November 29, 2009

Walk Softly and Carry a Plastic Scraper

2008 2009

Ever since I took a tour of the old 1964/65 World's Fair sites as part of Open House NY a couple years ago, I've been fascinated with Flushing Meadows Corona Park, especially the old New York State Pavilion. About a year ago, I went skulking around the park to get a better look at the towers and circular "tent" with the suspension cable ceiling. I tried to get a good look at the famed tiled floor, which was reportedly a huge reproduction of an old Texaco New York State road map, but I couldn't see much. Tall weeds, brown and dried, had sprouted out of the cracks in the surface, which was covered in construction equipment, metal, plastic and rubber in white, yellow, and caution orange. The building which had been built to celebrate the state and exhibit art had become a glorified storage area, neglected, and abused.

The two-thirds of the New York State Pavilion that remain unrestored - the towers and the Tent of Tomorrow - recently received landmark status and a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts that will hopefully help the disintegrating structures finally catch up with the Queens Theatre in the Park, the former Theaterama that still looks great and operates successsfully after a multi-million dollar restoration in 1993. Last week, I heard that the Department of Historic Preservation at NYC Parks had started a volunteer-based, slow restoration of the tent's tile map floor, and I jumped at the chance to participate.

New York State Pavilion's three buildings, Queens Theatre in the Park in the foreground

View of the towers through the suspension cable ceiling, standing outside

My entry was breathless with the rising sun, whose bright white rays illuminated the numbers and letters on the map below, the only indication at first that there was any map down there at all. Casting all thoughts of conservation or preservation aside, my feet led me out to the middle of the floor, walking along roads and highways, crossing from town to town, through mountain ranges and lakes and rivers.

In choosing the four by four foot tile to restore, I settled one that looked so far gone that no one else would tackle it. It was so covered in dirt and vegetation - mostly moss and green grass, not the tall weeds I'd seen a year before - that I couldn't even decipher any town names on it. As I dug away at the dirt with my hands in work gloves, occasionally aided by a plastic scraper, I uncovered fragments of terrazzo and the colored glass and marble bits that it is comprised of, deeply buried roads, a cutout where a red Texaco star once stood, and a number 4. For three hours, I kneeled, leaned, crouched, hunched, and most comfortably sat spread eagle while the Queens Chronicle photographed me in my bright orange hard hat, green PVC-ed work gloves, and black pants covered in dirt and grass. For a few hours, I got to work as part gardener, part archaeologist, and part historic preservationist, and felt that what I was doing actually mattered.

I was kicking myself the entire time that I couldn't stay three more hours, but I'd managed to finagle tickets to see A Streetcar Named Desire starring Cate Blanchett at BAM that were very difficult to get, so I had to go. As I dropped off the artifacts that I'd bagged from the two tiles I helped restore - fragments which will be cleaned and classified and hopefully one day reunited with its original tile - I felt like I'd helped a little. Maybe at this point it was just performing triage at a disaster site. Maybe it was a complete exercise in futility.

The plan is to cover the floor with a mixture of sand and gravel and then with construction-grade tarps to try to shelter it from wind, rain, snow and ice, hoping freezing it in its current state and preventing any further destruction (not to mention vandalism, thievery...). It may stay like that for ten years before any more restoration happens. But it's something. Before I get my hopes up about some of the adaptive reuse ideas  - most notably an Air and Space Museum - I have to remember that they have been kicking around for decades already. The towers may fall before the Parks Department's "studies" are complete. How can the long-forgotten park compete for budget monies with more popular parks in more prestigious neighborhoods with fewer ethnic enclaves than Flushing Meadows Corona Park's neighboring Asian and Hispanic populations?

At the most basic level, I was thrilled to get inside the building that I stare at every time I take an airport cab to Manhattan. To stand in the middle of the circular building and look up at the sky through the suspension cables that still hang, though their colored fiberglass panels have long-since blown onto the Grand Central Expressway. To walk on the world's largest roadmap, gently, after it has been abused for so long by stage hands painting sets for the neighboring theater, and construction crews driving their machinery across it.

I took a long last look, knowing that I may never be let in again.

Despite the neck strain, aching elbow and sore wrist that only three hours' work afflicted me with, I would still spend every weekend on the floor of the Pavilion, if I could...

Further Reading:
New York City Dept. of Parks and Recreation Volunteer Calendar
City Moves In to Preserve World's Fair Pavilion - The Village Voice
New York State Pavilion, Relic of the 1964 World's Fair in Queens, Wins Approval As Landmark - Daily News

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1 comment:

  1. I visited this site with my family when the World's Fair was in its glory. As a teen, I roller skated in an endless circle over the map floor every Friday and Saturday night. I'm so happy to see it's being preserved. I will have to go back and pay my respects. A youth's worth of memories tie me to this place.

    C. Brown
    Currently of Canajoharie, NY