An icon from the 1964 World's Fair is decaying, but the fair's popularity lives on
On a clear day, David Oats can look out the window of his 30th-floor apartment and see straight to the future, or at least what remains of it. His eyes focus on the ruins of the New York State Pavilion, once the cornerstone of the futuristic 1964-65 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, Queens.
“It was a beautiful building,” Oats said with a sigh. “It had the largest stained glass window in the world, which the Parks Department destroyed. It had the largest map in the world--a terrazzo map of New York state--that they’ve destroyed. The building just sits there. They refuse to make it a landmark.”
For 40 years, Oats has presided over a civic association dedicated to the memory of the fair, which had one of the highest attendances in World’s Fair history. Many of the 55 million visitors stopped at the New York State Pavilion, a magnificent rotunda with three towers designed by the renowned architect Philip Johnson. But the pavilion is deteriorating, and Oats has seen his proposals to fix it go nowhere.
After decades of failed promises and dead ends, Oats appears resigned to the building’s eventual demise before the 50th anniversary of the fair in 2014. All that will remain, he predicts, is the Unisphere, a 12-story-high stainless steel globe near the pavilion, and a few lesser-known structures.
But fair fans shouldn’t grieve just yet. No matter what happens at Flushing Meadows, a glance at a tour book paints a much more optimistic picture. In the weeks after the fair ended in October 1965, many exhibits and disassembled buildings were moved to other states, where they still delight visitors today. The fleeting nature of the fair made it a cherished childhood memory for many who now want to revisit the exhibits as adults.
“The fair was Disney World before there was a Disney World,” said Bill Young, who co-wrote “The 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair,” a paperback collection of fair stories and photographs, and maintains a Web site devoted to the fair. “A lot of people still remember that as a highlight of their lives. And it only lasted two years and it was gone.”
Those wanting to relive the World’s Fair can drive by the 12-ton, 80-foot-high tire that was part of a U.S. Rubber ferris wheel at the fair and now towers over a park in Michigan. They can hear the Coca-Cola Pavilion’s 732-bell carillon, which is played several times a day at Stone Mountain Park in Georgia. They can even take a ride through the "It’s a Small World" exhibit, which was sponsored by Pepsi and UNICEF at the fair and is now at Disneyland in California.
“That is still a very, very popular attraction--in spite of all the jokes that people make about the song being annoying,” said John McClintock, a spokesman for Disneyland. “Kids like it a lot.”
In Racine, Wis., the fair’s Johnson Wax Golden Rondelle Theater still plays “To Be Alive,” an Academy Award-winning documentary that exemplifies the fair’s message of “peace through understanding.” And in Neillsville, the fair’s Wisconsin Pavilion still stands with its distinct sign shooting up from the top. The building is now owned by a local radio station, and visitors can buy cheese and souvenirs.
“There are people who will say, ‘I was in here'" during the fair, said Kevin Grap, who owns the radio station and the pavilion. “They’re kind of in awe at the shape the building is in. They’re pretty impressed at how well it’s kept.”
Other World’s Fair attractions were not as lucky. Some exhibits survived for years after the fair but could not escape eventual destruction. Many wax figures on display in the amusement area, for example, were purchased for the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museum in New York. After Ripley’s closed, the figures were sent to wax museums in New Jersey and Florida, but they were eventually either melted down or discarded in the early 1980s, according to Edward Meyer, a Ripley’s executive.
Such stories make Oats cringe. He imagines the New York State Pavilion going the way of the wax figures, slowly eroding until it either has to be demolished, or worse, collapses.
“The difference is that the figures in the wax museum were simply an exhibit,” Oats said. “What we’re fighting for are the things that were meant to last.”