September 25, 2014

Flushing Meadow-Corona Park: An incubator of innovation

The Unisphere, with the New York State Pavilion in the background. Photographed by Gerry Ende.

Flushing Meadow-Corona Park is world renowned from a variety of World’s Fair images from 50 years ago. The Unisphere, as a key example, remains instantly recognizable but rarely visited by the majority of today’s New Yorkers. As the park becomes more visible, and as interest in Queens’ many diverse neighborhoods grows, that trend seems to be changing.

Of course, during and well after the 1964/65 World’s Fair, Flushing Meadows was buzzing with activity and Queens was in the limelight. When it opened, the fair greeted visitors from around the world with exhibits related to the dawning Space Age. Modern materials such as fiberglass, plastic, tempered glass, stainless steel, and reinforced concrete were showcased. Even temporary administrative structures, containing behind-the-scenes operations, were quietly notable. A good example is the Skidmore Owings & Merrill-designed Olmsted Center, whose exposed exterior steel beams and visible cross bracing allowed for its rapid construction. After serving as the fair’s Administration Building, Olmsted Center was transformed into key operational space for New York City’s Department of Parks and Recreation.

Olmsted Center. Photographed by Raimund Koch.

While many would say the future-facing spirit of the World’s Fair has faded from the site, a renewed vitality has returned to Flushing Meadows in recent years. The park’s resurgence seems fueled by this legacy, with both innovative new buildings and creative expansions of surviving structures. The Queens Botanical Garden opened to the public in 2007 as the first civic – and first publicly funded – building in NYC to achieve a LEED Platinum rating for exceptional environmental performance. The Queens Museum, itself based in a building originally erected for the 1939/40 World’s Fair, opened a new exhibit hall in 2013 that more powerfully connects its thought-provoking collections with the public, through clear access to both Grand Central Parkway and Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. Similarly, the New York Hall of Science (now rebranded as NYSCI) has recently developed groundbreaking hands-on educational laboratories that build on its world-class interactive playgrounds. Just this month, NYSCI hosted its 5th annual Maker Faire, which was attended by an estimated 80,000 people over only two days.

Today, everyone from historians to architects to emerging makers, want to keep Flushing Meadows’ innovative spirit alive. In addition to the diverse and energetic crowd at the recent Maker Faire, the New York Mets hosted a successful fundraising ticket deal in August with People for the Pavilion, which advocates for the historic preservation of the New York State Pavilion. Architecturally, enthusiasm for the site’s revival has spurred a range of conservation and resilient planning efforts, both to celebrate existing structures and to ensure their ongoing success, in addition to the success of future developments. As an example, the recently completed renovation of Olmsted Center provides the existing building with a new permanence while simultaneously adding a much needed and highly resilient expansion. The original structure and the larger site are also intended to receive additional resiliency upgrades within the next two years, including a robust floodproofing scheme that will counteract the project’s vulnerable position four feet below the FEMA-defined 100-year floodplain.

The New York State Pavilion. Photographed by Pranjali Desai.
The New York State Pavilion. Photographed by Pranjali Desai.

At the risk of predicting yet another Silicon Valley micro-offshoot, Flushing Meadows is a place rich in history and flourishing with possibility. Curious minds of all ages can find inspiration in its many nooks and crannies today, and can help to shape its dynamic role in our city’s tomorrow.

This post originally appeared in Crain’s 5boros. To read the piece as originally published, and a variety of other content about the dynamic neighborhoods of New York City, visit Crain’s 5boros online.