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1939-40 World's Fair rises from a nasty dump

Updated on April 18, 2014
The Trylon and Perisphere dominate the 1939-40 New York World's Fair landscape.
The Trylon and Perisphere dominate the 1939-40 New York World's Fair landscape. | Source

This massive expansive of land in the geographic center of New York City has gone through many phases. It was:

  • a wetlands
  • a massive smoldering ash dump
  • the site of two popular world fairs
  • the first home of the United Nations

Watching families currently enjoying the 1,255-acre Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, it seems impossible that the site spent the early 20th century as an enormous dump where household garbage and smoldering ash from Brooklyn's coal-burning furnaces was deposited at a rate of 110 railroad cars a day.

Before NYC Parks Commissioner Robert Moses converted the site into the 1939-40 World’s Fair it was home to thousands of rats that scurried about in the Corona Dumps.

The area is south of Flushing Bay in Queens. For centuries Flushing Meadows was a beautiful tidal basin where residents fished for crabs, clams and oysters. Following the Civil War many wealthy New Yorkers built elegant houses here.

Click on the ▼ photo to enlarge

Coal fired factories such as this led to the "Valley of Ashes" at Flushing Meadow.
Coal fired factories such as this led to the "Valley of Ashes" at Flushing Meadow. | Source

Dump turns into a dream

The pristine area was a victim of the Industrial Revolution. As coal use increased during the 19th century, the wetlands were filled and the site was converted into a huge ash dump termed the "Valley of Ashes” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

In his 1925 novel The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald described the hellish scene: "bounded on one side by a small foul river... a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens."

Moses envisioned a different use for the Valley of Ashes. He believed it was the perfect site for the fair and afterward as the anchor of a massive system of parks. He acquired the land and sent instructions to transform the marshy garbage dump into new fairgrounds.

The first step was relocating over 50-million cubic tons of garbage. Then mountains of ash were leveled and filled with earth, while other sections were excavated to form two fresh water lakes. The larger of the two is the 93-acre Meadow Lake, New York City's largest lake.

Two Fairs; Two Openings:

• April 30, 1939

April 22, 1964

The Flushing River was relocated and run underground through conduits and tunnels. This was part of an intricate new drainage system for the area.

Miles and miles of underground electric, gas, water and sewer lines were also constructed. On the surface several major highways were built to increase accessibility to the area. Workers took some of the ashes from the dump and mixed it into the paving composite used to construct the new roadways, which bordered the site on the east and west.

Then topsoil, peat moss and mulch were spread across the site and grass, flowers, shrubs and 1,200 trees were planted. While the World's Fair was only a temporary resident, Moses insured the utilities, roadways and plantings were permanent.

Meanwhile, the IRT's elevated subway station at Willets Point, just north of the fairgrounds, was enlarged to accommodate the crowds. New World's Fair subway cars were purchased and old equipment on the Flushing line was repainted in the World's Fair colors scheme of blue and orange.

1939-40 Fair's opening was shown on an exciting invention – TV

Crowds strain to get their first look at a television on display in the RCA Pavilion:
Crowds strain to get their first look at a television on display in the RCA Pavilion: | Source

39-40 Fair had two symbols: the Trylon and Perisphere

All was in place 75 years ago on a hot April Sunday. President Franklin D. Roosevelt stood before a huge crowd and officially opened the World’s Fair. NBC broadcast the ceremonies in New York City on that new invention – TV.

In addition to television, the 1939-1940 World's Fair introduced much of today’s technology, including computers, microwave ovens, color photography, air conditioning, FM radio, robotics, nylon, fluorescent lighting and high-speed jets.

In the center of the World Fair grounds sat the two symbols of the fair – the massive Trylon and its neighbor the Perisphere. The 700-feet tall Trylon had the world’s longest escalator (at the time) and the Perisphere was a 180-feet diameter sphere, which contained a huge model of “The City of the Future.” Some people said together these two structures looked like a gigantic golf ball had fallen off its titanic tee.

Two of the biggest attractions were the Lagoon of Nations and General Motors. Each night at 9 pm the Lagoon of Nations put on a spectacular water, light and fireworks show that no one had ever seen before. Crowds of people enjoyed GM’s Futurama ride where they examined an idealized city of the future filled with a network of highways.

GM's Futurama ride was a big hit at the fair.
GM's Futurama ride was a big hit at the fair. | Source

Time bomb explodes at fair

Sixty-three nations participated in the 1939-40 Fair, whose slogan was "Building the World of Tomorrow."

Events in Europe interfered with the fair’s positive mission. On Sept. 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, signaling the beginning of World War II. Once war broke out many activities were cancelled; attendance and the number of European exhibitors declined. The Russians dismantled their building at the end of 1939. The Polish and Czechoslovakian pavilions never opened for the 1940 season.

There also was a Nazi terrorist attack at the fair. On July 4, 1940 a time bomb was discovered in an overnight bag in a closet of the British Pavilion. Two members of the NYPD bomb squad tried to defuse the bomb. It went off and killed them instantly. Many of the fair-goers, who only heard the blast, thought it was a 4th of July firework.

(This occurred a month after a pair of time bomb blasts wreaked havoc at two Manhattan office buildings. During this period, some 400 bomb threats occurred in NYC every week. After that fatal July 4th explosion the police developed safer methods for removing and dismantling bombs.)

When the fair closed, many of the European staff at the various exhibits were unable to return to their countries. They remained in the U.S. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor some disgruntled Americans torched Japan’s pavilion, which was set for demolition.

Fair-goers enjoyed some ups and downs at the Parachute Jump.
Fair-goers enjoyed some ups and downs at the Parachute Jump. | Source

Following WWII, the U.N. comes to Flushing Meadows

Before the lights were turned off 44 million people attended the fair and enjoyed puppet shows, thrill rides, girlie shows and choreographed aquatic performances.

Like the 1964-1965 Fair, the 1939-1940 World's Fair was a popular success, but a financial flop. There were no proceeds to complete Moses' grand urban park. That would have to wait until after the 1964-65 edition when Flushing Meadows-Corona Park was built. (See 1964-65 World’s Fair Hub.)

As World War II progressed, priorities changed and many countries never followed through on plans to demolish their pavilions. Many buildings sat vacant, targets for vandals and vagrants.

After the war, NYC was selected as home of the United Nations. From 1946 to 1950, the U.N. General Assembly met in the fair’s former New York City pavilion. It was here that numerous defining moments of the U.N. took place, including the creation of UNICEF and the partitioning of Korea and Palestine.

The fair's rides and amusements

John D. Rockefeller donated 18-acres of land on the East River as the site of the permanent U.N. headquarters. In 1951, the UN’s 3,400 employees moved into the 39-story green glass and white marble building in Manhattan.

The UN’s first building was renovated just prior to the 1964-1965 World's Fair and again served as the New York City pavilion.

The structure was renovated twice and after the last fair it was turned into the Queens Museum. In 2013, the building was expanded to twice its size as part of a $69 million renovation. Among its permanent exhibits is a massive panorama of NYC commissioned by Robert Moses for the 1964-65 World's Fair. –TDowling

© 2014 Thomas Dowling


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    • profile image

      Natália Bruno 

      2 years ago

      Can you tell me where can I find the photography 'The Trylon and Perisphere' (official source).

      Thank you.


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