Help save the Pavilion.

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The Tent of Tomorrow was the centerpiece of the World's Fair. Photo by Gwendolyn Horton.

“There ought to be a university course in the pleasure of ruins,” wrote Philip Johnson in the foreword to Hilary Lewis’ fantastic book about his architecture. That pleasure, however, is mixed with pain when it comes to the current state of the New York State Pavilion that Johnson designed for the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens. Erected as an emblem of imagination and optimism for the future, the site is now in desperate need of preservation and reuse to save it from demolition by neglect.

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Book by Hilary Lewis, photo by Richard Payne.

“This thing has always been a bit of a mystery,” says Matthew Silva, co-founder of the preservation group People for the Pavilion. “It’s big and clearly important but nothing was ever happening with it.” That lack of activity drove Silva and fellow activist Salmaan Khan to learn more about the site and take action. In addition to doing work as preservationists, they have full-time careers – Silva is a schoolteacher, Khan the manager of facilities planning for the High Line – and Silva is also working on a documentary film about the project.

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Accessed by capsule elevators, the towers provided views of the Fair and surrounding city. Photo by Gwendolyn Horton.

In February, their group got the endorsement of Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, who promised the Pavilion would not be torn down. Then, on April 22 – the 50th anniversary of the opening of the 1964 World’s Fair – the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the Pavilion a “National Treasure.” The significance of support from these two political powerhouses is especially striking when you consider that it will cost $43 million to stabilize the site as a no-access monument and $53 million to allow public access to the tent and towers.

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The tent's cable-suspension roof was originally covered with colorful translucent panels. Photo by Gwendolyn Horton.

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People for the Pavilion founders Salmaan Khan and Matthew Silva. Photo by Gwendolyn Horton.

“It’s the crown jewel of what is already a well-programmed space,” says Salmaan, referring to the Pavilion’s setting in Flushing Meadows Corona Park and proximity to the Unisphere, Queens Museum and New York Hall of Science, as well as Arthur Ashe Stadium, Citi Field and the Queens Zoo. “You could make a day of it.”

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Now closed to the public, the Tent of Tomorrow is filled with stray cats. Photo by Gwendolyn Horton.

Unlike many of the 1964 World’s Fair exhibitions, the Pavilion was intended to be permanent and used as a space for public programs after the fair. “It’s incredible that this was allowed to fall into ruins,” says Silva, “given where it is, that it was designed by Philip Johnson and that it’s seen by so many people every day.” However, he’s quick to acknowledge that the city had other priorities to tackle in the 1970s, such as the financial crisis and high crime rates. “Now that the city is doing well, this is the ideal time to fix this,” he says.

“Imagine driving on the Long Island Expressway at night and seeing it with the lights on,” adds Khan.

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Photo by Gwendolyn Horton.

In closing, I return to the first sentence of this post. Johnson wrote of being intrigued by ruins; however, whenever he rode in a car on the Long Island Expressway, from which the Pavilion is clearly visible, he’d turn his head and look the other way.

 

HOW TO HELP:

Join the campaign to save the Pavilion.

Subscribe to the People for the Pavilion newsletter.

Support Matthew Silva’s documentary (these funds are for the making of his film and will not go directly to preserving the Pavilion).

Become a member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Share your photos and memories of the World’s Fair with hashtag #NYSP50