Planning the Future of Past World's Fair Sites

Janice Melnick, Bob Balder, Jennifer Minner
From left: Janice Melnick, parks administrator for NYC Parks, speaks with Bob Balder and Jennifer Minner. photo / Zachary Tyler Newton
Marit Larsen, Jennifer Minner
Marit Larsen (at left), director of wetland restoration for NYC Parks, meets with Jennifer Minner and students. photo / Zachary Tyler Newton
Marit Larsen
Marit Larsen (center, in blue scarf), director of wetland restoration for NYC Parks, meets with students beneath the expressways surrounding Flushing Meadows Corona Park. photo / Zachary Tyler Newton
Tour of New York State Pavilion
John Krawchuk (in green hard hat), director of historic preservation for NYC Parks, guides students through the crumbling New York State Pavilion. photo / Zachary Tyler Newton
Tour of New York State Pavilion
Students inside the New York State Pavilion with the iconic towers in the background. photo / Zachary Tyler Newton
New York State Pavilion roof
The rusting roof and towers of the New York State Pavilion. photo / Zachary Tyler Newton
Flushing Meadows Corona Park
Students on the shore of Meadow Lake in Flushing Meadows Corona Park with the New York State Pavilion in the background. photo / Zachary Tyler Newton
September 25, 2014

On September 12 and 13, a group of 29 CRP students converged on one of New York City's most notable, but often underappreciated, landmarks: Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens. The trip was a joint effort between Assistant Professor Jennifer Minner, CRP, and Robert Balder, executive director of AAP NYC and visiting lecturer in CRP. Students from Minner's Special Topics in Urban Design class met up with M.R.P. and M.L.A. students in Balder's New York City Urban Planning Workshop to tour the park and imagine future possibilities for the historic New York State Pavilion and surrounding parklands.

Minner's class, Sustainable Adaptation of Large Modern Footprints, focuses on how best to steward and adapt the vast stock of mid-20th century, large-scale sites across the country. Using Flushing Meadows Corona Park and other 60s-era World's Fair venues, such as HemisFair Park in San Antonio and sites in Seattle and Montreal, Minner and her students are examining the remnants of modernist design and planning. At the end of the semester, Minner's class will deliver a final report to the NYC Parks department and community advocacy groups that provides recommendations for sustainably preserving and adapting Flushing Meadows Corona Park.

"Throughout the semester, students are investigating methods for preserving and adapting the legacy of modern era planning and architecture," says Minner. "Our goal is to identify a type of 'sustainable adaptation' that can be applied to a range of sites."

The trip to Queens gave students the opportunity to experience the Flushing Meadows site firsthand, and to consider its past, present, and future uses. Minner and Balder were able to arrange a series of in-depth, exclusive tours by park officials including Janice Melnick, NYC Parks administrator for Flushing Meadows Corona Park; Marit Larson, director of wetlands restoration for NYC Parks; and John Krawchuk, NYC Parks director of historic preservation, who led students on a hardhat tour of the interior of the crumbling New York State Pavilion.

"[John] Krawchuk was a phenomenal guide," says Balder. "His tour of the pavilion revealed historical nuances that brought us back to a time when the eyes of the world were on New York City. The World's Fairs were epic moments for the city, and he reconnected us with that past."

For students, the chance to get a hands-on tour of a place they had only seen in books and photos was eye-opening.

"The site was bigger and more disconnected than I had imagined," says Isaac Robb (M.R.P. '15). "I had no idea that [the park] would be so dependent on the automobile."

Students were also surprised by the extent to which the park is used for informal purposes. "Seeing the diversity of users and their various uses of [the park] was incredible," says Robb. "We saw games being played that I didn't even know existed."

Hector Chang (B.S. URS '15) agrees. "Perceptions of the park change depending on who you ask," he says. "People who live near the park love how it is right now; it's their community park. However, outsiders may think the park is underused and 'abandoned' because the park is huge and not a lot of people visit it. Balancing the two needs — community park and regional attraction/recreation center — will be an interesting aspect of the project."

Students also met with Matthew Silva, cofounder of People for the Pavilion, an advocacy group focused on restoration of the New York State Pavilion. Silva presented the group with a screening of his not-yet-released documentary film, Modern Ruin: A World's Fair Pavilion. Students acted as a test audience for the film, and received tips about crowd-sourced fundraising and community advocacy from Silva and members of another community group, New York State Pavilion Paint Project. Silva then challenged students to envision adaptive reuse scenarios for the pavilion.

"Silva's film was a great behind-the-scenes exploration of a ruin that showed us what New York City was capable of doing," says Balder. "He challenged students to think about ways to breathe new life into the monument . . . a message that can be applied to many other sites in many other cities across America."

The observations from the field trip will be integrated into the final report at the end of the semester. Additional input is being provided by Balder's AAP NYC students, who focused on reconnaissance around specific aspects of the sites, from history to hydrology. In addition, students in Visiting Lecturer Nathaniel Guest's Economics and Financing of Neighborhood Conservation and Preservation class are conducting market and feasibility analyses for adaptive reuse in pavilions not only in Flushing Meadows, but also in HemisFair Park.

"My hope is that this project will foster a long-term interest among students, and that they will go on to careers where they can not only address some of these large-scale projects from the past, but also propose designs for new sites that take the need for ongoing stewardship and adaptation into account," says Minner. "We should not simply be planning for a specific time horizon, but finding methods of planning and taking care of sites over time."

Funding for the trip was partially provided by a grant from Cornell's Engaged Learning + Research Center.

By Rebecca Bowes

About Flushing Meadows Corona Park

This year, park officials are celebrating the 50th and 75th anniversaries of the 1939 and 1964 World's Fairs at Flushing Meadows Corona Park. Robert Moses selected the site for its location at the geographic center of New York City, and the world's fairs were instrumental in transforming the site from an ash dump to a much-loved municipal park. Today, the neighborhoods that surround the park are considered some of the most ethnically diverse places on earth.

The park is now home to many important institutions including the Queens Museum; Citi Field stadium, home of Major League Baseball's New York Mets; the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, where the U.S. Open tennis tournament is played each summer; and the New York Hall of Science. Despite its many current uses, it is also the site of a hauntingly magnificent ruin — the long-neglected New York State Pavilion. This tower structure was designed by architect Philip Johnson in the theme of the fair of the future; its once colorful iconic top is now rusting, and its terrazzo floor, once a giant Texaco road map of New York State, has nearly completed deteriorated. Efforts are underway to finds means of rehabilitating and reusing the historic treasure.

A complete history of the park is available at the NYC Parks website.