One of the few buildings left from the 1964-65 World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows almost never got built.
The New York Hall of Science — now a premier hands-on exhibit space — had a rocky start, with several planners wanting a permanent science museum to be built in Manhattan. If not for the efforts of Mayor Robert Wagner and World’s Fair Corp. President Robert Moses, it may well have been situated in that other borough.
Stories began to surface in 1963 that the building’s opening at the fair would be delayed. The New York Times reported then that opposition to the use of the hall as the core of a major, permanent science museum was causing concern over its future. “The opponents believe that the location and auspices are not propitious for creation of the great institution that they believe New York should have,” a Times story said.
According to Hall of Science officials, there was opposition to the location in Flushing Meadows, despite the fact that the fairgrounds are at nearly the geographic center of the five boroughs. Some considered the site as too remote.
Finally, the city OK’d a plan to build the pavilion for the fair and later convert and expand it into a permanent fixture. Because of the delays, the Hall of Science did not open at the start of the fair in April 1964.
Two months before the fair opened, plans were revealed for a Great Hall where exhibits would show past and predict future events in all fields of science. Construction continued throughout the first summer of the fair, with the building finally opening on Sept. 9, 1964. The fair closed for the first season the following month.
The undulating Great Hall was designed by Wallace Harrison, with walls that rose 100 feet. It featured a design technique called dalle de verre, in which small pieces of glass are set in a hard structure, in this case concrete. More than 5,000 panels were used on the building.
The original exhibit there was called “Rendezvous in Space” a documentary film by director Frank Capra that was narrated by Danny Thomas and projected onto a suspended screen. At the end of the movie, two space modules performed a docking maneuver overhead.
There were 11 other exhibits downstairs for the 1965 portion of the fair, including “Atoms for Kids” and “The Chemistry of Color.”
Adjacent to the Great Hall, NASA installed one Titan II and one Atlas rocket to create a space park that was later donated to the Hall of Science. The Titan is topped with a Gemini space capsule similar to those used at the beginning of the U.S. space program.
The Atlas includes a Mercury capsule model similar to one that carried astronaut John Glenn into space in 1963. Other rocket pieces were added later to the park and the original Atlas and Titan were refurbished and reinstalled in 2003.
After the fair closed, the hall was renovated and reopened as a permanent museum in 1966. It closed for five years in the 1980s for major remodeling, reopening in 1986, but not before another major confrontation with the city.
In 1983, Cultural Affairs Commissioner Bess Myerson called the hall a failure, cut city funding and said she detested the location. But a deal was reached. The museum received partial funding, a new board was picked and Alan Friedman, a physicist, was hired as director.
When Friedman arrived in 1984, the building had an inch of water on the floor and all the exhibits had been given away. Even the light fixtures were gone.
Friedman, who recently died, is credited with rejuvenating the hall, giving it permanence and respectability.
Other expansions were carried out in 1996, doubling its space, and in 2004, with a 55,000-square-foot wing added.
The Hall of Science also features an award-winning Science Playground and the Rocket Park Mini Golf with a 1960s look and science lessons interspersed between each of the nine holes.
The museum offers more than 400 exhibits that explore biology, chemistry and physics.
The Great Hall is now undergoing a $25 million restoration that is expected to be finished in October, in time for its 50th anniversary.
Dan Wempa, a Hall of Science spokesman, said the project includes stabilizing and repairing the exterior, renovating and modernizing the interior and repaving and improving the terrace.
He promised the lighting will be better in the Great Hall, as will the sound system. The space will continue to be used for ongoing and traveling exhibitions and special events. Uses for the plaza are still being determined but will include outdoor space for classes.
The hall’s first new permanent exhibit will be “Connected Worlds,” a display about global sustainability and sharing.
This is the sixth in a series of stories commemorating the 50th anniversary of the World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows.
Tell us your memories of the 1964 fair
If you attended the 1964-65 World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows and are old enough to remember it, the Queens Chronicle wants to hear from you.
As part of its series on the 50th anniversary of the fair, the Chronicle is seeking reminiscences from Queens residents who were there.
What were your favorite memories of the fair? What astounded you? Did you go often? Do you still have any souvenirs from it?
We will also accept photographs of you and your family at the fair for possible publication. Email to Lizr@qchron.com or by mail to Liz Rhoades, Queens Chronicle, PO Box 74-7769, Rego Park, NY 11374.
Please put your name and address lightly on the back of photos so they can be returned. Include a separate caption of who is in the picture.
We thank those readers who have already sent in photographs, memorabilia and memories and hope to hear from more about their fair reminiscences.
— Liz Rhoades