How the 1964 World’s Fair Helped Build Lincoln Center

Classic Arts Features   How the 1964 World’s Fair Helped Build Lincoln Center
The global exposition helped drive government support for the performing arts venue.
Workers put up signs announcing the New York State Theater on March 29, 1961
Workers put up signs announcing the New York State Theater on March 29, 1961 Bob Serating

Fifty-five years ago, the New York World’s Fair opened in Flushing, Queens. Though the fairgrounds lay 10 miles away, Lincoln Center served as the official performing arts extension of the Fair through the Lincoln Center World’s Fair Festival over the course of the exposition. The arrangement would bring to fruition the envisioned Theater for Dance and give it the name it would hold until becoming the David H. Koch Theater in 2008: The New York State Theater.

It started in September 1959 with a letter from Robert Moses, writing in his capacity as Commissioner of New York City’s Department of Parks, to John D. Rockefeller 3rd, then president of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts (LCPA). “My purpose in writing is to suggest that you have some of your Performing Arts people follow this program to see how it relates to the Performing Arts as it will be functioning if the Fair actually becomes a full reality,” Moses wrote referencing the proposed 1964 World’s Fair. He continued, “Among other things the directors of the Fair should not attempt to duplicate at Flushing Meadow what you have at the Performing Arts.”

In 1961, architect Philip Johnson reveals plans for Lincoln Center’s new venue
In 1961, architect Philip Johnson reveals plans for Lincoln Center’s new venue Bob Serating

Aside from avoiding duplication of effort, the Fair could not hope to approximate the acoustics in its temporary structures that Lincoln Center was on the path to achieving in its permanent buildings. Another reason cited for establishing Lincoln Center as a satellite site for the Fair was to accommodate visitors. Studies at similar events found visitors liked to head back to their hotels for dinner or rest and preferred not to have to return to the fairgrounds in the evening. Hosting the performing arts at Lincoln Center gave visitors another location to visit. In addition, as Robert Kopple, Executive Vice President of the New York World’s Fair 1964 Corporation, would later write, “One of the major items that I believe we can contribute to the interpretation of the World’s Fair theme ‘Peace Through Understanding’ is the cultural contribution to understanding that has been developed throughout our civilized world through the medium of music, art, literature, and theatre.”

Rockefeller responded on September 4, 1959, thanking Moses for his “suggestion about the possible relationship between the proposed 1964 World’s Fair and programs which may be running at Lincoln Center.” If Rockefeller sounds a little wary in his words, it could stem from this letter being written just 113 days after the ground-breaking of Lincoln Center on May 14, 1959, when the campus was still mostly a wide field of turned earth. Even so, Rockefeller commented on the benefit to both the Fair and Lincoln Center for programming in both locations to supplement one another, and turned leadership of the project over to Reginald Allen, Executive Director for Operation.

For his part, Allen felt confident Lincoln Center would be ready to host the World’s Fair. In his response, he “noted that 1964 should, with good fortune, be the first year that Lincoln Center might have attained completeness, at least insofar as the construction of its major theaters is concerned.” In fact, at this point, project timelines estimated that all buildings, including the Metropolitan Opera House and The Juilliard School would be completed by 1964. (Those buildings would not be completed until 1966 and 1969, respectively.)

According to Edgar B. Young, Lincoln Center’s Executive Vice President from 1962 to ’65, the possibility of state aid was explored under the direction of New York State Governor Nelson Rockefeller starting in 1960. The Governor believed that Lincoln Center needed to be a success, and he was concerned that it could not be funded solely on private contributions. A confidential advisor found there was precedent in the state providing money for a permanent structure at the World’s Fair. In 1939, the Aquacade was built to house the New York State exhibit and entertainment. Following the Fair, the building was turned over to the City for re-use. With this information, the Theater for Dance was seen as a reasonable focus for the State’s participation in the World’s Fair. LCPA sought 15 million dollars, which the State was inclined to approve, if New York City would match its contribution.

Guests admire the Elie Nadelman sculpture in the completed New York State Theater, 1964
Guests admire the Elie Nadelman sculpture in the completed New York State Theater, 1964 Bob Serating

The $15 million from New York City would cover the balance of the cost of the Theater for Dance and the rest applied to the Library-Museum. John D. Rockefeller 3rd wrote Mayor Robert Wagner on September 14, 1960, with the request.

On March 24, 1961, the New York State Legislature passed a bill to allocate funding for the theater, which in a press release on March 27, 1961, is referred to for the first time officially as the New York State Theater in recognition of the government’s support of the project. Following the appropriation of funds, LCPA and the World’s Fair Commission signed a memorandum of understanding on April 6, 1961, which designated Lincoln Center as the Fair’s host for “performances of opera, symphonic and ensemble music, ballet, and theatrical attractions”.

While announcing the state legislation, General Maxwell D. Taylor, LCPA’s president in 1961, expressed sorrow that New York City had yet to come through in its support of the project but also hope that the City would eventually match the state’s contribution. That hope, fostered by diligence and patience, culminated with the City Council’s approval on August 30, 1962.

While the World’s Fair hosted events to mark the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth in addition to an impressive lineup of international and domestic acts, the mainstay of programming throughout the festival in 1964 and 1965 was the New York City Ballet, which opened the New York State Theater on April 23, 1964, performing Stars and Stripes. Though the Theater for Dance was designed for the Ballet, NYCB did not become a constituent until April 12, 1965.

Despite setting the precedent for New York State funding a permanent structure as part of the World’s Fair, the Aquacade lasted only 27 years and was demolished in 1966. As part of the Lincoln Center campus, for five and a half decades what was the New York State Theater continues as a nexus for excellence in dance and showcasing the performing arts in the David H. Koch Theater.

Bonnie Marie Sauer is Director of Archives and Records Management at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

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