The city’s largest freshwater lake offers enough details in its design and history to allow for multiple posts. Having previously focused on the Aquacade that stood at Meadow Lake, and the history of Jewel Avenue Bridge, I turn to its northwest corner, where Horse Brook had its confluence with Flushing Creek.
In the time between this 1937 photo and the opening of the 1939 World’s Fair, the transformation of the wetlands along Flushing Creek into Flushing Meadows is one of the most unrecognizable landscape alterations in the city in the past century. Around Meadow Lake, it includes a few rejected proposals worth remembering.
Shape of Meadow Lake
The earliest mention that I found of transforming the meandering section of Flushing Creek to the south of Strong’s Causeway into a bean-shaped lake was in 1934, when Parks Commissioner Robert Moses made the proposal, with the 1939 World’s Fair serving as a catalyst for this massive public works project. On the map above from the NYPL Digital Collections, a 1936 plan for the park did not yet have the radiating boulevards at its central core. Instead, it had a giant athletic field ringed by a thick cover of forest. The borders of the park are the same as today, leaving out the Willets Point triangle. Unless otherwise noted, all of the historical photos in this story are from the NYPL collection.
From the Cornell University archives, a 1936 Fairchild Aerial survey shows Meadow Lake beginning to take its form. Near the cloverleaf interchange of Grand Central Parkway and what would become Long Island Expressway, is Horse Brook flowing into Meadow Lake. At the time, the section of Forest Hills between 67th Drive and Long Island Expressway was not yet developed. A grid of unpaved streets has been laid out and within a decade no traces will remain of the former Jarvis and Lott farms.
The grid-defying neighborhood near Horse Brook is Corona Park ,which dates to the 1840s. Grand Central Parkway is seen carving through the former Corona ash dump. In the foreground are Mount Hebron and Cedar Grove cemeteries, the former Spring Hill estate of colonial governor Cadwallader Colden.
Modifying the Plan
Having secured the right to host the 1939 World’s Fair, landscape architects Gilmore Clarke and Michael Rapuano modified the layout of the park. The original Plan for the Park appeared in the Sept. 1939 edition of Landscape Architecture Magazine. But with input from the World’s Fair Board of Design, chaired by Moses, the verdant, nearly Olmstedian plan gave way to the more modernistic General Development Plan. On this plan, number 15 is the New York City Building, with a central axis leading the way east. The large spaces of numbers 2 through 7 are not parking lots, but sports fields. In the end they became parking lots and remain so to this day. The axis meets Flushing Creek at an oval pool then known as Pool of Industry and today as the Fountain of the Planets. Other numbers worth noting above are 25: the Aquacade; and 23, the original Queens Botanical Garden.
In its layout of the fairgrounds, the World’s Fair Board of Design initially proposed a footbridge spanning Meadow Lake, connecting its amusement zone to the Foreign Zone. The smaller Willow Lake was to be ringed by parking lots.
The architectural model for this plan envisioned a very crowded World’s Fair, and it made sense to have a mid-lake bridge to serve as a shortcut for visitors. The Trylon and Perisphere had not yet been approved as the fair’s defining landmark, so a vertical hollow rectangle tower appears here for now. Such buildings are now in style in New York, with Domino Park as the best example.
Making Meadow Lake
From the Parks Department Archives, I received a Sept. 1937 aerial survey of Meadow and Willow lakes. At the northern tip of Meadow Lake, we see Horse Brook flowing in from the left and Flushing Creek draining out of the lake on the right. As mentioned, Forest Hills was not yet fully developed and a remnant of Lott’s farm appears on the top right. The farm dates to 1852, but was gone by the time that the fair opened. On the east side of the lakes, Kew Gardens Hills still has its Arrowbrook Golf Club, but the wide line of sand is Main Street, laid out in 1937 as a direct route from Flushing to Jamaica. Finally, the empty area on the southeast corner is the former Gutman’s Swamp, the source of Kissena Creek.
From the same archive, a Sept. 1938 aerial survey looks to the southeast, with the prescribed grid of Forest Hills encroaching on vacant farmland. These streets first appeared on the map in 1911 as part of the overall borough-wide grid. Stephen Lott’s farmhouse appears on the lower left corner. Although this house was later demolished for an apartment building, his relative Hendrick Lott’s farmhouse in Marine Park, Brooklyn survives to this day as a Parks-operated museum.
From atop the Trylon likely taken in 1938, Meadow Lake has been completed and work began on the exhibit structures. At the confluence of Horse Brook and Meadow Lake, the Terrace Club was the first to open.
It served as a hangout for the fair’s wealthy benefactors, a spot to get away from the crowds while watching jet skiers on the lake from the rooftop deck. Above, World’s Fair director Grover Whalen and other moneyed folks are enjoying a fashion show at the Terrace Club. From his viewpoint, the fair had something for everyone, the Terrace Club for the exclusive crowd, and on the opposite side of the lake, the Amusement Zone for the working class.
In this early model of the 1939 World’s Fair, the eastern side of Meadow Lake was dedicated for sideshows and amusement rides. The giant ferris wheel in the above model was not built, but the Parachute Jump tower sponsored by the candy brand Life Savers was popular enough to merit relocation to Coney Island. The international zone proposed for the lake’s eastern side was instead built near the Pool of Industry. The lone exception being Cuba. The concept of international exhibits built around a lake was later adopted by Walt Disney in Florida.
When the World’s Fair opened, maps showed this lake as Fountain Lake, but in its 1940 season, it was renamed Liberty Lake. The gesture was a reminder that beyond the fair, the peaceful vision of tomorrow was torn away by the Second World War. The exhibits of Poland and Czechoslovakia were orphaned as their parent countries were wiped from the map. No longer paying lip service to a peaceful future, the Stalinist USSR exhibit closed during the winter break.
Florida at the Fair
The lone state exhibit at Meadow Lake was a state bound on three sides by water. Drawing on its Spanish history and subtropical climate, the Florida pavilion had a Mediterranean-inspired appearance, with native plants inside and a talking statue of explorer Juan Ponce de Leon.
Next to the pavilion, a small inlet was carved out as a boat landing. At the time of the pavilion’s construction, the portion of Horse Brook that flowed into Meadow Lake was covered up. In its appearance, this inlet echoes the now-forgotten stream that fed into the lake. The historically-inspired pavilion was designed by the Miami-based architects Phineas Paist and Harold Drake Steward. Their work can be found all over Coral Gables.
What’s There Today
Getting to the northwest corner of Meadow Lake today, one can drive through the cloverleaf interchange of Grand Central Parkway and Long Island Expressway. From its 1937 beginnings as a four-lane highway, it has since widened to ten lanes at this location. Near its crossing of Horse Brook, the parkway is now itself crossed by a footbridge, built ahead of the 1964 World’s Fair.
I like to visit parks after a heavy rainfall, because in places where puddles persist long after the rain ends, they serve as hints of streams that used to flow here. Near the landing of the footbridge across the parkway, a sizable puddle occupies the filled-in course of Horse Brook.
The site of Horse Brook, Terrace Club, and Florida pavilion is today an open field designated for barbecuing. how many visitors making their lunch here know about this field’s rich history? Every corner of this 898-acre park has its history. Which is why I’m saving my knowledge of the Amusement Zone, and Meadow Lake’s role in the 1964 World’s Fair for future posts.
Among the items to discuss on the opposite shore is the boathouse, one of only two public buildings in the park that survive from the 1939 World’s Fair. The other is the New York City Building, home to the Queens Museum. As 2018 is the year of plastic pollution guilt, one can easily see Meadow Lake filled with bottles, bags, and cutlery. Also cigarette butts, even though smoking is expressly forbidden in all NYC parks. From its invasive snakehead fish, to its fast-growing phragmite, the lake needs a lot of help. It’s a far cry from 1939 when racing motorboats and model beauties were photographed at this lake.
Next to the barbecue field is a constructed crater filled with native plants, separated by a berm from the lake. This depression is a bioswale, designed to absorb and filter rain water. Where Horse Brook flowed, a new water collection feature takes up space. As readers may have noticed, I write a lot about Horse Brook as it is a personal matter for me. My parents’ house stands atop the stream’s former course.
Support The Park
As with the Central Park Conservancy and Prospect Park Alliance, the group has its own logo for Flushing Meadows. As the husband of a talented graphic designer, I am thrilled at this recent development. Every park deserves its own unique logo.
Follow the Alliance for FMCP on social media for the latest updates on events, volunteering opportunities, and public improvements at Flushing Meadows.