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Flushing Meadows Corona Park

Olmsted Center

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

Described as a “valley of ashes” in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s (1896–1940) The Great Gatsby (1925) because of its use as a coal ash dump in the 19th century, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park was transformed after serving as the site of the two World’s Fairs. Following the 1964-65 World’s Fair, the site was turned over to the city and it became known as Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. Although most of the structures from the 1964-65 fair were designed as temporary buildings, several remain, including the Olmsted Center, which today serves as the headquarters of the Design, Construction, and Engineering Divisions of Parks.

A one-story modular building in the northwest part of the park, the Olmsted Center was designed by the architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and was originally built as the 1964-65 World’s Fair Corporation’s administrative offices. Other structures dating to the 1964-65 World’s Fair include The Unisphere, the centerpiece of both the fair and today’s park; Shea Stadium, now home to the New York Mets professional baseball team; and the World’s Fair Marina at Flushing Bay.

The building is named in honor of Frederick Law Olmsted (1822–1903), co-designer of Central, Prospect, and Riverside Parks, and its hallways commemorate Parks architects Gilmore D. Clarke, Aymar Embury II, and Theodore Kautzky. Frederick Law Olmsted was born in Connecticut in 1822; his lineage is traceable to early Puritans. With little formal training he became one of the country’s preeminent landscape architects, working on projects at the U.S. Capitol grounds in Washington, DC, Niagara Falls, and estates in wealthy enclaves such as Newport, Rhode Island.

Olmsted and his business partner Calvert Vaux (1824–1895) heavily influenced 20th century urban planning; their Eastern Parkway project (1870-74) in Brooklyn, for example, introduced the concept of broad, landscaped roadways to rapidly expanding American cities. His influence can also be seen in cities like Boston, Buffalo, and the neighborhood of Riverdale in the Bronx. During the Civil War (1861-1864) Olmsted served as the secretary of the Sanitary Commission, a forerunner of the Red Cross, whose volunteers supplied and aided the Union Army’s Medical Bureau. As Central Park took shape after the Civil War, Olmsted grew disenchanted with the execution of his and Vaux’s plan, and he eventually disengaged himself from the project, moving his family and offices to Brookline, Massachusetts. Olmsted succumbed to mental illness towards the end of his life and died in an institution in 1903.

In the 1930s, Jackson Heights engineer Joseph F. Shagden approached a group of businessmen to organize the 1939-40 World’s Fair, which featured the latest technological innovations. Realizing the potential to rehabilitate the land and create a city park at Flushing Meadows after the fair ended, Parks Commissioner Robert Moses (1888–1981) became involved with the project and sat on its board. After the fair, the site sat idle for many years until the early 1960s, when Moses became president of the 1964-65 World’s Fair Corporation and tried again to pursue his grand vision for Flushing Meadows.

Under Moses’s watchful eye, planners for the 1964-65 fair designed the fairgrounds to facilitate its eventual transition to a city park. Pools, fountains, plantings, streets, paths, walks, utilities, benches, and toilet facilities were retained in plans for Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. Most of the buildings from the fair were torn down, as they were temporary structures built under a special building code and it was considered prohibitively expensive to bring them up to code. In February 1965, before the fair ended, Mayor Robert F. Wagner (1910–1991) convened a committee to review which of its buildings should be saved, and the city eventually decided to preserve some of the buildings, including the one which now serves as the Olmsted Center. $7.2 million was spent in demolishing and/or restoring structures.

In June 1967, the 1,255 acre site was officially designated parkland and named Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, becoming the largest park in Queens. The World’s Fair Administration Building was converted to Parks administrative offices for the borough of Queens.

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