The Terrazzo Map: En Route to Recovery?

December 7th, 2009 · 13 Comments · Be a Mindful Activist, Explore New York

Call it the perfect work of art for the era of pony cars, muscle cars, family vacations on the road, and gas at about 30 cents a gallon. In the 1964 World’s Fair, when the Tent of Tomorrow opened at the New York State Pavilion, its floor became an instant, and fascinating, hit. It was a 130-foot by 166-foot road map of New York State – a half-acre large — made of terrazzo.

A colorful replica of a Texaco road map of the state, the map showed land features in green, tan, and white; roads in black and red; and rivers and lakes in blue. You could stroll from Syracuse to Binghamton to Yonkers, walk through the Adirondacks, and trace the Hudson River in your own steps. At the time, it was largest-known map of any area of the Earth’s surface.

Making the mammoth map showing New York State’s 54,000 square miles required an amazingly elaborate process. Each of the grid components of the Texaco road map of the time, three-quarters of an inch, was magnified 64 times and then projected onto large paper templates. A group of Yale University art students carefully traced the magnified road network, symbols, numbers and letters, and even the Texaco station symbols by hand. Rand McNally provided assistance. All in all, the terrazzo map floor cost about $1 million to produce.

Terrazzo Road Map, New York State Pavilion, New York World's Fair

Photo Credit: Bill Cotter © All Rights Reserved

Like many creations of such one-time grand festivals, however, the pavilion and its storied floor became forgotten and neglected. After the New York World’s Fair closed, various parties used the site in New York’s Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens for a time but ultimately New York City no longer kept it maintained. Freeze-and-thaw cycles and other elements of the weather took a terrible toll over the decades. The pavement became full of cracks and rubble, weeds grew in, and vandals made off with parts of it. The original terrazzo surface is missing from large parts of it, and letters and symbols are gone from other portions.

Hopes have brightened, however, to give the Texaco map floor a new life. In 2008, a group of graduate students in historic preservation at the University of Pennsylvania and their professor, Frank Matero, painstakingly restored several map panels. In the past several weeks, volunteers helped prepare the abandoned map floor so that the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation can put a protective covering over it. Their efforts may be as vital as those of the people who originally constructed the map. The volunteers were needed to help remove the weeds that have crept up in the cracks and to carefully collect and bag map fragments that have become loosened from the floor.

Rocky’s Roads

Weeds, rubble, and ruination are a far cry from the state of the map and pavilion when the New York World’s Fair opened in April, 1964. The pavilion was an ambitious creature of its time, of Space Age fantasy, Pop Art, and technological wizardry. Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, a Republican who never shied away from Big Government dreams, wanted to have the largest and tallest pavilion at the fair. The scale and ambition would befit the state’s role as host and proclaim New York’s status as a center of art, culture, and achievement, according to “Back on the Map,” the University of Pennsylvania School of Design Web site about the terrazzo map conservation project.

Rockefeller awarded the commission to design the New York State Pavilion to architect Philip Johnson, who just recently had drawn much acclaim for his design of the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Johnson, working with partner Richard Foster and structural engineer Lev Zetlin, wanted the pavilion to be an innovative, fantasy-filled, and playful free space, not a warehouse of exhibit materials.

If then-New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable’s descriptions of the pavilion as “the runaway success, day or night” and a “`carnival’ with class’ ” are an indication, Johnson hit the mark. The pavilion contained three elements: a circular theater known as Theaterama, three “Astro-View” observation towers, and the “Tent of Tomorrow,” a 12-story elliptical pavilion topped by the world’s largest suspended cable system roof of colored, translucent plastic panels. The “Tent of Tomorrow,” like the 12-story-high Unisphere, became an iconic symbol of the World’s Fair.

Yet if the towers drew eyes upward, Johnson and his team sought to place wonders under the fair visitors’ feet as well, with the road map. With the Theaterama exterior exhibiting the works of Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, and others, the map floor matched its spirit as one of the first-ever Pop Art public monuments. It became the most extensive terrazzo art project at that time. The map contained 567 individual terrazzo mosaic panels, each weighing about 400 pounds. (The entire map floor weighed 114 tons, fitting for a place known as the Empire State.)

The Process of Making It

The World’s Fair structures were intended to be standing only for the fair’s two seasons (1964 and 1965), but 1965 plans for Flushing Meadows-Corona Park identified the New York State Pavilion to be preserved and reused, the New York Historic Districts Council confirms. That the Texaco map floor (along with the Tent of Tomorrow) was allowed to deteriorate is unbelievable considering the amount of genius and meticulous work that created it, as the “Back on the Map” site describes. First, the original Texaco map grid sections were magnified many times and projected onto 4-foot by 4-foot paper templates. Then the Yale students traced all of its elements by hand.

Those crafting the map then sent the templates to the Manhattan Tile and Terrazzo Co. to cut duplicates by hand, in metal strips and colored plastic insets, of all of the map’s topographical components. The company arranged these elements in plywood pattern boxes. The next step came at the Port Morris Tile and Marble shop, where shop personnel poured a terrazzo mixture of Portland cement, marble chips, and crushed glass into the boxes. Varied color pigments were added in to delineate land masses, roads, and water elements such as river and lakes. Finally, the individual panels were brought back to the pavilion site, where workers laid in the panels, using interlocking pins, on a bed of sand reinforced with steel mesh.

The map became popular among the world’s fair’s many sights. Fairgoers looked for their towns and cities, took photographs, stood on the “You Are Here” circle on the map, or visited the nearby Texaco Travel Information Booth. Photos show children driving kiddie cars across the state, so to speak.

Portion of Long Island, Terrazzo Road Map, New York World's Fair

Photo Credit: Bill Cotter © All Rights Reserved

Once the fair closed, however, and despite all of the care taken in making it, the terrazzo map became fairly forgotten. The space in the Tent of Tomorrow was used for a time as a performance space or roller skating rink. Eventually, the Tent of Tomorrow lay abandoned, vulnerable to vandals, the weather, and the ravages of time.

Picking Up Support

Finally, during the past several years, interest has reawakened in bringing the New York State Pavilion fully back to life (the Theaterama was converted for reuse). Various passionate citizens have advocated that the Tent of Tomorrow and its once-glorious map be conserved and saved. In 2008, the University of Pennsylvania grad students in historic preservation completed their project to conserve four of the terrazzo map’s panels, showing parts of Long Island. In collaboration with the school’s graduate conservation lab and New York City, the Queens Museum of Art exhibited the panels and produced an interactive Web site that would raise awareness about the terrazzo map. That same year, the World Monuments Fund placed the pavilion on its list of 100 Most Endangered Sites.

The pace of steps toward preservation, and hope, has picked up this year. This past September, New York State designated the pavilion as a state landmark, and the city wants it to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places as well. Such landmark designations pave the way for the pavilion to receive rehabilitation funds. Currently, the architectural firm Perkins Will is doing pro bono work to investigate how the city might adapt the pavilion for new uses.

None of this action yet secures the future for the New York State Pavilion, which is in an advanced state of dilapidation and disrepair, and its terrazzo map. Fortunately, the efforts of the volunteers and city work crews who are cleaning, sweeping, and putting a protective coating over the map floor at least ensure it will not sustain further damage. The map’s horrible condition means that eventually it would be less preserved than re-created, but it will take much money, will, and work.

Envision, however, current and future generations, especially schoolchildren, exploring Saranac to Southampton or Buffalo to Babylon on a map as large as half a football field – all while seeing a valuable work of art and artifact from the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Talk about a living lesson in history, geography, and art.

To further explore the 1964 World’s Fair, especially the New York State Pavilion and the terrazzo art pavement of the New York road map, see:

World’s Fair Photos: The 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair (Bill Cotter)

Back on the Map: Revisiting the New York State Pavilion at the 1964/1965 World’s Fair

New York World’s Fair 1964/1965

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13 Comments so far ↓

  • Al Schmelz

    Great article and pictures. I really enjoyed it. As someone who gets over there several times a years to see the old fair remnants, I appreciate any light being shone on the NYSP and the great floor.

    Thanks again.

  • Susan DeMark

    Al,

    Thanks, and glad you enjoyed the article and photos!

    I know others feel like you and still take walks around the New York State Pavilion area to “see the old fair remnants,” as you say.

    I plan to follow up on what happens with the pavilion and the map floor, and I also want to take a walk around there soon. Meantime, I’m happy that this article could help keep a focus on this great place.

    Best,
    Susan

  • Ed Spallone

    The ’64-’65 World’s Fair is one of my earliest childhood memories. This is a fantastic article.

    Why was the New York State Pavilion never maintained? The Pavilion is a true architectural marvel. I have not been in Flushing Meadow Park in over twenty-five years but still drive by it once in a while and look at the towers in the distance. I also want to take a walk around it soon with my wife and two boys (age 11 and 9).

    Thank you for helping me to remember “The Fair.”

  • Susan DeMark

    Ed,

    How wonderful that this is one of your earliest childhood memories. Talk about awesome.

    Yes, it’s unbelievable from our vantage point today that the city or other powers-that-be did not maintain this “true architectural marvel,” as you aptly describe it. Many have felt heartbroken that this happened. (I’ve read their posts and letters recorded through the years.)

    I can only surmise that it became forgotten especially in the ’60s and ’70s during the times that the city government was contending with high rates of violent crime, public vandalism, the threat of bankruptcy, etc., and made the maintenance of such places a low priority. I think about how the condition of many parks, for example, went downhill. Many people did not connect the dots then about care for our public landmarks, our parks, and our heritage with the benefits this brings the city in so many ways.

    All in all, it’s a shame that it was forgotten and became so decayed. I have some hope in the activity and attitudes of today in terms of bringing back the New York State Pavilion. It may take awhile, but it’s going to happen, in my opinion.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and memories here. I’m happy that the article helped you to remember “The Fair.” I hope your boys someday see the pavilion and map brought back for another day of glory.

    Susan

  • John

    I went by today to see the map and it’s gone gone gone…

    Anyone know where it is? Is it being preserved?

    Apparently, my father, as someone who worked for Port Morris, helped make it. And my family tells me that the workers put small markers where their houses were. Gosh, I’d love to see that map…

    John

  • Susan DeMark

    John,

    It is wonderful that your father helped make that amazing map.

    I’ve been planning to follow up on what is going on with preservation efforts for the terrazzo map, so I will find out what is happening and post an update on mindfulwalker.com. My hopes are that it is being cared for on the way to a restoration/rebuilding.

    Thanks for inquiring here!

    Susan

  • Ed Spallone

    Susan,
    Hi there. Following up on John’s comments above. Were you ever able to find out what happened to the Texas Road Map? My hope is that it is being preserved.

    Thanks!
    Ed Spallone

  • Susan DeMark

    Hi, Ed,

    I do not know the plans for the map right now but have been wanting to follow up. I’ll plan on doing that and will let you know when I do.

    All the best,
    Susan

  • Al Schmelz

    The map is now covered with dirt to “protect” it, according to the experts in charge. I have to get there in the spring to see it again.

  • Susan DeMark

    Hi, Al,

    Thanks for your update. I’m going to follow up on this soon, and I plan to get there as the weather warms, too, to check it out. I very much hope that a restoration/rebuilding is in the plans still.

    Susan

  • Bob McHenry

    Born in 1959, so the fair was also one or my earliest memories. Expo ’67 is, too…although I’m afraid I get them and their exhibits confused. I remember seeing a Rolls Royce “flying saucer” at one, James Bond’s Aston Martin, walking through a building-size V-8 engine, and many other marvels of the world of tomorrow that these fairs showed us in those exciting and promising years.

    I’ve still got salt and pepper shakers, a U.S. Steel teaspoon, and ceramic tile (with original box) all picturing the Unisphere and collected over the years. I live in Providence and plan on a day trip with my 11-year-old son this summer. By the way, my interest was reawakened seeing a CSI: New York episode “co-starring” the site. Keep up the good work.

    Does anyone know anything about the remnants of the ’39 world’s fair? I’ve got some great old GAF 3-D viewmaster slides of that one.

    • Susan DeMark

      Bob,

      What wonderful memories and mementos you cite! Indeed, you paint that world of excitement and promise that the world’s fairs promoted and envisioned.

      Your comments are sending me off to do some further research (for example, what was the building-size V-8 engine?). So I’ll follow up after doing some homework.

      I’m sure you and your son will have an awesome time!

      Many thanks,
      Susan

  • Matthew

    Hi all,

    I’m making a documentary about the NYS Pavilion. If anyone has old photos of it from the fair, reach out through my Gofundme page.
    http://www.gofundme.com/275u6g

    I am hoping to have this project completed by the 50th aniversary next year.

    Thanks,
    Matthew

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