Just before WWII when the United States was still in the throes of the “Great Depression” one of the great minds of the times belonging to NYC Parks Commissioner, Robert Moses, seized the opportunity to turn a vast, over 1,200 acres ash dump in the heart of Queens into a city park at the expense of the newly formed World’s Fair Corporation. It was at this location that the 1939 World’s Fair was born and it lasted just two years; 1939-1940. It was labeled “Dawn of a New Day” and it allowed visitors to peak into the “world of tomorrow.”
Actually the idea of the fair came from a group of New York City retired policemen and a former chief of police named Grover Whalen who was the president of the newly formed New York World’s Fair Corporation. NYC Mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia was a member of that corporation.
It was decided that the Fair would be themed and divided into different “zones:” the Transportation Zone, the Communications and Business Systems Zone, the Food Zone, the Government Zone, and so forth. The architects were encouraged by their corporate or government sponsors to be creative, energetic, and innovative with the focus on the future.
In the real world Hitler was on the world stage terrorizing everyone with his swastika identity and powerful cadre of war weapons. No question, 1939 was a somber time in world history and when you consider that the United States entered WWI1 in 1941, it was as if the world was ready for some brain culture and the New York 1939 World’s Fair served that purpose.
The fair opened on April 30, 1939 and there were 206,000 people in attendance. President Franklin Roosevelt gave the opening day address, which was not only broadcast on the radio but was also televised on a station labeled NBC. It was shown on 200 television sets set up around the New York City area. In addition to Roosevelt’s speech, Albert Einstein gave a speech that discussed cosmic rays. You can just imagine how riveting that sounded given the 1939 time frame! This was a surprise to discover, the opening day program was written in Braille.
The Time Capsule
One of opening exhibits was called the Westinghouse Time Capsule which was not to be opened for 5,000 years, which, when you “do the math,” is the year 6939 AD. I was a very little kid at the time, but I have a vague recollection of my parents talking about the mysterious “time capsule” and its contents. At the ripe old age of four years old I knew they were on to something serious and, despite my young years, I paid attention. As kids, if you recall, you always were aware of your parents’ attention to serious stuff. The “time capsule” was one of those moments in “time.”
Think about it. In the year of 6939 AD, there would be the excitement of opening up the capsule and discovering, along with a lot of other memorabilia, writings by Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann, copies of Life Magazine, a Mickey Mouse watch (I recall having a few of those as a kid!), a Gillette Safety Razor, a kewpie doll, a dollar in change, a pack of Camel cigarettes, millions of pages of text on microfilm and the list goes on. Also in the capsule are seeds of foods in common use for the time like wheat, corn, oats, tobacco, cotton, flax, rice, soy beans alfalfa, sugar beets, carrots and barley, and they were all sealed in glass tubes. A small stone plaque is the marker at the site.
Other exhibits included a diner located to this day in Jersey City, a futuristic car by General Motors and a copy of the British Magna Carta, which, you may recall from your history lessons, was originally issued in the year 1215! Since England entered WWII within months it was decided to put the Magna Carta in safekeeping at Fort Knox right next to the original copy of the American Constitution. It stayed at Fort Knox until 1947. That’s the magic of history. After a bloody Revolutionary War fighting for our independence from England, our US Constitution and the British Magna Carta sat side-by-side in Fort Knox, protected from the despot of the time, Adolph Hitler!
Also displayed were the first color photographs and air conditioning. The fair hosted a Superman Day, and actor Ray Middleton appeared as the first Superman. Tragedy struck on 4th of July when two New York City Police Department officers were killed by a blast while investigating a time bomb left at the British Pavilion.
Another interesting exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair that bears mention was the Aquacade. The water shows at this special amphitheater featured Johnny Weismuller and Olympic champion, Eleanor Holm. You will recall Johnny Weismuller as one of the Tarzans in the movies, and Eleanor Holm was a Jane in some of those Tarzan movies. The shows were spectacular with special lighting and cascades and water pumped in waterfalls at 8,000 gallons a minute. It cost 80 cents to see. As kids, we all went to the Aquacade on a hot summer day to enjoy the pool, which remained at the site for many years after the fair.
The Food Zone featured the Borden’s exhibit with 150 pedigreed cows including the original “Elsie” on a rotolactor that mechanically bathed them, dried them and milked them. Many of the features at that exhibit are in everyday use to this day. The Continental Baking exhibit was shaped to look like a huge packaged bread loaf that today is the packaging for Wonder Bread.
New Subway Line
A special subway line was built called the IND World’s Fair Railroad which is now the Mets-Willets Point Station on the IRT Flushing line, and a Long Island Rail Road station was also built next to the Flushing Line station.
You cannot do an article on the 1939 World’s Fair without mentioning The Trylon and Perisphere. This image became the central symbol of the 1939 World’s Fair. It was reproduced by the millions on a wide range of promotional materials and served as the fairground’s focal point known as the “Theme Center.” The teakettle with the image was displayed proudly in many dining rooms all over the city.
The Perisphere was a tremendous sphere, 180 feet in diameter and it was connected to the 700 foot spire-shaped Trylon by what was at the time the world’s longest escalator. The sphere housed a diorama called “Democracity” which, in keeping with the fair’s theme, “The World of Tomorrow,” depicted a utopian city-of-the-future. Democracity was viewed from above on a moving sidewalk, under movies displayed on the sides of the sphere. After exiting the Perisphere, visitors descended to ground level on the third element of the Theme Center, the Helicline, a 950-foot long spiral ramp that partially encircled the Perisphere.
At this point we bring the focus of the World’s Fair into our neighborhood and the impact it had on our everyday life. For instance it was planned that Eliot Avenue in Middle Village, known at the time as Forest Hills West, would extend to Woodhaven Boulevard and further to Queens Blvd. The roadway was completed in late 1938, just in time for the emerging World’s Fair in 1939-40. Eliot Avenue was sometimes called “World’s Fair Avenue” because it was the main road, if not the only road, that lead from Brooklyn to the World’s Fair grounds in what is now known as Flushing Meadow Park.
Eliot Avenue: The Road to the Fair
Back in the day as a small kid I do recall my parents and their neighbors being concerned about Eliot Avenue being a “main road” because it was their desire to not be the center of anything special. They moved to “Forest Hills West” to get away from the main roads they left in other urban areas of NYC. It is not much of a stretch to note that the Juniper Park Civic Association was born in 1938, and I’ll bet making Eliot Avenue a “main road” back in the day was one of the reasons for residents banding together to have a voice in what happens in their neighborhood!
In anticipation of a heavy influx of visitors to the World’s Fair many of the builders sped up their home construction schedules. The following information was reported in the New York Times on April 23.1939 – “On the site of the old Shrimps farm at 77 Place and Penelope Avenue, Forest Hills West, a building firm headed by Harry Mantell now has 24 houses under construction, after having completed and sold 23 other dwellings. The residences are of the two-story type, containing six rooms. Their site adjoins Juniper Valley Park. Ultimately 107 homes are planned on the property.”
Another informational message from the same New York Times article states – “At their development at 85 Street and Eliot Avenue, Elmhurst, 5 transactions involving more than $300,000 in private homes have been closed since March1, according to Ernest Heumann and Harry B. Rosenberg, builders. During March alone 41 sales were closed and since April 1st 16 deposits have been placed by purchasers.”
So you see the World’s Fair definitely served to stimulate the emerging economy of the area that was identified as Forest Hills West and Elmhurst.
Back in 1939 how many people had cars, cameras, telephones or any means of communication to attend the World’s Fair site? My family always had a car and we went everywhere; even to the World’s Fair but I was too little to have much of any recollection of my visit. Also, let’s not forget that America was coming out of the Great Depression and Hitler was terrorizing the world.
I decided to look right in my own family for memories because my husband, John Sciulli, has the childhood recollection of going to the fair with his class from Junior High School 73, boarding trolley cars on Grand Avenue and then going on to the fairgrounds. He vaguely recalls riding in small cars into the different exhibits at the fair. He said, no question, he and his classmates were in awe because, as he explains it today, “we saw things that we had never seen before.” John further explained the excitement for him and his classmates upon seeing the “moving sidewalk” at the Perisphere and viewing the diorama (little city) from above. As a young kid this must have been mind boggling, to say the least!
The Fair was open for two seasons, from April to October, and was officially closed forever on October 27, 1940. To get the Fair’s budget overruns under control, management changed the focus to amusement features and less on the educational and uplifting exhibits. In all, over 45 million visitors were attracted to the area and roughly $48 million was generated in revenue. Since the Fair Corporation had invested $67 million, in addition to nearly a $100 million from other sources, it was a financial failure, and the corporation declared bankruptcy.
World War II presented additional problems with what to do with the exhibits on display in the pavilions of countries under Axis occupation. For instance, with regard to the Polish Pavilion, most of the items were sold by the Polish Government in exile in London to the Polish Museum of America and shipped to Chicago. Mayor LaGuardia managed to save the monument of the Polish Lithuanian King Jagiello and have it installed in Central Park where it still stands to this day. Another building which was saved was the Belgian Building. It was awarded to Virginia Union University in Richmond, Virginia in 1940 and shipped to Richmond in 1941. The school still uses the building for its home basketball games.
Today school kids take field trips to Flushing Meadow Park in Corona and visit the different buildings which are a treasure trove of information about the various events from the past including the 1939 World’s Fair. Armed with their computers and cell phones, all our kids are walking geniuses, able to access anything they want to know with just the click of their mouse!
While we always look for the “they lived happily ever after” in all ventures, that is not the reality. Not surprisingly the 1939 World’s Fair ended in bankruptcy but we do have its story to read and learn from because ultimately in the balance sheet of history it made its contribution to the world with its dazzling technology.
The Fair was a very real precursor to our world of 2010 with its hand held cell phones where we can watch a movie and pay a bill online as we take a walk in a park or just do our grocery shopping! And, please don’t forget to mark those day planners for 6939 AD so you can be eyewitness to the contents of the “mysterious” TIME CAPSULE!