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Filmmaker Hopes Documenting Decaying Queens Landmark Can Help Save It

By Katie Honan | July 2, 2013 6:59am
 A photo of the New York State Pavilion, which has deteriorated since the 1964 World's Fair.
A photo of the New York State Pavilion, which has deteriorated since the 1964 World's Fair.
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Matthew Silva

CORONA — The New York State Pavilion in Flushing Meadows Corona Park can be seen from highways, from airplanes landing at LaGuardia Airport and from various spots in the park.

Standing under the rusting frame, it’s hard to imagine its past grandeur.

But Matthew Silva, a teacher and filmmaker, is hoping to change that through a film documenting the history of the Queens landmark, as well as the people who have fought to restore it.

Silva, 27, first became aware of the iconic structures left behind from the World's Fair the same way so many have: By driving past them on the Long Island Expressway on trips to the city from his home on Long Island.

His parents came to New York City in the late 1960s and didn't attend the fair. When he asked them what the metal objects were, Silva said they simply told him the spaceship-like structures were from the event.

It wasn’t until he was studying design at Stony Brook University, walking through his school’s bookstore, that he learned of the important history of the Pavilion. He found a book about American architecture with the tallest tower — “that thing I always saw on the LIE’’— on the cover.

“I couldn’t believe that Philip Johnson designed that project and the city let such a visible and prominent design go to waste,” he said.

Silva's now a teacher at Jericho Middle School and High School, but his interest in World's Fair history has remained a constant since college.

This college discovery led him to pursue the history of the World’s Fair, as well as the decades-long fight to preserve it.

After the World’s Fair, the Pavilion was used as a concert hall, where Led Zeppelin, the Grateful Dead and other bands played. In the 1970s it became a roller rink, and skaters rolled around on top of the famous Texaco map of New York.

As the city faced its fiscal crisis, the roller rink was shut down, and the Pavilion’s deterioration began.

“The New York State Pavilion is the perfect symbol of urban decay of New York City in the 1970s — just like a graffiti-covered train,” said author Joe Tirella, whose book Tomorrow-Land: The 1964 World’s Fair and the Transformation of America comes out in January.

Silva has reached out to the various people and groups who played an important role in the history of the site. This summer, he's traveling around the country to record some of their stories.

His project will take him to Cleveland — the current home of a woman who ran the roller rink in the 1970s — as well as to Chicago and Phoenix. He's raising money for his trip through a fundraising page.

Once he documents the stories, he hopes to use his film as a tool to educate people. From there, Silva says he’d like to find some way to advocate for the revitalization of the Pavilion.

The Parks Department said it conducted two studies, one in 2009 and the other in 2012, to determine what to do with the site.

The most recent provided three options — demolish them, stabilize them, or restore and reuse them for other purposes.

At the moment, the Parks Department doesn’t have the funding to do any of the three, said Janice Melnick, the administrator of Flushing Meadows Corona Park.

Silva hopes money could be raised to repurpose it by a private company, and he points to the High Line park in Manhattan as an inspiration for what can be done.

“This structure that was really nothing...was converted and re-imagined and brings in tons of money,” he said. “[The Pavilion] was a monument and was left to decay but could really be turned into something great.”

The 50th anniversary of the 1964 World's Fair is coming up in April 2014, and Silva hopes there's a renewed interest in the site because of it.

As a New Yorker, he says he feels "deprived" that he hasn't been able to experience the view from the top of the observation deck. The views alone could attract a crowd, he said.

"Restoring the Pavilion is something that will only bring joy and positivity to the area," Silva said, "plus an opportunity to bring an economic benefit."