Fountain of the Planets

Is it an artificial pond or the largest fountain in the city? Why is there an abandoned bunker in the center of this waterway? A mystery to many visitors of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, the Fountain of the Planets (FOTP) is a section of Flushing Creek that generated plenty of oohs and aahs in the two World’s Fairs that took place in this park.

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The bunker in the center of this decommissioned fountain appears like an unused prop from Men In Black, but inside this structure were controls for what once was the city’s biggest fountain.

In the beginning

Prior to development, the site of FOTP was an island where Kissena Creek flowed into Flushing Creek. On the 1909 G. W. Bromley atlas below, major present-day roads are highlighted: College Point Boulevard, Booth Memorial Avenue, Main Street and Kissena Boulevard. A blue circle approximates the location of FOTP. At the time, Flushing Meadows was almost entirely a salt marsh with a large portion of it used as a landfill by the Brooklyn Ash Removal Company.

1909 bromley

The landscape continued to suffer from the dumping of ash until 1934, when the city designated Flushing Meadows as a future park and site of the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair. Kissena Creek was filled and Flushing Creek was rerouted along the eastern side of the park.

Lagoon of Nations

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At a point facing the fair’s central axis, the creek was widened into an oval lagoon. Designated as the Lagoon of Nations, this waterway would be ringed by structures representing nations participating in the fair. A lawn extending east was dubbed the Court of Peace with the U. S. Pavilion at the opposite end.

1939 aerial

The layout of Flushing Meadows was designed by Gilmore Clark and Michael Rapuano in a symmetrical plan inspired by Versailles. Radiating out from the Trylon and Perisphere, boulevard-like roads extended to the edges of the fairgrounds. At the center, the Constitution Mall connected the lagoon with the fair’s two great defining structures.

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In the photo above, the view of constitution Mall looks east towards the Lagoon of Nations from the Helicline, the ramp leading into the Trylon and Perisphere.

Jets of Water

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A technological marvel of its time, the fountains “danced” to compositions created specifically for the fair with lights of various colors illuminating the jets of water. Following the closing of the fair, the fountain was dismantled and the former Lagoon of Nations appeared simply as a wider section of Flushing Creek, which flowed uninterrupted through the park. With the exception of the 1946 World’s Capitol proposal, the former lagoon would be left untouched for the following quarter century.

The Flagpoles

Although the lagoon’s shape was later altered for the 1964 World’s Fair, one piece left from 1939 are the extraordinarily tall twin flagpoles on its western shore. The eagles’ black color, height, wingspan, sleek shape, and medallion appear eerily reminiscent of one country that shunned the World’s Fair- Nazi Germany. In the spirit of international cooperation, the fair had its share of dictatorships including the Empire of Japan, Stalin’s Soviet Union, and Mussolini’s Italy. This led to rumors that the eagles were intended for a never-built Nazi exhibit.

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The reality however is that in contrast to the 1937 Paris Exposition, Hitler never intended to participate in New York’s World’s Fair. A guidebook from the fair attributes the eagles to sculptor Robert Foster. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, whose spoke Yiddish and had a Jewish mother, every opportunity to attack the Nazis in public arguing that a “museum of horrors” was a more fitting location for Adolf Hitler. Foster’s design was inspired more by the prevailing Art Deco style than fascism.

Second World’s Fair

Changes were brought to the creek in 1961 as the park was being prepared for the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair. The oval-shaped Lagoon of Nations would be transformed into the circular Pool of Industry. Fewer nations agreed to attend the second fair in the park as the event was not sanctioned by the Bureau of International Expositions. In their place of missing nations, private industry stepped in. Spaces around the lagoon were reserved for corporate giants such as Bell System, General Electric, and IBM.

1964 map

On either side of the pool, sections of Flushing Creek were channeled beneath the ground in order to gain additional acreage for the fair. The fountain in the center of this pool was named Fountain of the Planets, a nod to the Space Age that was getting underway.

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As it was in the previous World’s Fair, jets of water reaching up to 150 feet were coordinated to the five music shows composed for the fountain. Additionally, fireworks were fired from the lagoon to further enhance the shows.

After the Fair

In one early master plan for the post-fair Flushing Meadows, the buried sections of Flushing Creek were to be daylighted, with the former Pool of Industry appearing as a wider section of the stream. Instead, the stream remained underground and the lagoon fell into disuse, never again to shoot its jets of water.

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Instead of a naturalistic stream, one sees two snout-like openings where Flushing Creek enters the pool and another two where it departs. Over the years, Pool of Industry became known by the name Fountain of the Planets on park maps.

Olympics for NYC

It was not the last proposal to alter this section of Flushing Creek. Between 1994 and 2005, investment banker Daniel L. Doctoroff dreamed of bringing the summer Olympic Games to New York. In 2002, New York was selected to compete as the 2012 Host City on behalf of the United States. It lost the bid to London in 2005. Some of the plan’s venues became a post-proposal reality, such as Barclay’s Center, the 7 train extension to Hudson Yards, and Hunters Point South. However, venues intended for Flushing Meadows, such as merging its two lakes, never left the architects’ desk. Another venue that never came to pass was a whitewater canoeing course on the site of FOTP.

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In a rendering by Neoscape, the Weiss/Manfredi-designed canoe course would have covered FOTP and the adjacent two soccer fields, taking up a heavily used section of the park. In the proposal, it was unclear whether this venue would be permanent.

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Major League Soccer for Flushing Meadows

The most recent proposal to eliminate FOTP was in 2012 when Major League Soccer sought to cover the circular pond with a $300 million, 25000-seat stadium. Within a year, the proposal quietly died after a spirited public battle, with the New York Yankees offering land in the Bronx for the soccer stadium. In the end, the games went to New Jersey’s Meadowlands, where the city’s two pro football teams also play.

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Flushing Meadows had the capacity for soccer and football in the old Shea Stadium, which was built with retractable field seats in 1964. In 1982, the Jets football team left Queens for the Meadowlands and instead of building a multipurpose arena the new Citi Field is designed primarily for baseball.

A Lawn for the Lagoon

When FOTP wasn’t the subject for sports venue proposals, there were designs to eliminate it altogether as in the 2007 Flushing Meadows Corona Park Strategic Framework Plan by Quennell Rothschild & Partners together with Smith-Miller + Hawkinson Architects.

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The plan would have daylighted the buried sections of Flushing Creek but also transformed the FOTP into a concert lawn by rerouting the river around the former lagoon. Notice how the architects preserved Robert foster’s flagpoles, proposing the space between them as a stage.. Like communism, it looked good on paper but in reality the park represents many constituencies. Had this daylighting proposal advanced, it would have meant eliminating three heavily used soccer fields around the FOTP.

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As a result, the Strategic Framework plan is on hold at this time. Ironically, the concept of a large lawn on the park’s eastern side is reminiscent of the first plan for the park going back to 1936. The location of FOTP is in marked by a blue circle.

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What could be done then?

The decades-old debate over the use of Flushing Meadows puts the park in the center of a spectrum with Central Park on one end and the New Jersey Meadowlands on the other. How much of the park should be devoted to passive recreation and natural areas? How much of the park could be given to professional sports venues? The park already hosts the New York Mets and the U.S. Open tennis tournament. However, plans to bring major league soccer, football, grand prix racing and a shopping mall were roundly condemned by the public. With so many trees planted and so many people using the park throughout the year, the prospect of a third World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows is highly unlikely.

Located at the junction of the park’s central axis and Flushing Creek, FOTP could be redesigned as a subdued eastern counterpart to the Unisphere with its own sculptures. As a temporary measure, the lagoon could be filled with rocks and reeds, giving it a more naturalistic appearance. Perhaps art and nature could coexist in this redesigned space. At 25,000 square feet, this empty space could become one of the more ambitious redesigns in the city’s Parks system.

Trivia Bonus

Where else in Flushing Meadows could a visitor find a sign of FOTP’s past as a World’s Fair Fountain? In 1998, the Parks Department commissioned mosaics for the circular plaza where the Passerelle walkway enters the park.

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This circle was named after former mayor David Dinkins on September 2, 2008. An avid tennis player, he led the effort to keep the USTA in Queens by promoting an expanded stadium for its tournaments. Naming a public space after a one-term mayor who was alive at the time did not resonate with me. I would have waited.

Note: This summer, I will be giving free public tours of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park on two upcoming Sundays: May 8 and June 5. If you cannot make it, the Parks Department will have tours led by docents every “Second Sunday” from May 8 to October 9, meeting at 11am and 1pm at the Unisphere. To reserve your spot, contact coordinator Vickie Karp:  Vickie.Karp@parks.nyc.gov

In the News: Restoration work has begun on the Hunters Branch stream in Vienna, Virginia.

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