State of the Fairs: World's Fair Structures Around the U.S.

People across the country are helping make a fresh start for World's Fair structures that have been left behind.

Mitch Silverstein was just a kid when he visited the 1964–1965 World’s Fair in New York City’s Flushing Meadows Corona Park. “Being a 6-year-old, the technology was amazing to me. It looked very futuristic, like science fiction,” Silverstein says. But by 2009, the New York State Pavilion, the Space Age structure Philip Johnson built for the fair, was in bad shape. Though it had been landmarked by the state that same year, the paint on the decaying pavilion was peeling, its cinderblocks buckling, and its circular building filled with decades of junk.

Silverstein wanted to do something about it, so he teamed up with John Piro, a local contractor he met on a '64 World’s Fair online forum who had visions of restoring the structure. The two armed themselves with paintbrushes, and after Piro secured the Parks Department’s permission, they set to work reapplying the red-and-white-striped interior and yellow exterior.

“There wasn’t enough attention being paid to the building,” Silverstein says. “We wanted to figure out a way to raise awareness. But we didn’t just want to hand out flyers about the New York State Pavilion; we needed to do something grand. And John came up with this idea: ‘Let’s put a coat of paint on it.’”

Four years later, Silverstein and Piro have enlisted a handful of other volunteers to join in their efforts, working themselves sore at least a few times a month. When Sherwin-Williams’ paint donations dried up last year, the group turned to a crowd-funding webpage to raise the $2,500 they will need for paint in order to complete the project in time for the 50th anniversary of the fair next year. (Expenses such as gas, tolls, and maintenance come out of the members’ own pockets.)

Though the pavilion’s structural issues haven’t yet been addressed, and the parks department has allocated no other funds for repairs, Silverstein hopes the work he and other volunteers are doing will show the city the site deserves a second look.

Since the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations—the first American World’s Fair—debuted in New York in 1853, more than two dozen United States cities have hosted World’s Fairs and brought us the first public showing of Alexander Graham Bell’s tele­phone, the Ferris Wheel, and a legacy of striking architecture, among other wonders. The extravagant gatherings captured imaginations around the world in their days, and for Silverstein and many others, they still do.

“The fairs have functioned historically to at once build and rebuild a sense of national identity,” says Montana State University history professor Robert W. Rydell. A specialist in World’s Fair history, he posits, “They help us reflect on how we became us.”

What remains of American World’s Fairs is as di­verse as the events themselves, but whether the build­ings and civic spaces left behind have found new life or are still fighting for it, they’ve left an indelible impact on their cities and the people in them.

For the past six years, New York–based photogra­pher Jade Doskow has traveled the world shooting im­ages of former fair sites from Brussels to Buffalo. She’s visited 10 in the United States so far.

“It’s about the organic development of life around these temporary structures, and the surprise of what I’m going to find has become a big draw for me,” she says. “I can do all the research I want from my studio in New York, but until I get there I never know what’s developed around it. Is it still in use? How much is it still in use? These nuances make it more and more exciting as the project goes on.”

The challenge of fitting these places into a city’s DNA long after the pomp of the expositions has fad­ed is a running theme Doskow has seen in her work. On a recent visit to St. Louis, she was surrounded by reminders of the 1904 fair still dotting the Midwest­ern city. The fair attracted millions and celebrated the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase with grand buildings and landscapes such as the stately art mu­seum and the Saint Louis Zoo’s whimsical flight cage, one of the world’s largest free-flight aviaries. The New York State Pavilion, on the other hand, stands out as a prime example of a site where structures’ post-fair lives have been far more uncertain.

“It represents ideas that are inherent to a lot of these fair sites, which is that these top architects come in to design these very cutting-edge structures, and there’s simply not a budget to look into the future and figure out what to do with these buildings,” Doskow says.

Still, a lack of foresight doesn’t always mean an un­happy ending for these unique sites and constructions. In Knoxville, Tenn., the Sunsphere, the distinctive symbol of the 1982 fair, spent years vacant following the event. (A 1996 episode of The Simpsons even spoofed the abandoned tower, suggesting it was being used as storage for a discount wig warehouse.)

But in 2005, the city’s mayor announced that the Sunsphere and the amphitheater, the fair’s only other remaining building, would be renovated for public use. The Sunsphere’s observation deck reopened in 2007, and private business­es moved into the fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth floors of the giant sphere in 2008.

Even when financial or planning challenges have presented themselves in the historical wake of a fair, other lasting benefits have outweighed the risks, ac­cording to Montana State professor Rydell.

“One of the first things people need to understand about World’s Fairs is that they were not always suc­cessful economically,” says Rydell. “So that begs the question: Why would any capitalist in his or her right mind go out and invest money and dedicate amazing amounts of time to pulling these events together?” The answer, he says, lies in the infrastructure, architecture, and prestige these massive undertakings brought with them.

On tiny Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay, the three buildings left over from the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition have played a pivotal role in the commu­nity’s history for decades. One has served as headquarters for Naval Station Treasure Island, as an airport terminal, and as home to local businesses, the Treasure Island Museum Association, and the Treasure Island Development Au­thority. The other two, both former hangar buildings, have served many purposes but are currently being used by film and stage production companies. These original buildings are now part of the Treasure Island Development Authority’s long-term redevelopment plan for the island.

The structures, one of which is flanked by six of the fair’s Pacific Unity sculptures, will undergo needed seismic retrofitting and restoration in the coming years. In the meantime, the Treasure Island Museum Association is in the process of planning for informational signs about the '39 exposition and other island history. The plaques will include graphics that can be scanned with smart phones and link to addi­tional information about the island and the fair’s legacy.

“Knowing that there was this beautiful, idyllic dream that flourished on the island just a couple years before [U.S. involvement in] World War II, to me, it’s just an amazing story,” says Anne Schnoebelen, vice president of the Treasure Island Museum Association Board of Directors.

Not all fair building backstories are so rooted in their city’s collective memories. For some, those memories have been quite literally uprooted. When The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore reached out to historic preservation specialists at Azola & Associates, Inc., for an evaluation of a rotting historic office building on its campus, staff knew little about the building’s storied past. The structure, as Tony Azola and his team discovered, had been built as The Maryland Building for Philadelphia’s Centennial Exhibition of 1876 and moved to what are now the zoo’s grounds shortly thereafter. Azola was tasked with helping the zoo determine whether the de­teriorating old building was worth saving, and after he presented his research on the building’s important history, the zoo (with the help of grants) agreed to fund a full restoration.

The office’s rear side porches had rotted completely through, trees had overgrown the surrounding lot, and an enormous beehive lodged among the exterior siding pushed apart the wood panels, which oozed with honey. Cosmetically, The Maryland Building was a disaster. Underneath, however, Azola found that the structure’s foundation and old-growth fir bones were still strong.

Using historic photographs and pieces of the original building materials as guides, Azola’s team fabricated long-missing rooftop finials, an exposed exterior truss that had once hung above the front door, and millwork that required custom knives and tools to re-create. A specialist analyzed the decades of paint that had been peeling off the building’s exterior in sheets and determined its original grays, blues, reds, and yellows. Today, several zoo departments operate out of the revived space.

“It was such a unique building,” Azola says. “There’s only been one Maryland Building ever, and this is it.”

That same spirit of protecting shared fair heritage is also what drives people such as Urso Chappell. In 1998 Chappell founded ExpoMuseum.com, an online data­base of World’s Fairs past and present. The San Fran­cisco graphic designer, writer, and consultant grew up hearing stories of his great-grandmother’s adventures at the 1904 fair in St. Louis, which fueled his personal interest in the events when he attended the 1982 fair in Knoxville, Tenn., at age 15.

“There are a lot of examples of structures built for World’s Fairs that were meant to be temporary, but then they became so beloved or so emblematic of a pe­riod or of a city that they end up being permanent,” he says. “The classic example of that is the Eiffel Tower. Many people thought it was an eyesore at the time; it was supposed to be there [temporarily] so it could recoup its cost, and here we are however many years later and you cannot think of Paris without the Eiffel Tower.” San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts, Chappell says, built of plaster for the 1915 Panama Pacific In­ternational Exposition, has followed a similar arc and gained a prominent place in that city’s heart.

Eventually, Chappell would like to establish a bricks-and-mortar museum dedicated to World’s Fairs’ history and the history of the buildings those fairs left behind. In addition to chronicling fairs of the past on his site and serving as an expert on panels about World’s Fairs at events such as the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2012 National Pres­ervation Conference in Spokane, Wash. (site of the 1974 exposition), Chappell is also looking to the future. He’s optimistic that American fairs will see a revival.

While World’s Fairs are still held internation­ally (Shanghai’s 2010 fair was the largest in history, attracting more than 70 million visitors), the United States hasn’t hosted one in nearly 30 years. Experts cite the financial difficulties of more recent Ameri­can fairs, as well as a highly connected and shrinking world created by the Internet, as contributing factors to fairs’ demise in this country.

Americans’ fading conception of the gatherings that were once so crucial to their cultural identity, Montana State’s Rydell says, makes protecting their architectural heritage all the more urgent.

Back in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, where Mitch Silverstein and fellow volunteer painters have dedicated so many hours to the New York State Pavilion, citizens are now battling more than deferred maintenance. Three separate development projects have been proposed for the park: a 1.4 million-square-foot mall and parking garage, a $500 million expansion of the United States Tennis Association’s stadium facilities, and a 35,000-seat professional soccer stadium proposed by Major League Soccer officials that would require the '64 fair’s long-neglected Pool of Industry be filled.

Though not every proposal would directly affect remnants of the fair, the New York City Park Advocates and other groups have launched a coalition called Save Flushing Meadows Corona Park to secure the parkland as public recreational space. The damage Silverstein and his group are working to repair, much like the encroaching development, is, according to Park Advocates founder Geoffrey Croft, a symptom of unfairly allocated municipal funds and city lea­ders who don’t recognize the importance of the park’s rich heritage.

“[The New York State Pavilion] is something that literally hundreds of thousands of people see every day on their drives, besides the parkgoers them­selves, and if you see it up close you see the rust and the paint chipping, and it’s just a symbol of neglect,” Croft says. “The city never maintained it, but it’s an iconic symbol, and we should be taking care of these things instead of allowing them to deteriorate.”

Though many fair sites across the country are thriving, others such as Flushing Meadows Corona Park struggle for modern relevance. Still, when Silverstein walks the same grounds he explored as a wide-eyed child at the ’64 fair, it’s an emotional experience. The park may not attract the same kind of attention it once did, but locals like him know that energy is still hiding there if you know where to look. By restoring even a little bit of the luster he remembers from the fair, Silverstein hopes to show the city, and the world, what he and the other volunteers see.

“When we walk through the park, we imagine the pavilions that were there, the historical side to it, but we also see lots of families and soccer games and life on the weekends,” he says.

Curious visitors will often inquire about the volunteers painting, and Silverstein is always happy to share the story of the place—why it mattered 50 years ago, and why it still matters today.

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