I’ve long had a fascination with the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair because it intersects with several of my interests: New York City history, space age modernism, Disney theme parks, the New York Mets, and one of my most-loathed historical figures, Robert Moses.* I also know the stories from my parents and grandparents attending the fair. These Images of America volumes contain photographs and historical tidbits from two authors who visited the fair when they were young and kept its memory alive every since.
The first volume details the fair itself. Did you know that it was a renegade world’s fair, failing to get authorization from the International Bureau of Expositions?As a result there were only a limited number of foreign countries participating, and many of their pavilions were operated by big corporations rather than national governments. Most of the pavilions were showcases for states, big corporations, and nonprofit organizations. Taking place in the midst of the race to the moon, many exhibits were themed to the futuristic wonders of the space age as well as the hope for peace in a smaller world. The centerpiece of the fair was the Unisphere, a surviving landmark, erected by United States Steel Corporation complete with light and water displays.
The fair also became a showcase for Walt Disney and company who brought Disneyland-style attractions to the East Coast at four pavilions. These include the Magic Skyway at the Ford Pavilion, an animatronic Abraham Lincoln for the Illinois pavilion, General Electric’s Carousel of Progress, and It’s a Small World, sponsored by Pepsi-Cola for UNICEF. Disney, however, did not provide all the fair’s thrill. Visitor’s to the Kodak pavilion could walk along the Moon Deck, the Electric Companies Tower of Light contained dazzling display of lights, and visitors could ride through a history of communication at the Bell Pavilion. While only a portion of foreign nations were represented, guests could tour a recreated Belgian village (and enjoy Belgian waffles) and several newly independent African nations made their global debut.
While fair attendees generally had a good time and it lives on fondly in their memories, the fair was not a success. The fair went bankrupt, few of the predictions for the future came true, and buildings left behind to be adapted for the new park fell into disrepair (most notably the New York State Pavilion, famed for its appearance in Men in Black, which still stands in a derelict state). Despite only operating for two seasons, the fair required a monumental effort. The second volume details a lot of the planning and preparation that went into designing and planning the fair. This includes plans for pavilions that were never completed as well as fair attractions that closed before the fair was over. Some were replaced and some stood empty behind fences for the remainder of the fair! There’s also a lot of detail of the demolition of the fair (a process not completed until 1967) and the fair’s legacy.
Together these two books are richly illustrated and give a glimpse of an ephemeral world of fun, science, and “Peace Through Understanding” that stood for a short time in Queens, New York.
*I’d like to give Moses credit for the noble vision of a great fair leading into the creation of a “Central Park for the 20th Century” at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. However, his main legacy is crisscrossing New York with highways, including the ones that surround Flushing Meadows-Corona Park which I believe have prevented the park from achieving its full potential.
- 1939: The Lost World of the Fair by David Gelernter
- Freedomland U.S.A.: The Definitive History by Michael R. Virgintino
- The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert Caro