The Tent of Tomorrow

Living in New York City, I’ve been fascinated by the remnants of the 1964 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens. While the Unisphere is obviously the main attraction, I’d always been more interested in the decaying New York State Pavilion, which I only recently learned was also called the Tent of Tomorrow. The entire retro, yet futuristic feel of the World’s Fairs have always appealed to me.  As one friend so aptly put it, they were filled with a naive optimism, in a time where countries were racing to be the first into space, and where structures almost looked more like a mix between 1930s art deco mixed with some vague science fiction ideas of what the future may be. In fact I’ve found reference to the style of the structure being Futurist.

The Past

Postcard from the 1964 World's Fair

The theme of the fair was “Peace Through Understanding” and it was one of the largest fairs held in the United States, though the 1939 World’s Fair, which was held in the same place, had been larger. The Tent of Tomorrow was one of the many futuristically named spaces, along with the Plaza of the Astronauts which featured a large sculpture named The Rocket Thrower and the 30 foot high steel Unisphere, which symbolized “Man’s Achievements on a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe”.

Colorful panels lined the suspension ceiling

The New York State Pavilion was built at a cost of $6 million, designed by the modernist architect Philip Johnson. Beside the tent were the three tiered observation towers which, with capsule elevators, known as the Sky Streak, gave visitors a view of the entire pavilion grounds. These towers were the tallest structures at the Fair, and the rails that ran the elevators up the sides are still visible. The towers themselves are a respective 90, 185 and 250 feet tall.

The floor itself featured a full scale Texaco highway map of the United States highways, and it was apparently popular to chip off pieces of the map when visiting after locating your hometown. This, combined with the elements ravaging the map after the colorful ceiling tiles were removed in the 1970s all but ruined the map. In late 2009 I volunteered with part of a project to help remove the map, which is in the process of being restored. The map itself was constructed from 567 mosaic terrazo panels which are said to weigh about 400lbs each.

The Tent, illuminated in the evening

Each of the 16 steel columns surrounding the theatre itself (called the Circarama) stand 100 feet tall, and the structure boasted the world’s largest suspension roof, being even larger than a football field.

Today

Late afternoon sun illuminates the pavilion

Today the exterior of the Circarama has been repainted, and the map removed and replaced with gravel, all the weeds and trees that were growing inside have been removed, but the structure still sits disused and slowly decaying in the center of the park.

Though the interior has been cleaned out, vines still climb up the steel support columns

The Sky Streak and observation towers.

The orange of sodium vapor lights mix with the light from a nearly full moon for a long exposure

Inside

Late afternoon sun illuminates the crumbling interior of the Tent

Despite everything, I’d somehow never shot inside the Tent, (it has been closed to the public since the 80’s) and I’m certainly sad I never got around to photographing it before the map was removed, as personally I found the foliage amid all the cracked map pieces to be a beautiful, if not somewhat dismal nod to the optimistic ideas the entire World’s Fair began on.

A nearly full moon provides some light after sunset while sodium arc lights cast a yellow glow

The ground has been partially refilled with gravel, I assume in an attempt to keep more plants from taking root

An incredible mix of architectural optimism from another era, mixed with the financial capabilities of a city like New York created an amazing structure that now sits desolate and abandoned. Sitting now as a modern ruin, I wonder that, were I alive during the time when the pavilion was intact, if I wouldn’t still find it more interesting and hauntingly beautiful now. While not the most elaborate place I’ve photographed, it easily remains one of my favorites.

The 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair New York State Pavilion was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2009.

    • Kieran Hamilton
    • December 9th, 2011

    Some stunning images, I had never seen these structures before so thank you for that!

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