Opinion: Bring a World’s Fair pavilion back to life

It’s a haunting reminder of a time of optimism and change.

The New York State Pavilion, once a shining symbol of the 1964-65 World’s Fair, remains a haunting reminder of a time of optimism and change.

For some, it evokes memories of an exciting era in New York — a fair that showcased new technologies and where works by new artists shared space with those of old masters. Unfortunately, many recognize the pavilion today only as a decaying wreck seen from the Long Island Expressway or the windows of the 7 train.

As we approach the fair’s 50th anniversary next week, we ask ourselves, how did the hulking structures at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park fall into such disrepair?

Some have advocated demolition to make space for more parkland, but we believe that to tear down the structure would be to amputate city history and ignore its significance.

Architecture critic Herbert Muschamp had it right: “The essential feature of a landmark is not its design, but the place it holds in a city’s memory.” The push for the preservation of the New York State Pavilion is not only about aesthetics, but also about emotion and value.

A few recall the site as it was during the fair. But others remember that in 1969, the Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac and Santana played a summer concert series in the Pavilion’s Tent of Tomorrow. Still others skated there in the 1970s, when it briefly served as a roller rink. A younger generation understands its impact on popular culture: cameos in “Men In Black,” “Iron Man 2,” “CSI: NY” and others.

Consensus is building among residents and officials that the pavilion is too deeply rooted in the city’s DNA to be neglected any longer.

Queens Borough President Melinda Katz announced her support for preserving the structure, and has said the $14-million price tag to tear down the structure should go toward stabilizing the site, which would cost $53 million, according to the parks department. In addition, several city and state officials have announced support for preservation. Onetime mayoral candidate John Catsimatidis has said he would be willing to bankroll a preservation project.

People for the Pavilion, a nonprofit group advocating preservation, and others believe we must stop the site’s deterioration while we find a new use.

This effort requires support from the community, city, state and private sector. The park and this building should have a support system so that they can endure. Architect Philip Johnson and master builder Robert Moses wanted the pavilion to continue as a space for athletic events, dancing and concerts.

That can still be realized. The space is ideally designed and located for public programs. It could be a venue for sporting events, or a space for local groups and institutions (film, theater or music) to gather in one of the city’s most iconic places.

Public-private partnerships have succeeded in such projects. The Central Park Conservancy and Friends of the High Line work as stewards of their respective parks.

Reflecting on the demolition of the old Penn Station in the 1960s, critic Ada Louise Huxtable wrote, “We will not be judged by the monuments we build, but by the ones we have destroyed.”

Let us not repeat the mistakes of our past. Let us embrace history and allow it to live alongside the present. The case for saving the pavilion is a call to preserve memories so they may inspire our future.

Matthew Silva is a teacher, filmmaker, and co-founder of People for the Pavilion. He is filming a documentary about the New York State Pavilion, entitled “Modern Ruin: A World’s Fair Pavilion.” Salmaan Khan, a co-founder of People for the Pavilion, is manager of Facilities Planning for Friends of the High Line, a nonprofit conservancy responsible for the management and operation of the High Line Park.

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