Building the 1964 World's Fair

The idea for a New York World's Fair in 1964, to coincide with New York City's 300th anniversary (1664 was the year that British soldiers under the command of the Duke of York ran Peter Stuyvesant and his fellow Dutchmen out of town and changed the name from New Amsterdam to New York), was first conceived in 1958 by Robert Koppel, a New York lawyer. He felt that another World's Fair was what American children needed to learn something about the world.

Robert Moses, who was the New York City's Park Commissioner, helped win city and state support for the enterprise. Later he accompanied Mayor Robert Wagner to Washington D.C. to meet with President Dwight Eisenhower and solicit federal recognition for the Fair. In May 1960, Robert Moses replaced Koppel as the Fair Corporation president. In some ways he was the best choice since he was a veteran of the 1939/40 Fair and his administrative skills enabled him to always meet a deadline. He was well paid at a remarkable salary of $100,000 per year at a time when the New York Mayor only made $40,000 per year. Of course part of the deal was contingent that 70 year old Moses resign all of the posts that he held on city and state commissions.

Moses would shape the fair based on his principle that world's fairs were best for the lasting improvements that they generated rather than the cultural and entertainment value they provided to fair patrons during the event. Foremost was his desire to finish Flushing Meadow Park, a dream that had been thwarted by the financial difficulties of the 1939/40 World's Fair on the same site. His hope this time would be to provide the park with a new Museum of Science and Industry, outdoor sculpture and use the anticipated profits to provide a zoo and botanical garden.

It was the need to maximize Fair profits that shaped the physical plan of the Fair. The architect Gordon Bunshaft, who was head of the design committee, proposed housing all the Fair's exhibits in a gigantic donut-shaped pavilion. He was replaced because the huge structure costing millions countervailed Moses's plan to maximize fair profits by minimizing construction. Instead Moses insisted that the new Fair conform to the 1939 site so that they could reuse the park's roadways, fountains and underground infrastructure. Since the design committee sought to create an original new Fair, Bunshaft and the others resigned in frustration.

Moses financed the Fair with an issue of $35 million of 6% bonds and received $24 million for "park improvement" from the city of New York. Both were to be paid back from Fair Corporation profits. In addition the Fair Corporation obtained nearly an additional $30 million in advance ticket sales and prepayment of rental for space at the Fair. If one adds the cost of all the pavilions at the Fair the construction costs eventually added up to slightly more than a billion dollars.

The Fair's 175 pavilions were built on 643 acres, the largest World's Fair to that date. While they were able to use much of the general ground plan from the 1939/40 Fair, they still had to move around a million cubic yards of dirt, and lay underground 50 miles of pipe and 500 miles of cable for gas, water and electricity.

While the 1939/40 Fair was structured around a single idea, "Building a World of Tomorrow," Moses was motivated by his desire that the new Fair contain endless variety, "to be universal, to have something for everyone." Moses accepted the Fair's theme "Peace Through Understanding" that was originally proposed by Jerome Weinstein during Robert Koppel's tenure as Fair president, but he was quick to add others. Moses declared "The basic purpose of the Fair is Peace through Understanding, that is education of the peoples of the world as to the interdependence of nations to ensure a lasting peace. The Fair is dedicated to Man's achievements on a shrinking globe in an expanding universe, his inventions, discoveries, arts, skills and aspirations...." The other Fair theme was "A Millennium of Progress."

Moses wrestled with the idea for the Fair's visual theme. The 1939 Fair's visual logo, one very easy for the public to understand was the Trylon and Perisphere. He turned to industrial designer, Walter Dorwin Teague, to design a suitable theme center for the Fair. Much to Moses' dismay he submitted "Journey to the Stars", a 170 foot high steel and aluminum spiral with helium-filed star-shaped balloons floating above. Moses expressed his disappointment, "At the risk of being put down as a barbarian, I think it is a cross between a part of a make or break engine and a bed spring."

The chosen design, the Unisphere, was the creation of Gilmore Clarke, a long time collaborator on the Flushing Meadow Park ground plan. It was a 140 foot high, 900,000 pound steel armillary sphere covered with representations of the continents and encircled by three giant rings denoting the first manmade satellites that had launched the space age. It meet Moses criteria of visual simplicity, a design the public could easily identify. U.S. Steel was convinced to pick up the $2 million tab for its construction in exchange for its publicity.

Construction of the Unisphere.

It was understood from the very beginning that official sanction by the Paris based Bureau of International Expositions would not be forthcoming. Their requirements that the fair take place within a single year and that each country be given 5,000 square feet of space rent free could not be met. It became difficult to persuade foreign nations to build national pavilions at the Fair. Despite some effort, nations like Britain with her Commonwealth countries, Italy and France declined immediately. The U.S. and Russia carried on long negotiations on representation at the Fair for them and their satellities, but as usual disn't reach an agreement. The bulk of the countries that built foreign pavilions were from Asia, South and Central America, Africa and the Middle East. Only Spain, Switzerland, Belgium, Austria and Sweden represented Europe. Moses made up for the shortfall by recruiting several dozen State pavilions.

Since the Fair Corporation chose not to impose a unifying approach to Fair architecture, the result was a chaos of architectural styles that ranged from bland and institutional, to tasteful with dignity, to futuristic, to creative pop-art. Large commercial pavilions overshadowed the smaller foreign and state pavilions.

Moses' long-standing relationship with corporations and other powerful entities was reflected in his choice of Fair participants. As a veteran road builder he attracted a strong transportation zone to the fair. General Motors, Chrysler and Ford all built large ambitious pavilions with Ford spending at least $30 million. Feeling that religion had been left out of the 1939/40 Fair, he invited religious groups of all denominations to build pavilions, rent free. Fifteen accepted his invitation, including the Vatican that agreed to display Michaelangelo's Pieta in their large pavilion.

Contemporary art, other than for five official commissions for sculptures at the Fair like Donald De Lue's "The Rocket Thrower," was not sponsored by Fair officials. While art ethusiasts wanted a similar venue like that of the 1939 Contemporary Arts Building, frugal Moses insisted that someone should pay for the building's construction. When Argentina withdrew from the Fair before it opened, their building became the Pavilion of Fine Arts. The exbibit only included 150 paintings, 50 pieces of sculpture and 50 prints, and was panned by the critics. Since the pavilion opened in mid-June and wasn't listed in the guidebook, attendance was less than 500 per day and it operated heavily in the red. After it closed in mid-July, a new exibition, "Mother and Child in Modern Art" was sponsored by Clairol and organized by the American Federation of Arts. And during the 1965 season contemporary art was represented by "Art 65", an exhibition of paintings and sculpture by 59 lesser artists held at the American Express pavilion.

Robert Moses had very conservative mainstream tastes when it came to entertainment. He recruited Walt Disney to design major displays for four commercial pavilions. But when it came to approving entertainment in the Fair's amusement zone, his long record of opposition to Coney Island's carnival atmosphere created a very dull area. He was determined that the Fair's amusement zone would have none of the thrill rides, razzmatazz carnival spirit or the Little Egypt nudie shows that had been so popular at the 1939/40 Fair. Instead he relied on cultural oriented shows. Three shows, "Wonder World" an aquacade at the Amphitheater with only one great act - a man in a rocket suit, "Dick Button's Ice-Travaganza, and a musical "To Broadway with Love," all closed in less than three months with a total loss of $7 million. Granted the amusement area, which was across the freeway wasn't easy to get to, but Fair officials wouldn't let the shows be advertised either.

After the first year, when it became apparent that the Fair Corporation failed to attract enough patrons and was in debt, Moses relaxed his puritanical stance in regard to entertainment. Sixty-nine new bars were added for the 1965 season as well as nine discotheques with go-go dancers.

It made little difference since the 1964/65 Fair lost nearly as much money as the 1939/40 Fair. Moses' goal was to attract 70 million people over the Fair's two seasons. If it wasn't for a final surge in attendance of 7 million visitors during the final three weeks, attendance wouldn't have reached 51 million people.

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