Picture, courtesy of New York City Dept. of Parks & Recreation, was taken from the observation deck looking north. In foreground, in front of the Unisphere, is the New Jersey State Pavilion.

Five months to the day after President Kennedy was assassinated, the 1964 New York World’s Fair opened like a beacon of light for our grieving country. The future would bring the tumultuous rise of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement, but for the baby boomers who attended as young children and teenagers, the fair remains a touchstone for a more optimistic time. 

More than 50 million people came through the gates in Queen’s Flushing Meadows-Corona Park over two six month seasons: April 22 — October 18, 1964 and April 21 — October 17, 1965. Public spaces, pavilions, restaurants and displays from exhibitors all around the world were spread out on 646 acres.  

“Peace Through Understanding” was its theme with the symbol being the great Unisphere, a steel globe 12 stories high that still stands today. The cost to get in was two dollars for adults 13 and older (equivalent to about $16 today) and $1 for children age 2—12.

Once inside, modes of transportation included a motor train to see the overall view of the fairgrounds. Other rides included the New York State Pavilion with its “Sky Streak capsule” elevators in three observation towers (the tallest at 226 feet high), the Swiss Sky ride that traveled the international area, a boat ride that was part of the UNICEF exhibit, the Monorail, and a nine-minute simulated “helicopter ride” to view a miniature version of New York City.

Highlights included the Eastman Kodak’s Pavilion, offering five photographs that were 30 by 36 feet in size (it was one of the first pavilions to be demolished after the fair was closed) and New York State’s “Tent of Tomorrow” Pavilion designed by renowned architect Philip Johnson. There was the official unveiling of the Ford Mustang by Henry Ford II and a visit from President Johnson, who delivered the address on opening day.

The Illinois Pavilion was much talked about, featuring a audio-animatronic Walt Disney created six-foot 4-inch Abraham Lincoln in a dark suit with facial features based on an actual mask of the President. At the start of a nine-minute performance, he got up from a seated position and walked toward the audience.

But one of the most remembered attractions was the ride through the General Motors’ Futurama, touted as “a journey for everyone today into the everywhere of tomorrow.” It included a man walking on the moon with lunar rovers gliding magically over powdered plains, an envisioned global weather station that was far below the Antarctic ice, deserts where waters are desalted and made fresh to nourish crops planted in the sand, and a city of tomorrow featuring automated roadways that are safe, swift and efficient, landing ports for aircraft that can take off and land vertically, and a 35-story parking garage.

Because the Sixties was the Atomic and Space Age, many of the pavilions reflected a futuristic architectural style. Johnson Wax used their logo to create the shape of their pavilion while U.S. Royal had a tire-shaped Ferris wheel. The General Electric and IBM pavilions were more abstract, including the Westinghouse 3 time capsule pavilion. Building materials, modern at the time, included fiberglass, plastic, stainless steel, tempered glass and reinforced concrete. 

At dusk, the fair presented its magical best. Everything glowed and glittered. Light shows and fireworks sprung from The Fountains of the Planets and the Tower of Light. In the Vatican Pavilion, New York set-designer Jo Mielziner positioned Michelangelo’s Pieta in front of a royal blue backdrop where the sculpture was illuminated with 400 flickering lights attached to a halo and suspended on strings.

Sadly, world fairs don’t seem to have the allure that they once did. Now, the focus seems to be more about solving problems than achieving success. There is no profit for hosting cities (New York City lost millions of dollars). Perhaps more than anything is that everyone now has easy access to entertainment without ever having to leave home. 

Kater attended the 1964 World’s Fair with her mother and younger sister when she was 13. She can be reached at [email protected].

Please support OutLook by the Bay with a subscription.

OutLook by the Bay magazine and this website are made possible through the support of our advertisers and subscribers. We guarantee you’ll learn something new each issue. Please subscribe today.