What would prompt several hundred adult New Yorkers—some of them living at great distances from the grassy lawns of Flushing Meadow Park, Queens—to take time out of a busy work day to come see the half-collapsed relic of a building now 50 years old? “It’s just such an iconic building,” says Martha Orbarch, just one of the many New Yorkers waiting to get in. Orbarch only dimly remembers Philip Johnson’s New York State Pavilion from her first visit here at the age of three. That year, the park played host to the World’s Fair for the second time since 1939—and ever since, the fair’s architectural legacy has been a boon and a burden to the borough, leaving a series of structures that everyone knows yet no one knows how to use.
The 50th anniversary of the World's Fair was the occasion for a public viewing of Johnson’s vast ensemble of open-air coliseum and saucer-topped towers: the Pavilion Paint Project, a volunteer effort aimed at preserving long-neglected the building, allowed selected visitors into the circular arena for the first time in 27 years. Not everyone who came out, however, was of an age to remember the structure in its glory days. “I’m a little obsessed with the World’s Fair,” says Chad Schaefer. He’s not kidding: In his period-perfect jacket and skinny tie, the 39-year-old Harlem-based photographer is World’s Fair right down to the socks—literally, as he lifts his pant leg to reveal the words “Queens” and an image of the nearby Unisphere knitted in wool right above the shoe line.
Former New Yorker architecture critic (now of Vanity Fair) Paul Goldberger spoke at an introductory ceremony, mentioning that he, too, had visited the building as a boy. Yet, as Goldberger announced, “As exciting as it was to be here then, it’s even more exciting to be here today.” In commemoration of its debut, the building has now been named a National Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, bolstering the efforts of the Pavilion Paint Project and other local supporters to save and restore Johnson’s pavilion.