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Flushing Meadows Corona Park

Unisphere

This text is part of Parks’ Historical Signs Project and can be found posted within the park.

The Unisphere, located at the center of the radial pathways in the northern half of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, was commissioned for the New York World's Fair of 1964-65.  Designed by landscape architect Gilmore D. Clarke (1892–1982) and erected by the American Bridge Division of the United States Steel Corporation, the 350-ton, 120-foot-diameter globe was the centerpiece and icon of the fair.  The sphere features representations of the continents and major mountain ranges in relief, and is encircled by three giant orbital rings that represent the tracks of early satellites.  The capital cities of the world are marked by lenses which, during the fair, were illuminated by flashing lights.  The Unisphere celebrated both the dawn of the space age and the fair’s broader theme of “Peace Through Understanding".  It has since become a beloved symbol of Queens.

Gilmore D. Clarke was one of the most accomplished landscape architects of the 20th century.  In 1934 he was recruited by Parks’ Commissioner Robert Moses (1888-1981) to direct a massive WPA-funded campaign to rebuild New York City's park infrastructure.  Clarke and his partner, Michael Rapuano, were responsible for the design of Riverside, Battery and Bryant Parks in Manhattan, Marine Park in Brooklyn, Astoria Park in Queens and Orchard Beach in the Bronx.

Clarke and Rapuano created the site plan for the New York World's Fair of 1939-40, transforming former ash heaps into a grand public landscape.  Their design—a series of paths and boulevards radiating out from the Trylon and Perisphere, with major axes terminating at pavilions, fountains, and sculpture—was based on Bernini's axial plan for St. Peter's square in Rome.  In planning the 1964-65 fair, Clarke recommended to Robert Moses, the fair's president, that as a matter of expediency and economy, the plan follow the general outlines of the earlier fair, and that its central icon make use of the existing foundation and central position of the earlier Trylon and Perisphere.

William Dorwin Teague, a prominent industrial designer, was first enlisted to design the centerpiece, but his helix-like Astrasphere was rejected by Moses.  Moses then turned to Clarke, one of his closest advisors.  On a flight back from Ohio, Clarke sketched on the back of an envelope (literally) his concept for a massive armillary sphere, which was then rendered by William S. Boice of the Clarke and Rapuano firm.  Plans to have the Unisphere rotate were shelved as too costly, and lights and fountain water jets were used instead to create an illusion of movement.  Engineering the immense structure involved solving hundreds of simultaneous equations, facilitated by computers used to design atomic submarines.  Building the Unisphere was thus not only a gesture of global unity, but a demonstration of American technical savvy and corporate might.  US Steel did the work for free in exchange for having its name and logo appear on all fair marketing material.

Over time the Unisphere weathered to such an extent that its raised repoussoir representations of world geography were destabilized, a parks official noting in 1989 that “on windy days the tips of India and Vietnam lift off their mountings.”  The Unisphere was conserved in 1994 as part of a 15-year, $80 million project to restore Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.  The structure was cleaned and reinforced, the surrounding area re-landscaped, and the number of spray jets in the fountain doubled, from 48 to 96.  In 1995 the Unisphere was designated an official City landmark.

In 2010 Parks completed a capital renovation that included rehabilitation of the two 1964 World’s Fair pumps, re-sealing of joints, and a fresh coat of paint on the fountain’s surface.  In addition, part of the plaza around the fountain was re-graded.  Storm damage in 2010 and 2012 to structural cables and the country of Sri Lanka was also repaired.  The Unisphere remains a familiar feature on the city's skyline, a monument to the times and aspirations of the world's fair.

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