I’m not sure when I first became fascinated by world’s fairs. For much of my youth, I lived near San Antonio, which meant occasionally crossing paths with the history of 1968’s HemisFair and admiring the Tower of the Americas. The first time I went to Disney World, I found that EPCOT Center (just “Epcot” now), the world’s-fairiest of the Disney parks, captured my imagination in a way the other parks didn’t. And when I read Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, I was just as intrigued by the half of the book dedicated to the creation of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago as I was by the true crime parts.
Just a few years ago, I learned from my parents that I had, in fact, attended the last-ever American world’s fair. It was held in New Orleans in 1984, and it was not a success, which may have something to do with the fact that there hasn’t been another one in this country since. I was so young that I have no memory of going, but I was there, and it may have left some kind of deep, subconscious impression on me.
Whatever the reason, world’s fairs are becoming one of my Things as I get older, just like some guys get more and more into World War II or model trains or refrigerator repair.
Why world’s fairs? I don’t know. There’s just something so appealing to me about a big, sprawling event dedicated to celebrating international respect and understanding, and also dedicated to cool new inventions. Sure, a lot of the pavilions at any given world’s fair were sponsored by corporations and served largely to promote their own products and services. But it was done with such a sense of optimism! And alongside all those showcases of culture, art, and science, a lot of them also had fun rides and funnel cakes.
After moving to New York City, I became more interested in the New York World’s Fairs of 1939-40 and 1964-65. When traveling on the freeways in Queens, one frequently passes by three retro-futuristic towers looming over a round amphitheater thing. I’m the kind of nerd who likes to know about the history of places, so I wanted to know as much as possible about these structures.
They’re all part of the New York State Pavilion from the 1964-65 fair, one of only a few surviving buildings from either of the two New York fairs. Back in the day, elevators took visitors up to the observation decks on top, where they got a great view of the fair. Today, you would get a great view of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park and the Grand Central Expressway. Sadly, the towers have been closed for a long, long time and will probably never re-open to the public, although a restoration project is underway.
The amphitheater thing at ground level is the Tent of Tomorrow, which hosted various events – and would years later serve as the filming location of They Might Be Giants’ music video for “Don’t Let’s Start.”
The pavilion was also in Men in Black, a movie I haven’t seen for a long time, but which I should revisit. Here’s a photo I took in 2016 of a fake New York Pavilion outside the Men in Black ride at Universal Studios Florida:
Maybe they could raise money for the restoration of the real pavilion by building a dark ride next door where you shoot aliens.
Learning about the New York State Pavilion sparked a deeper interest in the 1939 and 1964 fairs. I read a book about the 1939-40 fair, and grew fond of the Unisphere, the big steel globe that was built for the 1964-65 fair. I got a little thrill out of seeing the fair reimagined in Iron Man 2 and recreated in Tomorrowland. During a visit to the Queens Museum, I spent a long time poring over the Panorama of the City of New York.
I can’t be in the vicinity of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park without thinking about the fairs. I’m just so captivated thinking about the thousands of people from all over the world streaming through those grounds all those years ago, experiencing all kinds of entertainment, education, and culture. I’m still learning “new” things about them… For example, some people suspect there might still be an underground house somewhere in the park. There’s probably not. But it’s fun to think that there might be!
In recent months, Staci and I, in search of opportunities to move our feet, have made a few trips to Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, which is fortunately large enough to allow for social distancing – and of course we bring our masks. It’s been a lot of fun checking old maps of the fairs as we walk around (“Where we’re standing right now was the American Express pavilion!”) and occasionally coming across fair-related artifacts.
For example: There’s a set of commemorative mosaics on the path to the subway. This one pays tribute to one of the biggest celebrities at the 1939 fair, the star of the Borden pavilion.
A bench marks the location of the Vatican Pavilion, where the actual-for-real Pieta by Michelangelo was exhibited (It blows my mind that they shipped the actual-for-real Pieta to Queens). And I was astonished to stumble upon a stone column with a plaque explaining that it was a gift to the fair from the king of Jordan – and that it was from a stone temple built in 120 A.D.
A 1,900-year-old column! And it’s just standing there surrounded by folks cooking hot dogs and playing volleyball!
One spot I made a point of seeking out was the location of the time capsules buried at the fairs. They were placed 50 feet underground not far from the New York State Pavilion, and they’re intended to be opened 5,000 years after they were buried. That’s a lot of years! There are probably thousands of time capsules that get dug up way too early or decompose before their time – including, I suspect, the one my 2nd grade class buried on school grounds – but these were done with such care and scientific precision that I bet they’ll stay down there for a really, really long time.
The first time I went looking for the time capsule location, I was regularly checking my phone as Google Maps showed me getting closer and closer. I looked up, and I saw it: A large family using the time capsule marker as a buffet table for their picnic. I could just make out a few letters carved in the stone that was covered by their tablecloth. And because they were eating, very few of them were wearing masks. I was already keeping my distance, but I quickly headed the opposite direction.
More recently, though, we returned to the park, and there was no one using the monument to humankind’s progress for the purpose of serving delicious-smelling flautas. In fact, due to the extremely cold weather, there was nobody anywhere in sight, so I was able to remove my mask for a quick photo.
It’s difficult to predict what life in Queens, or anywhere on Earth, will be like in 6940 and 6965. I’d like to think there will still be people, and that they’ll be better off overall than we are. Maybe they will have figured out how to take advantage of the optimism that drove the world’s fairs, and they’ll be using their amazing technology to make life better, and all nations and cultures will appreciate each other.
Either way, I hope they still have funnel cakes.