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.
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.
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.
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: