Places that Matter

New York State Pavilion

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photo by Molly Garfinkel, 2014
photo by Molly Garfinkel, 2014
photo by Molly Garfinkel, 2014
Matthew Silva inside the New York State Pavilion, photo by Molly Garfinkel, 2014
photo by Molly Garfinkel, 2014
photo by Molly Garfinkel, 2014
photo by Molly Garfinkel, 2014
1964 World's Fair pavilion designed by Philip Johnson
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April 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Held in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, the exposition showcased America’s economic and technological prowess. Exhibits that now sound whimsically futuristic included Ford’s Magic Skyway, IBM’s multi-media “Information Machine” show, GE’s Progressland pavilion, Du Pont’s "Wonderful World of Chemistry” musical, General Motor's Futurama, and Bell Telephone System’s Picturephone. Twin themes, “Peace Through Understanding,” and “Man’s Achievements on a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe,” resonated with popular concerns over social and political upheavals of the 1960s, and the fair debuted the latest technologies of the burgeoning space and information age (like the computer), which optimistically promised a better, more logical, future.

Few of the fair’s fantastical structures remain to remind us of the spirit of the event, and while the iconic Unisphere was rehabbed in 1993 and designated a New York City landmark in 1995, Philip Johnson’s New York State Pavilion has not been so lucky. Although Queens Borough President Melinda Katz has promised a task force dedicated to problem-solving the rusting Pavilion’s rehabilitation, options still officially on the table include demolition ($14 million), stabilization ($43 million) and restoration ($72 million). On the eve of their 50th birthdays, the futures of Johnson's Tent of Tomorrow and three Astro-View towers are uncertain.
 
While the jury is still out on whether the structures are worth the price of preservation, the Pavilion has a dedicated defender in Matthew Silva, a Long Island-based technology teacher and filmmaker. In 2013, Silva, urbanist Salmaan Khan, and the late Christian Doran co-founded an advocacy group called People for the Pavilion, which has crowd-sourced passionate support for the structures via a Facebook group, now 2000+ members strong. In January 2014, People for the Pavilion hosted a 200-person meeting at the Queens Theater in the park, where they called for a sustainable, long-term plan for the Pavilion's reuse.  
 
Born in Middle Village and raised on Long Island, Matthew was always curious about his native borough’s fair-era architecture, but the big questions started forming after he studied architecture in college. “So one day I’m in a bookstore, and I see this book on the architecture of Philip Johnson with a picture of the building and towers that I always used to see on the expressway on the cover. And I go, 'wait a minute. Philip Johnson designed that thing, and it’s rotting and it’s in plain sight? It’s wrong. It must be wrong.'” So he started to look into the building’s history.
 
An irreverent monument to a serious turning point in human-technological relations, Johnson’s three-part Pavilion was billed as the “County Fair of the Future,” and it was to be the centerpiece of New York State’s exhibit. The elliptical Tent of Tomorrow measures 350 feet by 250 feet. Sixteen 100-foot reinforced concrete piers support a 50,000 square-foot suspension roof (then a world record) that once contained 1500 plastic multicolored Kalwall panels. Below the Tent's roof, a Texaco Oil-sponsored floor features a giant inlaid terrazzo map of New York State.
 
Today, the colorful roof panels are gone, but the Tent’s exterior is highlighted with red candy stripes, annually painted as a labor of love by Pavilion admirers Mitch Silverstein and John Piro. Matthew recalls, “I came to find that the painting is done by a group of volunteers. Just a bunch of do-gooders from Long Island and Upstate New York and around the east coast, who come to the Pavilion every few Saturdays during the warmer months, and they put on paint. They had been conversing through world’s fair internet message boards for many years, and by fall 2009, they said, ‘why don’t we just go and put a coat of paint back on that building?’ So they bought some paint and asked Estelle Cooper, the Parks Administrator at the time, and she said fine. They come down, put some paint on it, she freaks out. They say, ‘ok we’ll clean it up,’ and she says, ‘ah, you know what? You can keep doing it.’” For many years, Sherwin Williams color matched and donated the paint. 
 
Next to the Tent is the former Theaterama movie house. During the fair, Theaterama featured a 360-degree panoramic film on New York State, and the building’s exterior was decorated with large-scale original artwork by notable pop-artists, including Andy Warhol, Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg. After the fair, Theaterama was converted in to a performance venue, and following renovations in the 80s, the Queens Theater was officially established in 1989.
 
House Manager Willy Mosquera started working at the Queens Theatre twenty-two years ago. At the time, the neighboring Tent of Tomorrow was painted plain white, but Willy noticed that old postcards showed an ellipse festooned with red stripes. In reality, Philip Johnson’s design included red fabric panels that were draped over the base of the building to evoke a carnivalesque atmosphere. According to Matthew, "twenty years ago, Willy said, ‘let’s make it look like this postcard.’ So he painted these stripes for the first time. I think he got some high school kids to help him come and paint. And they painted it to spruce it up, make it look nice.”’
 
Last but not least, Johnson's three Astro-View towers soar 60, 150, and 226 feet above the Pavilion site. From 1964-1965, smaller towers contained restaurants for fair goers, and the larger tower, the tallest structure at the fair, provided an observation deck. Visitors accessed the towers’ platforms by “Sky Streak” capsule elevators.
 
Matthew originally intended to write his masters’ thesis on the New York State Pavilion. At the time, he found scant documentation on the structures. “I learned about all of this whacky history about the Worlds Fair, about how Disney World came to Queens for two years. It blew me away, you know? I couldn’t believe the infrastructure and the buildings that were here. And there’s almost no trace of it other than the Unisphere and this thing. And so, of course I learned about the elevators and the terrazzo map. And to understand about the engineering feat that that was! To know that I may never get to experience that, of MY state, it’s upsetting. It’s a real loss.”
 
After months of digging for information, Matthew discovered that the Pavilion had an incredible birth and an even more enchanting post-fair existence. “The city couldn’t really figure out what to do with it after the fair. It was too expensive to take down like the other pavilions, because it was made out of concrete and steel rather than other softer, lighter materials like wood, like many of the others. So, they tried to make it an art exhibition center, and hen it was a concert hall for bands like Led Zepplin, Fleetwood Mac, Santana, and the Grateful Dead. I also came to learn that it was a roller skating rink. A roller skating rink?! How does that happen? What a quirky little thing to become of a pavilion like this, by Philip Johnson of all people!”
 
One night in December 2012, after accidentally driving past the un-illuminated Pavilion on the expressway, Matthew decided to put years of research by making a documentary film. He enlisted the aid of director Jake Gorst (Modern Tide: Midcentury Architecture on Long Island, 2012), and interviewed numerous design and preservation luminaries, including architect Robert A.M. Stern, architectural critic Paul Goldberger, Alan Ritchie, managing partner of Philip Johnson/Alan Ritchie Architects, and Frank Sanchis of the World Monuments Fund.
 
Matthew’s film, Modern Ruin, is a love letter to the New York State Pavilion. “This is an example of a building at a cross roads,” he says. “It could either be demolished and future generations will never know that it existed, just like people don’t know what the original Penn Station really was, or it can be saved and it can be turned into something great that the community can use for generations.”
 
The documentary includes testimonies from stripe painters Mitch and John, and Charles Aybar, who rode the elevators as a kid in the 1970s, and changed the light bulbs on top of the Tent roof. Matthew also spoke to Christine Rafalke, who operated the beloved skating rink on the Pavilion’s terrazzo map floor during the 1970s. Competitive roller skaters from Cleveland, Rafalke and her then-husband, Bob Jelen, were young newlyweds who came to New York to find work. An electrician by trade, Bob helped to install the elevators in the World Trade Center. While driving home to Jackson Heights one day, they noticed the Pavilion in the distance. Intrigued, they pulled off the expressway, jumped the fence, and discovered an empty arena with a mammoth terrazzo map floor. Their first thought: this would be a great place to skate! After a year of negotiating with the city, Christine and Bob received an official concessions license, and on St. Patrick’s Day in 1972, they opened a skate rink in the Tent of Tomorrow.
 
Matthew recounts an evocative moment from Rafalke’s tenure as the Skate Queen of Queens. “They’d spent a year getting everything together. Cleaning, polishing the floor. Varathaning it so that they wouldn’t be skating on the terrazzo. It was a summer evening, the sun was just setting. You could see the stars. And they’re walking around the building, and you could hear the music going on inside, and people laughing, and screaming and having a great time. And Bob and Christine just put their backs against the building and were looking out at the park, and they go, ‘we did it. We did it. We saved this building.’ To know that they had that moment, and the haunting feel that you kind of get when you know what it became. It’s chilling, and also very beautiful. They operated for two and a half, three years. After they left, everything got trashed.”
 
Two years in to skate operations, the Tent's roof panels started to fall, and one of the window mullions blew on to the Grand Central Parkway. The rink was shuttered almost overnight. Authorities deemed the roof panels hazardous and knocked them out. Matthew says, “they crashed on the floor, and the city carted them away to the landfill, and that was it. I think a couple of people have a few remains of the glass panels from the top of the towers, but other than that, it’s gone. And Kalwall still makes them! They said they’d make them again if we need them!”
 
After the skating rink closed and construction on the World Trade Center ended, Bob moved to Minnesota to find work while Christine stayed in New York to try to renew the concessions license. About to go into default, the city was not reissuing any concessions licenses. With the economy in a downward spiral, the skaters gave up, and Christine moved back to Cleveland. The Pavilion was later used as the set for Munchkindland in 1978’s The Wiz, and although the production company invested in cleaning the structure, it remained more or less abandoned from the 1980s onward.
 
While he’s adamant about saving the Paviling, Matthew isn’t positing a concrete vision for the site’s future use. “Maybe it should be what Ralph Caplan of the School of Visual Arts would call a ‘designed situation.’ A place that is situationally designed for positive human interaction. That’s what I tried to say to my technology students when I once used the Pavilion as a design competition case study in class. I told them to design an environment that encourages strangers to mingle and interact, and to foster community.”
 
Modern Ruin is nearly completed, but the conversation about the Pavilion’s next fifty years is hardly over. People for the Pavilion suffered a devastating setback in early February 2014, when 27 year-old co-founder Christian Doran passed away suddenly from an asthma attack. However, the group has pledged to continue working in his memory, and they are buoyed by Borough President Katz’s invitation to join the Pavilion preservation task force. Matthew is optimistic about a better future, and his campaign's success is indeed galvanized by the computer age technology presaged in '64, just as the world’s fair planners would have hoped. “When I set out to do this, I realized that so few people about this building. It needed a spotlight shined on it, and the Facebook group helped to get us there. At this point, the boulder is tipping. It’s now. The momentum is there. To be honest, part of it is selfish. I want to go up there! My dream is to go up there with my son and my future children and be able to look at the park. I’ve lived in NYS my entire life. I’ve always felt that NYC is my city, even though I don’t live in it. But to play a role in something that is really permanent, that would be the cherry on top.”