NEW YORK – You can just barely see them through the window of the No. 7 subway as it rattles into the elevated station in Corona, Queens: a gigantic steel sphere, two rocket ships and towers that appear to be capped by flying saucers.
These unusual landmarks are among a number of attractions still standing from the 1964 World’s Fair, which opened in Flushing Meadows Corona Park 50 years ago, with marvels ranging from microwave ovens to Disney’s “it’s a small world” ride to Belgian waffles with strawberries and whipped cream.
But visiting the area today is as much about 21st century Queens as it is a walk down memory lane. Many of Queens’ contemporary cultural institutions – like the Queens Museum and the New York Hall of Science – grew out of fair attractions and incorporate original fair exhibits.
Other relics are stupendous in their own right, like the Unisphere, a 12-story steel globe so glorious to behold, you almost feel like you’re seeing Earth from outer space. There’s also a modern zoo, an antique carousel and outdoor sculptures.
Here’s a guide to celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 1964 World’s Fair on a visit to Queens.
On weekends, Flushing Meadows Corona Park is packed with people from the dozens of ethnic groups that populate Queens, speaking many languages, eating food from around the world and playing soccer with a seriousness of purpose often found among those who grew up with the sport. That makes for “a wonderful unique experience,” said Janice Melnick, Flushing Meadows Corona Park administrator.
And yet, as you walk out of the 111th Street train station, there’s something about Corona that also brings to mind an older, simpler New York. No hipsters here; no luxury condo skyscrapers. Instead, you’ll find modest brick apartment buildings and single-family homes, pizzerias and diners, barber shops and variety stores. That throwback sensibility adds a layer of nostalgia to the experience of revisiting fair sites, especially for boomers who attended the event as kids.
“I think for many people, the fair represents this last moment of true optimism,” said Melnick. “We were looking into the future, and the future was going to be bright. That really struck a chord with a lot of people.”
The fair’s best-known symbol, an elegant steel globe, has appeared in movies like “Men in Black” and “Iron Man 2.” Visitors enjoy setting up photos so that they appear to be holding the world in their hands. Located in the park, outside the Queens Museum.
NEW YORK STATE PAVILION
You can’t miss the towers topped by flying saucers, surrounded by 100-foot-high concrete pillars. This was the New York State Pavilion, where visitors rode elevators to an observation deck above an enormous suspended roof of translucent colored tiles. Today the structure is padlocked, rusted and cracked, with preservationists and critics fighting over its future.
The museum is housed in a building that dates to the 1939 World’s Fair, which marks its 75th anniversary this year. It also briefly housed the United Nations General Assembly after World War II. Exhibits include posters from both fairs and a replica of Michelangelo’s “Pieta,” which was shown in the Vatican Pavilion during the ’64 fair.
The museum’s most famous display, the “Panorama of the City of New York,” is a scale model of the city that debuted at the ’64 fair. The panorama includes models of each of the city’s 895,000 buildings built before 1992, along with every street, park and bridge, on a scale of 1 to 1,200. The island of Manhattan is 70 feet long, the Empire State building 15 inches tall.
Opening today is an exhibit of posters that pop artist Andy Warhol did for the ’64 World’s Fair, inspired by mug shots of the city’s 13 most-wanted criminals from 1962. The posters were too controversial for the fair and were never shown.
Located in the park, near the Willets Point stop on the No. 7 train. Wednesday-Sunday, noon to 6 p.m.; adults, $8, children under 12, free.
ROCKETS AND NEW YORK
HALL OF SCIENCE
Two NASA rockets stand 100 feet high outside the New York Hall of Science, a museum that opened a few years after the ’64 fair, replacing a temporary pavilion. The rockets were part of a space park at the fair that captured the excitement of the era’s quest to get a man on the moon.
Towering over the Hall of Science is an undulating concrete building called the Great Hall, an architectural marvel that was an original fair site. Undergoing renovation now, it’s due to reopen in October, when visitors will be able to experience the other-worldly interior covered in blue stained glass.
The Hall of Science has undergone a series of renovations over the years and today houses exhibits exploring everything from microbes to the science of basketball.
It also has a small but worthwhile display in a second-floor hallway of brochures, tickets and other memorabilia from the fair, along with a first-floor display of photos of World’s Fairs going back to the 19th century.
Located at 47-1 111th St. Monday-Friday, 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m., weekends 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; adults, $11, children 2-17, $8.
A geodesic dome from the ’64 fair serves as the zoo’s walk-through aviary. The zoo specializes in North and South American animals, ranging from bears to pumas.
Located at 53-51 111th St. Daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (5:30 p.m. on weekends); adults, $8, children 3-12, $5.
The carousel dates to the early 1900s and was brought to Queens for the ‘64 fair from Coney Island, Brooklyn. Located outside the zoo, near 111th Street and 55th Avenue. Open weekends and school holidays, 11 a.m.-7 p.m., $3.
Flushing Meadows Corona Park is home to several sculptures commissioned for the fair, including Rocket Thrower, Freedom of the Human Spirit, Form and Forms in Transit.
Many events and exhibits will mark the anniversary, including “A Taste of Queens,” Tuesday at the Sheraton in Flushing, $100 a person, with a variety of food vendors and an appearance by the woman who came from Belgium to sell Belgian waffles at the fair. Information at http://www.itsinqueens.com/ WorldsFair/ and http://www.nycgo.com/worldsfair.
No. 7 train to 111th Street in Queens; walk down Roosevelt Avenue toward the Hall of Science at 47th Avenue. You’ll see the rocket ships come into view over an auto parts store. The zoo, Unisphere and art museum are nearby, though it’s a lot of walking. The next stop on the train, Mets-Willets Point, is closer to the Unisphere, art museum and a bike rental station. By car, take the Grand Central Parkway to the Tennis Center.