By Elizabeth Broman, Reference Librarian, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Library

After a long winter of isolating indoors, many of us are eager to get back outdoors to appreciate our urban open spaces. Several major parks in cities across the United States and beyond owe thanks to World’s Fairs for their creation. A largely bygone tradition that sprung from the Industrial Revolution, World’s Fairs were large international expositions that showcased the achievements of nations, often promoting new inventions and industries that later evolved into large corporations. New York City hosted two World’s Fairs on the grounds now known as Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens. The first in 1939–40 and the second in 1964–65, left behind only a handful of permanent landmarks, most notably The Unisphere and the New York Pavilion, which have become symbols of Queens. However, the 1,216 acres site that can be enjoyed by all of us today as a public park long after the fairs have ended, is perhaps their biggest legacy.

Illustrations for a catalog spread from the World's Fair. On the left, people walk the fair grounds with a giant metal globe sculpture in the distance. On the right, observation towers with flat, circular observation decks rise into the sky.

(L): Cover, (R): New York State Pavilion
Pillsbury, Mary. A day at the New York World’s Fair with Peter and Wendy / / Illustrated by Catherine Barnes.T786 1964 .P5 1964 Cooper-Hewitt Expo. Catalogs 39088015026370

Today, Flushing Meadow Corona Park provides a sprawling recreational oasis where millions of people from diverse communities enjoy outdoor activities year-round. Including lakes for kayaking and nature trails for hiking, it serves as home to the Queens Wildlife Conservation Center, as well as Major League Baseball’s NY Met’s, Citi Field, and the US Open’s Arthur Ashe Stadium. The Queens Museum —, the only remaining structure from the 1939 fair—is now an educational resource, an art museum, and community center that offers classes and special events. The park also hosts multi-cultural festivals and activities, and provides green space for one of New York City’s most densely populated boroughs with one of the most ethnically diverse populations in America.

A catalog spread of futuristic and colorful exposition buildings at the 1964 world's fair.

New York World’s Fair 1964-1965 Corporation. Official souvenir book of the New York World’s Fair, 1965. West Nyack, N.Y.: Dexter Press, c1965. Smithsonian Libraries. T786 1964 .C1 Cooper Hewitt Expo. Catalogs. 39088008399255

World’s Fair grounds were originally designed to be the center stage for nations across the world to physically temporarily display their manufactured goods. The official exhibition buildings, pavilions, sculptures, and structures were never designed to be permanent, but were constructed and landscaped to last only for the duration of the fair. The host city often set aside large tracts of undeveloped land to create the fairgrounds with the intention to put it to good civic use afterwards. Many significant buildings and landmarks from World’s Fairs still survive today: The Eiffel Tower in Paris (1889); museums repurposed from fair buildings in Chicago (1893), St. Louis (1904), and San Francisco (1915); and Seattle’s Space Needle (1962) are just a few iconic structures that are still accessible for public use in an urban landscape.

The story of Flushing Meadow Corona Park tells a similar tale of turning an area of industrial wasteland into an extravaganza of exhibitions, pavilions, fountains, amusements, reflecting pools, and futuristic architecture for the 1939 World’s Fair. After the fair closed, the buildings and exhibitions were removed but the grounds were retained, and Flushing Meadows Park was established. In its earliest days as a public park and recreation area it even became the first location for the United Nations General Assembly Building, in what is now the Queens Museum. The site was selected again for the 1964–65 World’s Fair; and after that fair closed the park received major improvements making the area more accessible to better serve the needs of the city, the community, and the neighborhood in its urban environment. Recreational facilities were added, and the grounds redesigned for better public use and entertainment. Walking on the improved grounds today, you can still experience original features like the 1964 Fountain of the Fairs and the Fountain of the Planets that continue to be awe-inspiring monuments from the past and into the present.

Four people lounge in the grass enjoying tiki drinks and other picnic fare.

New York World’s Fair 1964-1965 Corporation. Official souvenir book of the New York World’s Fair, 1965. West Nyack, N.Y.: Dexter Press, c1965. Smithsonian Libraries. T786 1964 .C1 Cooper Hewitt Expo. Catalogs. 39088008399255

The Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Library has more than 2,000 World’s Fair materials ranging from London’s Crystal Palace Exposition in 1851 to Shanghai’s EXPO 2010. In the beginning, World’s Fairs provided venues for mostly Western world nations and their controlled territories to share their industries, arts, and culture with the rest of the world, while also asserting Western society’s empirical attitudes toward non-Western cultures. During the 1930s and with the rise of American manufacturing, World’s Fairs became more corporate with big companies from the automotive, energy, and technology sectors creating the most impressive pavilions, buildings, and installations. The Library’s World’s Fair collection is an extremely valuable resource for scarce primary source materials on new products, inventions, art, design, and material culture displayed at the fairs. The vast selection of materials include official jury reports, commission planning documents, guidebooks, photobooks, cookbooks, children’s books, maps, company trade catalogs, and other ephemera.

I attended the 1964–65 World’s Fair in Flushing several times with my family, traveling from Brooklyn by the subway. I had never seen such amazing and wonderful things. It was a feast for the eyes and imagination—in addition to the different foods available. The illustrations in one of our children’s Cooper Hewitt Expo books, A day at the New York World’s Fair with Peter and Wendy, reminds me so much of my visits.

In the foreground a boy shows a girl the the fairground fountains. Greenery surrounds the two as they walk.

New York World’s Fair 1964-1965 Corporation. Official souvenir book of the New York World’s Fair, 1965. West Nyack, N.Y.: Dexter Press, c1965. Smithsonian Libraries. T786 1964 .C1 Cooper Hewitt Expo. Catalogs. 39088008399255

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