The World’s Fairs in Queens, 1939-40 and 1964-65

Last week we gave you a little teaser with some retro images of the 1964-65 World’s Fair. This week, Anne Shisler-Hughes brings us up to speed on the history of both the 1939-40 and 1964-65 New York World’s Fairs, two important events in NYC history -Ed.


If you head out to Flushing Meadows Corona Park to catch a Mets game or see world-class tennis during the US Open, you may run across the structural remnants of two major events in the 20th century history of New York City and Queens: New York’s two World’s Fairs, held in 1939-40 and 1964-65.

Those events, which hosted more than 75 million visitors, may not have left behind structures as beloved as Paris’s Eiffel Tower (1889 Fair) or Seattle’s Space Needle (1962 Fair), but today we do have evidence – expressed through aspirational designs – of a place in time when bringing people together to present the laudable achievements and boldly imagined future of human progress through cooperation, technology and exploration was an extraordinary and important occasion.

The 1939-40 New York World’s Fair


Image source: x-ray delta one on Flickr

In the mid-1930s, during the height of the Great Depression and on the eve of probable war, a few industrious and visionary New Yorkers got together and decided that hosting a World’s Fair in the City would be good for local economy and morale. The timing would coincide with the 150th anniversary of George Washington’s inauguration in New York City, then the nation’s capital. They shored up an existing landfill out in Flushing to create the grounds and, constructing the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge, prepared to accommodate the expected traffic.

The theme chosen was “World of Tomorrow,” which was explored through seven different zones: Transportation, Communication & Business Systems, Food, Government (it was here that participating nations and states had pavilions), Community Interests (such as the YMCA), Production & Distribution, and Amusements (rides and performances). At the center of this sprawling park, master planned by Skidmore & Owens, was the memorable, white Trylon and Perisphere, designed by Wallace K. Harrison and Jacques-André Frouilloux, and an enormous white sundial depicting the Fates, Appollo and the Tree of Life.

The star of the show, part of the Transportation theme zone, was the General Motors pavilion, entitled “Futurama,” envisioning the state of automobile transportation twenty years into the future, when a system of highways would seamlessly and efficiently connect the country, allowing for a continual flow of “people and goods across our nation.” Designed by Norman Bel Geddes, visitors rode in conveyed cars with a birdseye perspective similar to a low-flying plane in order to observe a panoramic landscape of urban, suburban and rural areas of varying typographies all linked together in a congestion-free network of roads. Guests could marvel at such seeming fantasies as automated highways with no less than fourteen lanes.

American innovation in consumer goods was elaborately and expensively celebrated. Visitors flocked to the AT&T building where they could be chosen through a lottery system to make free long-distance calls to any of the 4.2 million phones in the AT&T network, then a rare and exciting event. Outside stood a statue of a Pony Express rider, in reference to how far communication technology had come. Heavies in the food industry – such as Wonder, Heinz, Kraft, Borden, and Fleischmann’s – were eager to show the modern home-maker how easy feeding the family could be with new products, giving away free samples of sliced bread and showing the endless flexibility inherent in using frozen foods.

The 1964-65 New York World’s Fair


Image source: PLCjr on Flickr

In 1964 the world was an entirely different place, the Cold War was in full force and the age of space exploration was underway. For this New York World’s Fair, the chosen theme was “Peace Through Understanding,” reflecting the anxieties of a world threatened by the potential of nuclear annihilation.

Although Americans were already familiar with basic concepts of space travel, this was an opportunity for the US government to display its full array of equipment and vision, allowing visitors to explore and learn more. NASA sponsored the US Space Park and brought out examples of rockets and rocket boosters, such as Saturn V, weather and communications satellites, such as Telstar, and manned and unmanned space crafts and stations, such as Gemini. Eager to align its user-friendly photographic technologies with space adventure, Kodak featured a lunar landscape called the Moon Deck where visitors could wander around snapping interesting shots. Cinerama, using its unique fisheye lens for filming kaleidoscope images, showed a feature entitled “To the Moon and Beyond” on its tremendous dome-shaped screen.

In contrast to the powerful communications tools we simply hold in our hands today, the 1964 Fair was many visitors’ first glimpse at computer equipment, then both enormous and mysterious. IBM staged an elaborate show wherein 500 audience members seated in an Eero Saarinen-designed grandstand were hoisted up into a roof-top theater to watch a film on the inner-workings of the computer produced by Charles and Ray Eames.

The star of the show in 1964 was Walt Disney, whose Disneyland Park in Anaheim, CA had opened in 1955 and was redefining family entertainment. He partnered with four different participants and all of the attractions he designed for these clients involved audio animatronics – a signature Disney innovation that brought people and creatures to robotic life. For Pepsi he designed “It’s a Small World – a salute to UNICEF and the World’s Children,” a ride that lives on in his theme parks.

For General Electric he created the “Carousel of Progress,” a rotating auditorium in which could be viewed an animated depiction of the progress of electricity in the home. For the Ford Motor Company he developed an experience in which guests were moved in track-mounted Ford Mustang vehicles through a series of environments featuring life-sized dinosaurs and cavemen. And for the State of Illinois, he produced an animatronic President Lincoln who recited -tirelessly! – from the President’s famous speeches.


Image source: roger4336 on Flickr

In 1939 all participating countries were housed in one big Hall of Nations but by 1964, they were invited to construct individual, national pavilions. This is perhaps because the Bureau of International Expositions ruled against New York’s two-year Fair schedule and so many countries declined to come. But as a result, visitors were treated to fantastic depictions of built environments found in these countries, such as the four-acre Belgium Village, which featured winding streets of traditional architecture, traditional crafts and introduced the public to the now widely-esteemed Belgian waffle.

What you’ll see in Flushing Meadows Corona Park today


There are a handful of World’s Fair structures extant in the Park today, all just south of Arthur Ashe Stadium at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. The first is the iconic and widely-filmed Unisphere, a gigantic, twelve-story globe made by U.S. Steel for the 1964 Fair, set in a shallow pool surrounded by fountains. This globe depicts how earth looks from space 6,000 miles away and its encircling rings represent satellite orbits.


Just to the right of the Unisphere sits the 1939 New York State Pavilion building – now generally known as the Queens Museum of Art, which still houses The Panorama of the City of New York. The 1939 pavilion went on to serve as temporary United Nations headquarters – this is where UNICEF was founded – and is currently undergoing a major renovation.


Nearby you’ll also see the Tent of Tomorrow, designed by mid-century architect Philip Johnson as the New York State Pavilion for the 1964 Fair. Now empty due to dilapidation, it is a column-supported theater-in-the-round, originally topped by a glass-paned ceiling with a floor showing a huge map of New York State. It’s accompanied by three disc-shaped observation towers, now all defunct.


Other remnants of the two New York State World’s Fairs include the massive, t-shaped NY/NJ Port Authority Heliport, built in 1964, which is now a banquet facility called Terrace on the Park. Also, out in the nearby marina are two Googie-style gazebos.

Through its maintainance of the Panorama of the City of the New York and its very existence as the only building left from the 1939 fair, the Queens Museum of Art carries forth the legacy of the New York World’s Fairs and its selection of vintage memorabilia and contemporary pieces celebrating both the 1939 and 1964 Fairs in the Queens Museum of Art Shop  is great.

For further reading:

The 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair by Bill Cotter (Arcadia Publishing, 2009) Images of America series

The 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair: Creation and Legacy by Bill Cotter and Bill Young (Arcadia Publishing, 2008) Images of America series

The World of Tomorrow: The 1939 New York World’s Fair by Larry Zim (HarperCollins, 1988)

The End of Innocence: The 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair by Lawrence R. Samuel (Syracuse University Press, 2007)

This is a fantastic site for the 1939 New York World’s Fair  and we love this photo spread originally published in National Geographic about the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair.


3 Comment

  • “In 1939 all participating countries were housed in one big Hall of Nations but by 1964, they were invited to construct individual, national pavilions.”

    The first half of this statement is wildly inaccurate. I urge you to look into this and edit your piece to reflect the reality that many nations had their own pavilions at the 1939 fair.

    Fair president Grover Whalen visited and met with the heads of various countries to persuade them to erect individual pavilions, not least because each would pay for the space upon which they would stake their claim.

    This is all explained in any history of the fair, but you need only look at a map of the grounds to verify the existence of the pavilions of Great Britain, Japan, Norway, France, Brazil, and many others.

    • Sarah:
      Thank you very much for taking time to leave such a thoughtful and informative comment. While I cannot speak on behalf of QueensNYC, as a long-time Queens resident, it is my aim to represent the stories and people of Queens as factually as possible, and here I have fallen short. I am not a scholar and was nervous about this article given the passion of historians, architects, design buffs and urban planning experts for the World’s Fairs, but the beauty of the internet is that we can gain immediate feedback to better our reporting. Again, we value your participation.

  • Hi Anne,

    Thanks for acknowledging my correction. Is there some reason you are letting the misinformation stand in the piece?

    Here is an article that will give you an idea of how very important the pavilions of foreign nations were to New York’ s fair which had opened on the eve of the second world war:

    Last weekend I visited the site for only the second time (the first was when, in childhood and ignorance of the ’39 fair, I attended the ’64-’65 fair), and have been delving back into the literature and feeling quite passionate about the subject.