Is the time finally right for a serious movement to restore and repurpose the old New York State Pavilion in Flushing Meadows Corona Park?
It’s been tried before. But a Long Island teacher and filmmaker, Matthew Silva, believes he just might be able to succeed where others have failed before, thanks to a confluence of factors and his own determination.
He’s working on a documentary about the rundown icon from the 1964-65 World’s Fair that he hopes can spark a grassroots movement, fueled by social media, that will be strong enough to finally get the Tent of Tomorrow and its three adjacent towers on the city’s front burner for preservation.
“It’s become a part of our culture, our landscape, and there are ways to preserve these things,” said Silva, who teaches technology and video production in the Jericho School District in Nassau County. “With no attention in the last 50 years, it stood. With a little attention it could stand another 50 years. It’s part of us, it holds a sentimental value to New York, to a lot of people in New York City and on Long Island, and it would be a real shame if it just continued to be neglected and fell down. It would be a tragedy if it stood 60 years and fell. No one would remember it.”
The pavilion was designed by renowned architect Phillip Johnson and built between 1962 and ’64. During the fair, people rode elevators to the top of the observation towers. Robert Moses, the master planner, intended for the pavilion to be a permanent structure outliving the fair, and while it was used for years afterward, for everything from concerts to roller skating, the city eventually let most of it, including the towers, simply rot away. Only the Theaterama remains in active use; it houses the Queens Theatre.
Silva sees the hopes for the other structures at the time they were built and their condition today as symbols of changing times — but ones he refuses to go along with.
“The pavilion is a good metaphor for what happened to that optimistic age that was the ’60s — an optimistic future vs. the rotting and rusting today,” he said. “I hate to submit to the fact that the age of optimism is over. I guess I’m just not that cynical.”
Silva recognizes, however, that a film alone, however good, will not be enough to get the city suddenly to recognize the pavilion’s value and to fund its restoration while coming up with a new use for it.
“It’s going to take a major effort, it’s going to take more than a movie to get things turned around for this building,” he said. “It’s going to take a major outcry from this community, and support from this community, and support from the city, and private support, to make something out of it.”
Silva has been fascinated by the pavilion for as long as he can remember. His parents, immigrants from South America, grew up in Astoria, and he lived his first three years in Middle Village. After the family moved out east, they still traveled back and forth to Queens frequently, visiting Matthew’s grandparents.
“I always had my nose up against the glass in my parents’ back seat, wondering, ‘What is that thing?’” Silva recalled.
Now living in East Northport with his wife, Nicole, a social worker, and their 9-month-old baby, Luca, Silva has learned just about all there is to know about the pavilion. He began studying it in college — he holds a master’s degree in design — and for the last two years has been studying it “intensely.”
Meanwhile production of the film is moving along. Silva is crisscrossing the country to interview people connected to the pavilion, such as the couple who operated the roller rink there in the ’70s and, in New York, Alan Ritchie, principal in the Philip Johnson-Alan Ritchie architectural firm. He’s been shooting footage and raising money to fund the production at gofundme.com/275u6g, He’s got a Facebook page, and more information about the project on several sites including nyspavilion.blogspot.com. Later on he’ll be starting a kickstarter account to help cover post-production costs.
His goal is to have the film ready by April, for the 50th anniversary of the World’s Fair.
“I’m working at a feverish pace to get it done,” Silva said. “I’m also crowdsourcing —asking people to send their movies and pictures and memories as part of the project. This isn’t about me; it’s about the people of Queens.”
Silva’s also been reaching out to people and institutions here for their input and assistance. JetBlue gave him free vouchers to fly off for one of his out-of-state interviews. Queens College has expressed interest in the project.
Once the movie has helped build up interest in the pavilion, Silva said, he and his friends will hold a competition for ideas on what use it can be put to. He recognizes that it will have to be an attraction for the city to be willing to fix it up.
“We want to get people talking about this building and this park in such a way to make it a jewel in the crown that is New York City,” he said.
Among those who have already done that are some of Silva’s former students, who visited the pavilion, as well as the High Line park in Manhattan, on what he said was the best field trip he ever took, one focused on urban renewal. They had ideas ranging from turning it into a water park to making it a space museum.
“Some of them were whimsical and out of control, but some of them were good,” Silva said.
The High Line is an inspiration to him for what can be done with old infrastructure. “I think we’re entering a unique period, the 50th anniversary of the World’s Fair,” he said. “People will be reflecting on their memories, and we have a lot of urban renewal today — the High Line, Bryant Park. The New York State Pavilion — it’s a no-brainer. It’s a natural to be the next big thing. It’s obvious.”