World’s Fairs have always been transitory things. Cities were lucky if they retained one or two icons. But at Flushing Meadows, not only are there some pavilions that still exist, but also a feature from the 1964-65 event that is almost as popular today as it was 50 years ago.
The Panorama of the City of New York remains inside the Queens Museum, which in 1939 and 1964 was the New York City Building. The exhibit was the brainchild of Robert Moses, president of both fairs, who saw the miniature city as a permanent exhibit to be used as a tool for urban planners after the event closed. Though that never happened to any great extent, its star power remains for school-age students as well as adults visiting the recently enlarged museum.
The exhibit cost $672,662; today it would be $5 million, and took three years to complete with more than 100 workers toiling full-time on the project.
There are 273 panels filled with 895,000 buildings (835,000 during the fair) made of wood or plastic with 35 brass bridges. The Panorama is also color coded. Dark green represents parks, while lime green is for cemeteries and mint green for transportation hubs. Pink is for recreational areas and red for public housing.
Considered the world’s largest scale model of its time, the Panorama is built on a scale of 1 inch equaling 100 feet.
During the fair, the attraction drew 1,400 people a day. Visitors boarded mock helicopters for a nine-minute ride around the model that included a piped-in narrative by then-famous broadcaster-traveler Lowell Thomas about the wonders of the city.
Passengers entered the helicopter cars at the Verrazano Narrows. The helicopters rose two feet, just high enough to clear the model. As visitors flew over the city, the lighting changed to evening while planes from the two airports flew overhead.
Today, the helicopters are long gone, but a ramp system allows visitors to follow the same route, albeit higher, as they walk up and down an incline. The planes continue to fly in light and darkness, a popular treat for youngsters.
The last major updating to the exhibit was done in 1992, making 65,000 changes. It took two years to complete and cost $1 million.
Museum spokesman David Strauss said buildings are still being added to the display, including Battery Park City, Citi Field and the new Yankee Stadium recently. Since 2009, the museum has also sponsored an adopt-a-building program. Business owners and homeowners can adopt their structures or houses at various rates, with apartments starting at $50 and larger buildings going for a lot more.
Participants get a deed from the museum showing their ownership, and the money raised goes for Panorama updates. If interested, call (718) 592-9700 or go to the website Queensmuseum.org.
According to the “Official Guide of the New York World’s Fair” from 1964, the Panorama could also be viewed from a balcony where binoculars could be rented for 10 cents for 1 1/2 minutes.
The New York City Building also shared space with an ice show during part of the fair. It was staged by former Olympic champion Dick Button and was called “Dick Button’s Ice-Travaganza.”
The show featured 150 skaters, including 1963 world champion Donald McPherson, in “romantic vignettes” set in places such as gardens, ballrooms and zoos, plus a skating chimp. The cost of reserved seats ranged from $1.65 to $3.35.
But the ice show was not successful and lost money. It closed a few months later.
Also at the NYC Building during the fair was the city’s radio station, WNYC, and its ultra-high-frequency TV station, Channel 31, which broadcast from there in view of the public.
It seems as if Moses got it right about the Panorama. Like his highways and parks, the display remains relevant, used as a tool by schoolchildren to learn geography, read maps and find where their homes are.
For adults who never went to the fair, it’s a chance to see a unique exhibit that never seems to get old.
Old timers may miss the helicopters, but the main attraction lives on. It’s a colorful reminder of what was and is today.
This is the fourth in a series of stories commemorating the 50th anniversary of the World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows.
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.