With war looming on the horizon, and the world still struggling to emerge from the Great Depression, the 1939-1940 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadow-Corona Park was designed to show the great promise of Tomorrow. As we saw last time, this new world would be filled with new technology and new innovations. New York City would get some needed economic help, and a neglected ash dump would become the site of a new park in Flushing. It was a win-win.
Architecture has always been one of the most important components of a World’s Fair. Even the smallest rural country fair is built around some kind of central building, even if that building is a large tent. A gigantic fair such as this, that would be in operation for at least a year, had to have impressive buildings that would show off talent, innovation and industry.
The fair itself had a theme – the World of Tomorrow. That title lent itself to futuristic structures such as the famous Tryon, Perisphere and Helicline, which rose up in the center of the fair and were its central attraction. They were designed by Wallace Harrison and his partner Max Abramowitz.
These partners would one day design the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center, and Harrison was chief architect of the United Nations complex, and the Empire State Plaza in Albany, among other large Modernist projects.
The theme of the future inspired other architects to design futuristic buildings for their clients. Some of those clients were participating nations, others were industries and institutions. The possibilities were limited only by imagination and money.
The fair was built around zones. The Transportation Zone was one of the most popular areas of the fair. General Motors had a 36,000 square foot exhibition hall that centered on their Futurama exhibit. This was a ride designed by famed industrial and set designer Norman Bel Geddes. Patrons rode over an elaborate miniature set of an American town, reduced perfectly in scale, down to the fire hydrants.
As the cars passed over the town, it gradually became larger and larger, so that by the end of the ride, one was let off on a full sized city street, with tall buildings, shops and offices. On that street was a GM dealership and appliance stores, where one could see the latest GM automobiles and Frigidaire appliances.
Chrysler’s pavilion was nearby, where guests could sit in one of the first air conditioned auditoriums and watch an early 3-D film showing a Plymouth being manufactured on an assembly line. Over at the Ford Pavilion, a figure-eight racetrack on the roof had professional race car drivers in a nonstop race going on, all day, and every day. They were racing Fords, of course.
The fair had 17 acres of train exhibits, as trains were in 1939 what planes are today, as far as long distance travel. The history of world train travel was featured, as well as famous engines and trains. The newest innovations in trains, such as the diesel-electric locomotives were exhibited. One train, the Pennsylvania Railroad’s new S1 locomotive, was placed on rollers and run continuously at 60 mph all day long.
There was a Communications Zone, which featured futuristic technology such as electric typewriters over at IBM. A synthetic robotic voice called the Voder spoke to people in the AT & T exhibition hall. The Masterpieces of Art exhibit featured some of the greatest Old Masters paintings borrowed from all over the Western World.
Over 60 different countries took part in the fair. Many had their own buildings, or sent representatives and exhibits. The cultures of the world were represented in food, crafts, the arts, and historical and cultural treasures.
The British sent over a priceless copy of the Magna Carta, from Lincoln Cathedral. It was the first time the document had ever left England. After the fair was over, it stayed in the United States, because of World War II. It was protected in Fort Knox, next to the original copy of the Constitution, and was returned in 1947.
The French opened a restaurant that proved to be so popular that after the fair was over, they stayed. It became Le Pavillon. The Jewish Palestine Pavilion introduced the world to the idea of the State of Israel. Ten years after the fair, A Jewish state became a reality.
Of course, all of this high-minded culture and tech was great, but the real reason most people came to the fair was for the amusement park and the food court. As in all American world’s fairs, innovations abounded there, as well.
The amusement park section of the fair was not part of the color coded zones. It was off to the side, in the back, and was the most popular part of the fair. One of the most popular rides there was the Life Savers Parachute Drop. After the fair, it was moved to Coney Island, where it still stands.
They had a popular roller coaster, and the Gimbels Flyer train ride, which also still runs, now in Kennywood, an amusement park near Pittsburgh. Frank Buck’s Jungleland featured exotic animals and camel rides. And they had the arcade, with games of chance, and lots of girly shows.
Salvador Dali, the famous Spanish surrealistic painter had an exhibit called “The Dream of Venus.” It was filled with all sorts of strange set pieces and a lot of nearly naked people posed as living statues. It was a big hit, as was the Bendix Lama Temple.
This was a 28,000 piece temple building based on a 1767 Potala temple located in Manchuria. It had first been a part of the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. Industrialist and explorer Vincent Bendix had sponsored its building. But here, the temple was a backdrop not for ancient cultures, but for an elaborate girly show.
Over the course of the fair people complained about the “low entertainment,” and the fair was raided by the Vice Squad several times, but that only gave the shows more publicity, and more money. They stayed.
Everything at the fair was branded or endorsed. There were even Steinway subway cars specially outfitted for a new temporary subway line that ran to the park. One still is on exhibit at the Transit Museum.
The fair stayed open for two seasons, opening from May to October of 1939 and 1940. The numbers crunchers saw that they were not going to make any money, so the second year, they pushed the entertainment end of the fair over the science, technology and cultural aspects.
In spite of all that, the fair lost money spectacularly, and the founding corporation declared bankruptcy after the fair closed. Many of the rides and exhibitions were sold off. The temporary buildings were torn down. Some of the better buildings were dismantled and moved, some thousands of miles away.
The Perisphere and Trylon were later torn down for the Unisphere built for the 1964 World’s Fair, which was held in the same location.
The fair in many ways foreshadowed World War II. German was the only major European nation that did not participate in the fair. During the second year of the fair, Poland and Czechoslovakia, which had large pavilions, saw those pavilions empty, as war broke out. The USSR pulled out after the first year, taking down their building. Many Europeans were not able to return to their homelands because of the war. Most stayed in NYC, and made it their temporary home.
In 1941, two NYC police officers were killed when a bomb exploded in the British pavilion.
The 1939-1940 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadow introduced many new things into our culture. Television, air conditioning, fluorescent lighting, color photography, nylon, even Smell-O-Vision. Superman made his first appearance at a World’s Fair, as did the pulp fiction character Doc Savage.
Robert Moses got his park for Flushing, and didn’t have to pay for it. He was also able to get parts of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway and other highways completed in time to lead motorists to the park.
Some of the buildings built for the fair became the temporary headquarters for the United Nations from its beginning in 1946, until 1951, when the UN Plaza was completed. The New York State building was the first home of the General Assembly.
That building was re-used in the 1964 fair, and is the only surviving building from the ’39 fair. Today it is the Queens Museum.
The Museum of the City of New York has an extensive collection of images from the 1939-1940 World’s Fair in their digital collection. Most of the photographs here, are from this collection. The “Pontiac Ghost Car” exhibit, shown above, was a popular stop in the General Motors Building.