This is the sixth in a series of guests posts that feature Archtober Building of the Day tours!
As it stands today, the New York State Pavilion looks like it belongs in outer space—a little out of place but powerful in its presence. Anyone new to town who is driving on the Long Island Expressway or riding the train to Citi Field probably doesn’t give much thought to the oddly shaped structure, its historic significance, or the fact that it sits in the largest park in the borough. But as a huge fan of old buildings, when I first saw it just over a year ago, I was curious to know what this carnivalesque piece of architecture was doing in the middle of—what felt like, at the time—nowhere.
By now I’ve educated myself on Queens history and have finally taken a tour of the famous fairgrounds with a crowd of Archtober enthusiasts. My initial observations about it were close: The New York State Pavilion is reminiscent of a big top circus; it was built for the 1964-65 World’s Fair. Originally designed by renowned architect Philip Johnson, the Pavilion is one of the city’s most iconic midcentury relics and a defining feature of the Queens skyline. It can be seen from the window of a plane on its way to LaGuardia Airport or from the numerous highways that encircle Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.
The Pavilion is a concrete and steel structure made up of three distinct parts: a theater, a 226-foot tower with three observation decks, and a 100-foot high, spiky, bright yellow, open-air elliptical ring. These constructions were once known as the Theaterama, the Astro-View Towers, and the Tent of Tomorrow.
Today’s tour was led by five passionate members of the New York State Pavilion Project: Jim Brown, John Piro, Gary Miller, Mitch Silverstein, and Stephanie Bohn. Their grassroots effort is dedicated to restoring and repainting the structures, as well as bringing awareness towards the Pavilion’s future—an idea that’s received a lot of attention lately thanks to the support of Queens Borough President Melinda Katz. While these gatekeepers regularly host open houses at the Pavilion, today’s sneak peek inside the stately structure felt more intimate. As we stood inside the ring, clearly deteriorating due to weather overexposure, I felt a sense of energy inside the place. Though now empty, I could imagine over 50 million people flooding the fairground in the early 1960s. Some fellow tour-goers had actually been to the Fair themselves and could recall personal memories inside the Tent of Tomorrow, like walking over the giant Texaco map of New York State or staring up at the stained glass ceiling. The Pavilion even game me serious New York State pride, and I’m from Kentucky.
According to our guides, Philip Johnson once said that he loved the Pavilion more as a stand-alone, derelict structure than when it was at the height of its heyday. And much like it was in 1964, the building is the main attraction. Based on today’s tour, the people who are dedicated to preserving this national treasure seem to feel the same.
About the author: Sydney Franklin is a content producer at the NYC Department of Design and Construction. She recently graduated from Syracuse University with a master’s degree in architectural journalism.