The 1964-65 World’s Fair left several clues of its existence but none more tantalizing than the Westinghouse time capsule and the enigmatic Underground World Home.
Filled with everyday items and not to be opened for 5,000 years, the time capsule was buried 50 feet below ground a day before the fair closed on Oct. 16, 1965. There is a granite marker in Flushing Meadows Park showing where both the 1939 and 1965 capsules were buried 50 and 76 years ago. It is located at the former site of the Westinghouse Pavilion, near the New York State Pavilion.
But harder to pinpoint is the underground house because no one knows for sure if it remains buried or was destroyed at the end of the fair. It was situated between the Hall of Science and Terrace on the Park.
The late David Oats of Forest Hills, who became a protege of Robert Moses, the president of the World’s Fair, was an eloquent writer who went on to become a watchdog for the park he loved — Flushing Meadows.
Writing in 2003, Oats called the time capsule “a note in a bottle — a message to the future intended to rest below Flushing Meadows until the year 6939 AD.” He said that Westinghouse decided to design and bury a second capsule alongside the original to show the incredible changes in the 25-year period between the two fairs: “The objects inside the capsule alone told the story of a changed — and changing world: a piece of a space capsule, a part of a nuclear reactor, birth control pills, a bikini, a credit card, a Beatles record.”
The 1964 capsule was suspended in air over a reflecting pool in the pavilion where visitors could sign a book and have their names placed in the capsule. Participants received a badge saying “My name is in the Westinghouse Time Capsule for 5,000 years.”
The capsule was 90 inches long and weighed 800 pounds. It was made of Cupoloy, a hard metallic alloy that was primarily copper, and was placed in a steel tube which was buried in tar and concrete.
The depository also included an electric toothbrush, ballpoint pen, U.S. flag, detergent, transistor radio, antibiotics, the Bible, electronic watch, contact lenses, filter cigarettes, irradiated seeds, freeze-dried foods and the Official Guide to the New York World’s Fair, among other things.
The pavilion featured three areas, each devoted to a different time period. One provided a full-sized model of the earlier capsule and its contents, including a slide rule, a woman’s hat, seeds and synthetic rubber.
The second part of the pavilion featured a photo exhibit of developments over the 25-year period between the two fairs. They included the first man in space, commercial television, wonder drugs and war and peace.
The final area offered a 5,000-year calendar showing events of the past in detail.
It’s safe to say that no one reading this story will be around to witness the capsules’ retrieval and opening. But the same cannot be said for the underground house, if it even still exists.
Promoted by the late Texas builder Jay Swayze, the World Underground House was hyped as a refuge from storms. “He started out building bomb shelters, but had to retool their purpose after there was less demand,” said Lori Walters, a history professor at the University of Central Florida, who has done extensive research on the site.
The underground house was not a big attraction at the fair and cost $1 to enter, while most pavilions were free. Guides brought visitors down through the three-bedroom house during 20-minute tours, explaining that such dwellings could offer more control over air, climate and noise than regular abodes.
The house was built in a concrete shell with the top 2 1/2 feet underground. Windows faced scenic murals on the shell walls that could be changed at will. There were 10 fully furnished rooms and a terrace.
Following the closing of the fair, all temporary pavilions were to be razed by the developers. But it was expensive to demolish them, and Swayze had already underestimated the costs to produce the venture.
Many, like Walters, are not convinced Swayze destroyed the underground house, but think he instead tore down the surface structure, removed the furniture and then buried the house. “Was the concrete shell removed?” she asked. “We can’t find documentation that it was demolished.”
If the shell is intact, Walters would like to know what’s inside it.
Parks Department officials believe the pavilion was destroyed, based on a photo of the surface that shows demolition of the above-ground entrance to the structure.
Walters hopes to garner a grant as soon as possible and start an investigation next summer or within three years. She will also need approval from the Parks Department.
She wants to find out if the house is there and to use her investigation as an educational tool. “Ground-penetrating radar should suggest if there’s a void,” she said. “Then we could do a test drill with a camera.”
If the area is not flooded and the shell is still there, Walters would send down a robotic device with an endoscopic camera to explore and teach youngsters about robotics.
Any further archeology as far as excavation would be up to the city.
Unlike the time capsules, the underground house has no sign designating the location of its location today. In his essay, Oats summed up his view of the known buried treasure: “If we forget them from time to time it is because the time capsules of Flushing Meadows are working as they should; surviving beyond memory, waiting beyond our dreams.”
Perhaps that applies to the underground house as well.
This is the eighth in a series of stories commemorating the 50th anniversary of the World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows.