for it to last much longer than the duration of the fair -- as, it is said, Moses envisioned. The Tent of Tomorrow, the pavilion’s main exhibition space, features 16 identical 98-foot, slip-form, hollow, reinforced concrete columns. The three Observation Towers were also made of concrete. Credit: Bill Cotter

The concrete and steel construction materials of the New York State Pavilion suggest its builders intended for it to last much longer than the duration of the fair -- as, it is said, Moses envisioned. The Tent of Tomorrow, the pavilion’s main exhibition space, features 16 identical 98-foot, slip-form, hollow, reinforced concrete columns. The three Observation Towers were also made of concrete.

The concrete support columns of the Tent of Tomorrow supported what was, as the time, the largest cable suspension roof in the world. It enclosed a steel mezzanine promenade and exhibition deck. Steel was also used for the observation platforms of the three Observation Towers. The use of steel and concrete was unusual for World’s Fair structures at the time. Credit: Bill Cotter

The concrete support columns of the Tent of Tomorrow supported what was, as the time, the largest cable suspension roof in the world. It enclosed a steel mezzanine promenade and exhibition deck. Steel was also used for the observation platforms of the three Observation Towers. The use of steel and concrete was unusual for World’s Fair structures at the time.

Seen here is the cable suspension roof canopy at the Tent of Tomorrow, made almost entirely of steel. The roof’s construction is not unlike a bicycle wheel, with an outer compression ring, an inner tension ring, and cable “spokes” in between. Steel, H-beam brackets secure the roof canopy to the columns. But it’s the hundreds of distinctive translucent, Kalwall plastic laminate panels in blue and three different tones of red that stand out in visitors’ memories. Spotlights originally installed above the panels illuminated the roof from above at night. Credit: Bill Cotter

Seen above is the cable suspension roof canopy at the Tent of Tomorrow, made almost entirely of steel. The roof’s construction is not unlike a bicycle wheel, with an outer compression ring, an inner tension ring, and cable “spokes” in between. Steel H-beam brackets secure the roof canopy to the columns.

But it’s the hundreds of distinctive, translucent, Kalwall plastic laminate panels in blue and three different tones of red that stand out in visitors’ memories. Spotlights originally installed above the panels illuminated the roof from above at night.

The New York State Pavilion was notable for its art, like the work on display in the Tent of Tomorrow’s mezzanine, which all came from local museums. In addition, Johnson, a noted art collector, hired 10 New York-based artists to create original works for the exterior of the pavilion’s Theaterama, including Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Indiana, and Andy Warhol. Credit: Bill Cotter

The New York State Pavilion was notable for its art, like the work on display in the Tent of Tomorrow’s mezzanine, which all came from local museums. In addition, Johnson, a noted art collector, hired 10 New York-based artists to create original works for the exterior of the pavilion’s Theaterama, including Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Indiana, and Andy Warhol.

On the interior floor of the pavilion’s mezzanine was a 9,000-square-foot map, made of 567 terrazzo panels, of the state of New York, based on a map from Texaco Company. Each terrazzo panel weighed an impressive 400 lbs. Meticulously detailed to scale, the cities, highways, roads, and, yes, Texaco gas stations, are all accurately mapped. Visitors from across New York would stand on their cities for a classic photo op -- one of many photo ops and lasting memories of what has been called one of the most popular world’s fairs in history. Credit: Bill Cotter

On the interior floor of the pavilion’s mezzanine was a 9,000-square-foot map, made of 567 terrazzo panels, of the state of New York, based on a map from Texaco Company. Each terrazzo panel weighed an impressive 400 lbs.

Meticulously detailed to scale, the cities, highways, roads, and, yes, Texaco gas stations, are all accurately mapped. Visitors from across New York would stand on their cities for a classic photo op -- one of many lasting memories of what has been called one of the most popular world’s fairs in history.

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Lauren Walser

Lauren Walser

Lauren Walser is the Los Angeles-based Field Editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about history, art, architecture, and public space.

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One Response

  1. Joe

    July 20, 2014

    It was the highlight of my very happy trip to the NY a World Fair in 65.