From Ash Dump to International Spectacle: the 1939 New York World’s Fair

November 18, 2015

Last month marked the 75th anniversary of the closing of the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

From 1935 to 1939, the World’s Fair committee planned, built, and organized the fair and its exhibits, creating the biggest international event since World War I. Working closely with the fair’s committee, New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses saw great value to the city in transforming a vast ash dump in Queens into the site for the exposition, then turning the area into a city park after the exposition closed.

The idea of a 1939 World’s Fair in New York City originated five years earlier with civil engineer Joseph Shadgen. His grandiose vision was that the fair would commemorate the 150th anniversary of the inauguration of George Washington in New York City. Shadgen concluded that a reclamation of the Corona Dumps, a 1,200-acre municipal ash dump, which had blighted his Queens neighborhood for decades, would provide the best location for such an event. Flushing Meadows operated as a dump for years, collecting 50 million cubic yards of ash and waste. By 1920, about 110 trainloads were dumped into Flushing Meadows each day by the Brooklyn Ash Removal Co.

Physical transformation of Flushing Meadows from municipal dump into fully realized fairground largely was overseen by administrators and staff of the Fair Corp.’s Construction Department. Under an agreement with the city, the New York City Parks Department was responsible for basic improvements to the site and the surrounding area, as well as grading and preparation, moving and leveling an estimated 7 million cubic yards of ashes, refuse, and tidal marsh deposits.

On June 29, 1936, Moses and a host of dignitaries, including Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, gathered for the official groundbreaking ceremony. The ceremony was symbolic, as the actual groundbreaking had occurred two weeks earlier, just after the city officially acquired the final tracts of land around the dump. Laboring 24 hours a day, department workers transformed the entire site in less than nine months. In March 1937, Flushing Meadows Park was completed ahead of schedule and construction of the fair began.

It was the Fair Corp. that was entrusted with the development of the site, the building of structures and paths, and performing all tasks related to landscaping, lighting, and sanitation. The early construction activities were directed by the General Manager’s Office. Working in conjunction with the Board of Design, this unit developed the general site plan and supervised load testing and the erecting of test structures. By December 1936, the Construction Department was formally established and mobilized. Construction was carried out both by contractors and the fair’s own forces. Chief Engineer and Director of Construction John P. Hogan, a decorated World War I veteran and a colonel in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, likened the department’s operation to “an expeditionary force of an army in the field.” Thousands of engineering and construction workers converged on the site in the summer of 1937.

For the next two years, working around the clock, these forces built a virtual city; a feat requiring the construction of hundreds of structures, two lakes, a network of fountains, terminals for subway and bus transportation, bridges, roads and other infrastructure, and a special subway line to serve the fair.

The 1939 New York World’s Fair opened April 30, 1939. In less than two years, the Fair Corp.’s Construction Department successfully completed the effort to build on an inhabited location the equivalent of an entirely new city with a population of 800,000.

After two seasons, the New York World’s Fair closed on Oct. 27, 1940. Known today as Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, the site is the second largest park in New York City. Its supporting and surrounding civil works are testaments to the visionaries who planned, designed, and constructed a permanent legacy for a temporary spectacle.

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