Add Add to Quick Collection

Full Text of Source

I I 
A· I J, 

\ I f 
! 'i -1-
./ _/. 


FAIR BOARD OF DESIGN, JUNE 9, 1980. Tell me something about how 

you became involved with the Board of Design of the Fair. 

A. Well let me give you a preface to it. A group of citizens 

got together in the early spring of 1937 and they formed a 

corporation and elected Grover Weyland president, and in order to 

facilitate design and construction, they came up with the idea of 

a Board of Design. That wasn't new because I had been chairman 

of the Board of Design of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Housing 

projects, so that was not a new idea. But anyway, they appointed 

three to a board of design. They were Frank Vorhees of Vorhees, 

Walker, Foley and Smith architects, Richmond H. Shreve of Shreve 

-.... . '·, 
Lamb and Hartman and myself with the authority to appoint two or 

.... .... 
' fQur more to the board. So we got together early in the winter 

of 1936-37. We got together and decided that we'd add four, so 

we added Robert D. Cone, architect, William Adams Delano, 

architect; then the industrial designer and I insisted that we 

have an engineer, so we added Jay Donner who was an old friend of 

mine and colleague. He was chief engineer of the Westchester 

County Park system when I was the landscape architect. And we 

wanted the engineering profession represented. So that comprised 

the Board of Design of seven and then we started out to get a 

pattern for the payout of this old garbage dump which Flushing 

Meadows had been at the time and we each one of us made studies 

independently on the drafting boards for a pattern for the fair. 


Well each one made two or three and we put them up on the wall 

and looked them over and one that I had made was selected as the 

pattern for the fair. It was the same plan used in the 1964-65 

fair. I was conscious of the fact that this was going to be a 

public park so my design was prepared with the future in mind so 

it wouldn't be too alien to a public park. And I knew we were 

going to plant a lot of trees and that they'd mature and be a 

part of the Park afterwards. 

Q. What about some of the other plans, some of the alternatives 

that they'd come up with? I was talking to Ian, Wood and 

Silverman and he mentioned an s-shaped, serpentine plan that he 

had submitted for consideration. 

A. I remember very well. I don't remember what happened to 

those. They may be in the archives at the fair up in the Museum 

of the City of New York. They were pretty fragile. They were on 

tracing paper and may not have survived, but I don't know. 

Q. I'm curious about some of the discussion that led up to your 

plan. Why was it considered the most feasible of all of these 


A. I don't know. We didn't spend too long at it. They were 

pretty roughly drawn and they were put up on the wall and they 

knew that it had to have a theme for the fair, and this plan that 

I fashioned gave them a central point to put something. We had 

no idea what it was going to be at that time. So that's why the 

Trylon and Perisphere were such a rage. It gave a focus and the 

plan led itself to a reasonable design for a park afterwards. 


Central Park has a mall pretty much like the fair except that 

only at one point of it, this park didn't lend itself so well to 

informality because it was absolutely flat. It wasn't level but 

a flat piece of land. You see, I had been in the park business 

for a good many years. I was landscape architect for the 

Westchester County Park Commission from its inception to 1950. 

So I had quite a bit of experience. And I had been consultant to 

the Park Department of the City of New York when Moses was 

commissioner. And he was commissioner at the time of the 1939 


The city paid for all the fill and excavation of the lakes 

to get material and the placing of the fill. I had a lot to do 

with that. I didn't think the city still had them. That's good 

history to keep, particularly since they put the 1964-65 fair on 

the same site and no one knew in 1939 that there would be another 

fair on the same site. So we got underway as I say in the winter 

of 1937 and it went through'37, '38 and she opened in the spring 

of 1939 some time. 

Q. What were your primary responsibilities on the Board of 


A. Well the board itself had the responsibility of passing on 

the designs submited by all the exhibitors and upon the design of 

any buildings built by the fair itself. In other words, they 

acted as sort of an art commission for the entire enterprise. 

Q. And how did the private exhibitors take to this certain 

element of control over what were essentially privately sponsored 

buildings and exhibits? Did they cooperate with you? 


A, Oh, they were very cooperative. We didn't override them very 

hard. They understood there had to be sort of a general overall 

composition that had continuity to it and we had an expert on 

color whose name slips me at the moment and we had the colors of 

the buildings, and we had the buildings of each exhibitor having 

to conform with the particular color of that area that was 

designated, so it was a color scheme that went throughout, and 

that made that fair in my own opinion a lot more handsome than 

the 1964-65 fair. There were varied types of architecture. They 

had all the distinguished architects around New York of that 

period represented in the fair except for Frank Lloyd Wright, but 

Wright wouldn't have gotten along with anybody. If he would have 

been put in in command that would have been all right for him, 

otherwise you never could have used him. 

Q. Did you think the fair was successful in kind of making New 

Yorkers feel upbeat? 

A. I think both fairs were successful except from a financial 

standpoint. They lost about 60 cents on the dollar and those of 

us who had been mixed up with the Chicago fair, they lost about 

the same amount of money. I designed the New York State Exhibit 

at the 1933 Chicago Fair. 

Q. Do you think that the color scheme of the fair was 


A. I think it was successful in relation to the fact that each 

exhibitor couldn't go and do anything he pleased. He had to 

conform to a scheme which was necessary I think. 


It was necessary because if you let every architect have his way 

it would have been pretty much of a hodge-podge, whereas as it 

was it had a unity that it otherwise couldn't have had. 

My part in the thing was the overall plan and the planting of 

trees and whatever else, general treatment of the whole area 

outside of the exhibits, and that sort of helped to unify the 

area--those two roads of pinoaks are still there and they were 

little things when they were planted. I've forgotten how many 

trees were moved into the grounds. 

There was one other thing that was very unusual. The 

Holland government contributed something like 60,000 tulip bulbs 

and we had to arrange them in garden patterns. My then wife was 

a landscape architect and she had a lot of experience in gardens 

and the board hired her over my protest to lay out these designs 

for the tulip bulbs. But she was aware when you had the name of 

a tulip, she had had so much experience with gardens and tulips 

in particular that she knew the height that they would grow and 

if you layed out these patterns of tulips and they were up and 

down like that it wouldn't have counted at all. But she made the 

arrangement for these 60-odd thousand tulip bulbs and that was a 

great show when the fair opened. 

And that was just about the beginning of color photography 

too. The lighting was done by Bassett-Jones and Basset was an 

old friend of mine and he did a splendid job of lighting. 

Q. How did you get on with the other members of the Board of 

Design? Did you all work in harmony? 


A. Well, everybody got along swimmingly. We had known one 

another before. I knew all of the architects. I had been Dean 

of the College of Architecture at Cornell for fifteen years so I 

kind of got to know them. I commuted to Ithaca, up there three 

days and down here three days to keep my professional work going. 

I did it as a labor of love and had a good time doing it. 

Everybody got along very well indeed. It was headed by an 

unusually competent architect as an administrator--Frank Vorhees 

who was chairman of the boards. Then we had members of the 

firms. Bill Lamb had a lot to do with the design and Ralph 

Walker or Vorhees, Walker, Foley and Smith, they were 


Q. What about William R. Ludlow? I understand that he had 

something to do with the inception of this radial plan and Hugh 

Ferris also was one of the official delineators. 

A. William R. Ludlow doesn't ring a bell with me at all--never 

heard of him. We had a good many employees and I didn't know all 

of them of course. There were a good many students just out of 

architecture school. As I look back over the members of the 

board or the corporation, the Executive committee of the 

corporation, I don't think any of them are alive now. I would 

imagine that most of the Board of Design files are in the New 

York Public Library. 

One thing in passing: When the fair was demolished, I did 

my best to try to save the structural steel of the Unisphere. It 

was beautifully fashioned. 


And after they took the plaster off the outside, I got in touch 

with Bob Moses and said Bob, we've just got to save that 

structural element. And he says we're not going to do anything 

of the sort, and he had it all cut up and torn down. Then when 

it came time for the 1964-65 fair, he called me up one day and he 

says, Gil, we've got to have a theme for the fair. How do we go 

about it? Well, I said you hire somebody, tell them to make a 

theme for the fair. And he said you handle it. Well, I thought 

to myself before I handle it, I'll see what I can do myself so I 

was on a trip out West and I started doodling on a pad and 

realizing that it would be wise to use the old foundations of the 

old Unisphere or Perisphere and a lot of piles and concrete and 

it cost a lot of money, I thought to myself I'm going to design 

something that can use that foundation. So that was the 

beginning of the design of the Unisphere and I just drew a circle 

and put the continents on it, then I put three rings around it 

representing the first trip that somebody made around the earth. 

rendering out of it. I took it over to the Board of Design 

whatever it was and Bob Moses accepted it and got them to approve 

it and said that's going to be the central element of the '64-65 

fair. I had the thing detailed carefully and put it in stainless 

steel and the United States Steel Corporation said they would 

build it and do the structural design of it if they weren't 

badgered to have a building besides that. That was all they 

wanted to do. 


So that's how the Unisphere came into being and was put right on 

the foundations of the old Perisphere. 

We had a more sympathetic attitude to a display of art in the 

1939 fair than we did in the 1964 fair. At that time I was 

chairman of the National Commission for Fine Arts for thirteen 

years and a member of it for 20 from 1937 to 1950. And we were 

having difficulty getting murals and sculpture so the commission 

proposed that one percent requirement on public buildings. It 

was too small--it should have been two percent, but it's 

fortunate that they put that in there at that time. It opened up 

a tremenmdous opportunity for artists. Biddle became a member of 

the commission but that was after I left in 1950 and he had quite 

a set with the commission over his proposal to have the 

decoration of the Treasury Department which was the very first 

commission that the Federal government altered. 

I have bound the complete Minutes of the Commission of Fine 

Arts while I was a member from 1932 to 1950. I don't know what 

to do with them. I don't know whether to sent them to the 

Library of Congress that is supposed to get my papers after I die 

or what to do with them. That volume covered an interesting 

period from 1932 to 1950 and • 

You see, at that time--1939--they had to have a plan. They had 

to have a breakdown of that plan into plots which seemed to be 

logical plots like a piece of real estate and then they had to go 

to a sales organization to sell these plots to the various 



Now, sometimes an exhibitor would want two plots instead of one 

or one and a half and that was all worked out, and then they 

submitted their preliminary sketches to the board and the board 

would comment on them or approve them and then they'd go ahead 

and do their building which was if it was in a certain spot the 

color scheme would have to conform to that particular spot. So 

we had the most friendly series of meetings that I can remember 

of any board I've served on and I've served on a lot of boards in 

my lifetime and there was no friction whatsoever. 

We had a very excellent chairman in Frank Vorhees and he 

kept the thing on pretty much an even keel all the way through 

and Bob Cone was interested in this housing and general planning, 

it wasn't brought up and made important enough for me to 

reemember. How Wally happened to remember it I don't know. 

For your archives I have a great many photographs taken by a 

professional photographer and they're down at my old office. The 

only reason I left them there is because I haven't got any place 

for them here. But you could have access to them and it might be 

interesting for your exhibit to have a set of glossy prints of 

them. _They're excellent photographs and I kept them as long as I 

could and also with those I have a set of negatives of the 

Westchester County Park System which I was landscape architect of 

and so I had those all together but I left them at the office. 

I've retired now and I left them all there. 

Q. When you finally saw the fair in its final form after it got 

off the drawing board, after all the plans had become complete, ' 

do you feel that it functioned as you had planned it to function? 


A. I don't know. Don't forget that was 40 years ago, and I had 

so many activities in my career subsequent to that that I don't 

remember. I would say from my experience with it and going back 

and visiting it, which was not very often as a matter of fact, 

that it was a great success. It was certainly a success from the 

point of view of attendance. They made a fine record of 

attendance. And in consideration of the people we were working 

with and of their experience and their limitations, I would say 

that we got out of it about as good a result as you could because 

after all it's all a matter of personalities and it was as great 

a success I think as the 1893 fair in Chicago. 

But that 1893 fair influenced the architectures of the next fifty 

years. On the other hand, this fair it seemed to me instead of 

influencing arthitecture, the architecture influenced it. It's 

quite the reverse. We were coming into a modernistic period of 

architecture, and that architecture dominated the fair. 

Teague designed some buildings for the fair but I don't 

remember which ones they were and he had quite an influence on 

the board and he was very highly respected. He had the good 

fortune to be a very decent fellow in addition to being a very 

competent designer. And it was very interesting the way that 

board was built. As I told you they selected four and they said 

you go ahead. You've got a start on this thing. Select your 

chairman and you can add two or you can add four. So we three 

sat down at the University Club I think it was and then we 

decided to add four. 

Q. Well who picked yo8u initially? 


A. I think George ••• had more to do with picking me than 

anybody else because I didn't know Grover Weyland. I had worked 

with and known Bob Moses for fifty years or more and he didn't 

have much to do with that 1939 World's fair. I was landscape 

architect for the parks department at that time. Of course if 

you'd talk to Bob about it you'd think that he had everything to 

do with it. He was glad to have me there because he was pretty 

sure he'd get something rational rather than something otherwise. 

We had a little trouble in the fact that I had sort of a Beaux 

Arts scheme which it really is and basically it's a formal design 

and it gets off into the informalities when you from center and 

that didn't please some of the younger architects who worked in 

these offices who were related to the board. They wanted 

something higglty-pigglty with no center of interest that would 

be focussed on. And I was conscious of the fact that there would 

be a park there afterwards and we wanted to have some semblance 

of order at least in the central element of it. And of course 

you were cut by the parkway and had to build two bridges to cross 

to the other side there, but the architects were pretty much 

classicists. Dick Shreve wasn't an architect but his top man was 

there, Bill Lamb. And he was classical. Then there was Frank 

Vorhees and Frank Walker was classically trained and the only one 

who was not a classist and yet he was was Teague. 

So when the plan came up as I remember it was no great 

argument about it. We put them all on the wall and they went and 

selected mine. I don't know where the alternatives are--I'd like 

to see them myself. 


It' s funny. When you're back there and doing these things, you 

don't think of posterity very often especially when it's 

something that doesn't actually come through but is an 

alternative that was discarded at some point and they were on 

fragile paper too. 

For the 1964-65 World's Fair I should have done what I was 

asked to do and that was to get others to make studies. Instead 

of that I made one myself and got it accepted and that was the 

end of it. I didn't have the patience to go through all that 

because I knew very well we'd get a lot of crackpots in there and 

argue and so on and they couldn't accuse me of being classical. 

Q. Did you know at that time that the underlying theme overall 

would be Peace Through Understanding? 

A. Yes. Did you ever notice the topographical design of the 

continents on that? It's sort of a lumpy design so that it could 

be bent without getting creases in it and it was pressed steel. 

It's not topographical--it's the same all over. There's no 

attempt to show the mountain ranges and anything like that would 

have been too much of a problem. The 1939 theme was done inside 

of the Perisphere and they had a moving platform with a moving 

stairway going up to that. 

Q. Which do you think were the more effective exhibits? What is 

it that stands out in your mind that you feel is most important? 

A. Oh, that would be hard to say. I really don't remember. 


I worked on it so long and I don't suppose I made more than three 

trips to it. I suppose I felt once it opened I had done my job 

and I had a lot of other things to do and I didn't like crowds to 

begin with. I see the thing as an ensemble and no particular 

exhibit stands out in my memory now. I could look at pictures 

and I might be able to find out but unfortunately I've got 

cataracts and I can't see those pictures. 

See, we did pretty well because all the architects had to 

submit their designs to one board and the board had quite a 

over some of the architects and didn't try to stifle them as I 

remember. They gave them a great deal of freedom and yet the 

fair had a unity that was brought about by the plan to begin 

with, by the trees and other plantings, and they gave a unity to 

that main axis. Our off ices were first on the 80th floor of the 

Empire State building and as a matter of fact we could look out 

and see where more or less the fair was to be from up there and 

then when they got the central building built where the offices 

were then we moved everything over there. And in going over 

there once or twice a week to meetings we could see the progress 

of the fair as we would be right there. 

The 1964-65 fair didn't depart from the 1939 fair 

principally because they had the pattern that they had to fit. 

Open in Browser 20 KB