Scanning a Slice of Queens

By Nicholas Hirshon
Published May 28, 2014
Wall Street Journal

The 50th anniversary of the World’s Fair in Queens has sparked calls to restore the New York State Pavilion—and a rush to document perhaps the city’s most famous ruin for posterity.

Researchers from the University of Central Florida will trek to the landmark in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park next week to create a three-dimensional scan of the pavilion, from its uneven floors to its deteriorating walls.

“It is really important for future generations to have an understanding of what it looked like in its most minute detail 50 years after the fair,” said Lori Walters, a history professor who will be scanning the pavilion with two colleagues from June 2 to June 6.

Rarely do dormant buildings survive as long as the pavilion has in real-estate-starved New York City, where older structures are often demolished to make way for apartments, offices and stores. Situated in a city park, the abandoned pavilion has eluded developers and remained a constant in an ever-changing cityscape.

The structure probably won’t stay like that much longer. A city study last year reported that demolishing the pavilion would cost $14 million, far less than the $52 million price for restoration. But the fair’s 50th anniversary this spring has generated media coverage, public interest and political promises to rehab the structure.

During the 1964 fair, the Space Age structure held exhibits on New York state, including a giant road map on the floor of an elliptical plaza known as the Tent of Tomorrow. With unusual curved towers that had cafeterias and an observation deck, the building gained even more fame after the fair thanks to cameos in movies including “The Wiz,” “Men in Black” and “Iron Man 2.”

Along with the Unisphere, the pavilion has become an unofficial symbol of Queens, visible from three major roadways. In 2002, the pavilion’s renowned architect, Philip Johnson, wrote that the ruin was “even more haunting than the original structure.”

“It tells a moment in the history of New York,” Dr. Walters said.

To document the pavilion’s ruinous state, the researchers will place high-speed 3-D laser scanners, each about the size of a football, atop tripods around the structure. Dr. Walters plans to stitch together about 50 to 60 images, with scanning lasting as long as half an hour in some parts, to capture the detail of the pavilion.

The researchers won’t be allowed to ascend the towers, which were once accessible by elevators that have since been stripped from their cables and stairs now so worn that they are treacherous to climb. Instead the towers, which are 60, 150 and 226 feet tall, will be scanned from the ground.

The scans will be stored in an archive for posterity and posted online to create a virtual tour, Dr. Walters said.

Relatively few buildings have been preserved in such novel fashion. Digital scanning was championed in recent years by the California nonprofit group CyArk, which has scanned more than 130 historic sites on all seven continents since its inception in 2003, according to its chief technology advocate, Justin Barton.

Conflict and severe weather threaten many landmarks documented by CyArk. Mount Rushmore, which is subject to cyclical freeze and thaw, was scanned in case “a portion of a nose or an ear or something” falls off, Dr. Walters said.

The university researchers are prepared to scan the pavilion by themselves, but CyArk is running an online fundraising campaign that would allow Mr. Barton to accompany Dr. Walters’s crew should the group reach its $15,000 goal by June 1. The pavilion would be among the youngest buildings in CyArk’s archive, which includes sites in ancient Egypt, Greece and Italy.

Mr. Barton noted the urgency of scanning the pavilion. While New Yorkers once considered their city and its landmarks immune from the most destructive natural disasters, a violent storm ripped the wooden steeple off a historic church in Flushing, Queens, in 2010, and superstorm Sandy ravaged Ellis Island in 2012.

“With climate change, it’s hard to say that things won’t happen in the future,” Mr. Barton said. “Weather’s becoming more unpredictable and severe in nature with the intensity of storms. The idea is to capture the data before something happens.”

Preservationist Mitch Silverstein, who has been repainting the pavilion with other volunteers for the past five years, said he believes the digital scans will preserve the look of the building just before its renaissance.

“This is really a historic moment,” he said. “Somehow the essence of the building should be captured.”

Matthew Silva, a preservation advocate and aspiring filmmaker who teaches technology at Jericho Middle School on Long Island, said he would take his eighth-grade students to meet the researchers at the pavilion.

“It’s not important to me that the kids become architects or become preservationists,” said Mr. Silva, who is making a documentary about the pavilion titled “Modern Ruin,” which he hopes to show at a film festival. “But it is important to me that the kids for the rest of their lives can share with people the story of the New York State Pavilion.”

50 Years Later, World’s Fair Lampposts are a Bright Light for Collectors

By Nicholas Hirshon
Published February 7, 2014
Wall Street Journal

Along Route 447 in the Pocono Mountains is a ribbon of retro lampposts topped by squares of ivory, orange, blue, and turquoise, fading away like panels of a Rubik’s Cube that was left out in the sun. They are bulky and heavy, rusty and dirty.

No matter to Mitch Silverstein.

“I would make space now if I could get a hold of one,” said Mr. Silverstein, 55 years old, of Nyack, N.Y. “It reflects our mortality. You’re grabbing something that reminds you of your youth and preserving it.”

Half a century ago, these lampposts dotted the grounds of the 1964-1965 World’s Fair in Queens, an array of whimsical exhibits and rides spread across 646 acres that would become Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. After the fair, a set of the luminaires, as they are known, was shipped 100 miles to Analomink, Pa., to welcome honeymooners to the Penn Hills Resort.

With the 50th anniversary of the fair’s opening this spring, online retailers are peddling books and trinkets from the fair for baby boomers high on nostalgia. But ardent collectors such as Mr. Silverstein have their eyes set on the luminaires at Penn Hills, which closed several years ago and recently transferred into new hands.

“They were just totally different from any other streetlight at the time,” said Bill Cotter, co-author of the new book “Images of Modern America: The 1964-1965 New York’s World’s Fair.”

The group that owns the property, Penn Resort Investments LLC, would prefer to keep the landmark lampposts at the 61.7-acre resort and sell the place as a whole, said one of the company’s principals, David Keller. But Mr. Keller, who said the group turned down an offer of $10,000 for the 10 luminaires on the grounds, said he and his partners could be convinced to sell the lampposts for the right price.

A spokesman for the Queens Museum, which is housed in the former New York City pavilion from the 1964-1965 fair, said the museum isn’t interested in buying the lights but would be open to accepting them as a donation.

Built by Westinghouse, the luminaires came in 76 modular configurations, from only four cubes per post to as many as 16, in vibrant colors like red, yellow, violet, coral, olive green, and chartreuse, according to renderings and fair brochures. Each translucent panel fit into a metal framework, and below them was a sound speaker.

After the fair closed, the luminaires could be found at salvage yards outside the fairgrounds, Mr. Cotter said. They resurfaced at the Villa Vosilla resort in Tannersville, N.Y.; the Orange County Fairgrounds in Middletown, N.Y., and as far away as the Oklahoma State Fairgrounds.

A 1978 TV commercial for Penn Hills played a romantic jingle—“If you’re in love, you’ll love Penn Hills”—over scenes of biking, dancing, tennis, horseback riding, and a large swimming pool with two luminaires nearby.

But the ranks of luminaires, which numbered about 1,800 at the world’s fair, have dwindled to no more than 200 today, by Mr. Cotter’s estimate.

The lamps’ 16-inch plexiglass cubes make them fragile and clunky to collect. Still, graphic designer Doug Seed, 62, managed to save four when Canobie Lake Park in Salem, N.H., scrapped most of them in 2009.

“You can’t not remember the lampposts,” said Mr. Seed, who went to the fair in each of its two summer seasons. “Where else were you going to see these things?”

Mr. Seed eventually gave away two lamps to friends he met on a world’s fair message board, furniture shop owner Gary Holmes, 60, of Wurtsboro, N.Y., and Long Island contractor John Piro, 64.

That made three luminaires for Mr. Holmes, who previously salvaged one from a shuttered restaurant in Liberty, N.Y., and another from a bungalow community near Wurtsboro.

“I’m still kind of a world’s fair nut,” Mr. Holmes said. “I’m interested in just making sure these things don’t get lost or totally destroyed. Even though there are hundreds of these around, you should try to save a few because you never know what will happen to them.”

Mr. Piro, meanwhile, worked his luminaire into the deck in his backyard in Westbury, rewiring the lights to illuminate his barbecues on summer nights and connecting the speaker to a radio.

“People come over and they’re mesmerized by it,” Mr. Piro said proudly. “It’s transcending—the lights and the shape. It’s absolutely beautiful. Every night I go out and turn it on.”

Mr. Cotter, the author, admitted that he would be in the market for a Penn Hills luminaire himself if not for the long haul from his home in Los Angeles to the Poconos, and the inevitable fight that would ensue with his wife over cluttering the house.

“Probably going to be a hard sell,” he said with a laugh, “but it’s awful tempting.”

In Queens, Paying Tribute to a Memorable Voice Some Would Rather Forget

By Nicholas Hirshon
Published July 13, 2013
Wall Street Journal

History teacher Carl Ballenas was eyeing a shady patch at the edge of Maple Grove Cemetery in Kew Gardens, Queens—Plot 5, where nothing but sticks and browning grass was visible.

It was on this spot in 1914 that the bodies of 21 destitute people were dumped into an unmarked grave. One of them was George W. Johnson, a former slave who was among the first widely successful black recording artists.

“He’s here – some place,” said Mr. Ballenas, his eyes scanning the dirt.

Next January will mark the centennial of the unceremonious death of Mr. Johnson, an anniversary that Mr. Ballenas hopes to mark by dignifying the humble grave, perhaps with a $10,000 relief of the singer’s face on a boulder or a $40,000 bronze bust.

But the same songs that propelled Mr. Johnson to fame could complicate efforts to commemorate him after a century of obscurity. A black man in a white business, he was paid to sing racist lyrics that mocked African Americans. The phonograph companies that hired him in the 1890s, at the birth of the recording industry, used derogatory terms for blacks on the song sheets.

Mr. Johnson had a seemingly sordid personal life, too. At the height of his career, he was arrested on suspicion of murdering his common law wife, though charges were never filed, according to historians. A few years later, Mr. Johnson went on trial for the murder of another common law wife who had been found beaten and unconscious in their apartment. Again, he was exonerated.

By the time of Mr. Johnson’s death, the African American community was not celebrating him. Only one black newspaper appears to have run an obituary, glossing over the offensive lyrics that Mr. Johnson sang. The NAACP had been founded five years earlier, and blacks sought to move on from an era of demeaning songs.

“There was an embarrassment about him,” said Tim Brooks, author of the 2005 book “Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1891-1922,” which contains a chapter on Mr. Johnson. “He was, if not rejected, certainly forgotten and just pushed out of the memory of people by the time he died.”

The unease about Mr. Johnson’s work still lingers. Ken Cohen, who oversees the city’s NAACP branches, said that Mr. Ballenas’s effort puts the association in a Catch-22. He said he believes every grave should be marked, but admitted that Mr. Johnson’s legacy made him “slightly uncomfortable.”

“He actually made a pretty good dollar for that time,” Mr. Cohen said. “Of course, it links back to how he made the dollar.”

Born to slaves in rural Virginia, Mr. Johnson moved after the Civil War to New York City, eking out a livelihood singing on the streets. His whistling in particular caught the attention of early phonograph companies, since the sharp sound was easy for primitive recording machines to pick up.

“He slurs his phrases and he goes from one note into another in a very kind of naturalistic, almost street way, and yet does it in a way that is extremely intelligible,” Mr. Brooks said.

So enduring were Mr. Johnson’s catchy tunes, in fact, that he is still lauded by the music community. In 2007, the Grammy Award for best historical album went to a CD that accompanied Mr. Brooks’s book. It featured many recordings from early black musicians, including several of Mr. Johnson’s songs.

Richard Martin, who produced the album for his company, Archeophone Records, said Mr. Johnson’s jovial personality convinced white audiences of the late 19th century to buy the music of a black man.

“He’s got this infectious laugh, he whistles and he’s non-threatening to white people,” Mr. Martin said. “He does have that vigor and that excitement, and he might be accompanied by a hot ragtime pianist.”

In his fundraising effort, Mr. Ballenas already has support from the Josephine Foundation, a Long Island-based nonprofit that sponsors arts programs. Its chairman, Andrew Koslosky, said the foundation would try to raise money by hosting a jazz concert at Maple Grove — without playing Mr. Johnson’s songs.

“I don’t think anybody is saying he is a saint, but what he did historically has to be noted,” Mr. Koslosky said.

Mr. Ballenas is also seeking a grant from the MusiCares Foundation, the charitable arm of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which awards the Grammys. The foundation encouraged Mr. Ballenas to apply, strengthening his hope that music aficionados will look past Mr. Johnson’s lyrics and to his pioneering role.

“I want to recognize him as a musician, not for what he had no control over,” Mr. Ballenas said. “We want to bring his story back to life.”

Queens Boulevard Loses a Movie Icon, Disguised as a Fast Food Joint

By Nicholas Hirshon
Published June 15, 2013
Wall Street Journal

Until recently, the Wendy’s restaurant in Elmhurst, Queens, bustled with customers. But over the last few weeks, crews removed tables and chairs, ripped down signs and set up wooden boards along the perimeter.

So went the demise of perhaps the most famous fast-food joint in cinema history.

Eddie Murphy mopped the floors there. Arsenio Hall washed the windows. Louie Anderson worked the register, and Samuel L. Jackson tried to rob the place.

That was 25 years ago this month, when this nondescript Wendy’s was transformed into McDowell’s restaurant for the 1988 blockbuster “Coming to America.”

The cult classic, which grossed $288 million worldwide, features Mr. Murphy as a good-natured African prince who journeys to Queens to find a queen of his own. He winds up working on Queens Boulevard at McDowell’s, a McDonald’s rip-off where many of the movie’s most memorable lines are uttered.

The Wendy’s fast food restaurant location on Queens Blvd. was recently shut down. But the building, whose shell remains largely unchanged from the time the movie was shot there, will soon be razed to make way for a $105-million, six-story structure with luxury apartments and ground-floor stores, said Nick Chavin, a spokesman for developer Jerry Pi.

Mr. Anderson, who played a downtrodden cashier in “Coming to America,” said he is sad to see the landmark go.

“Wow! For me, it was not so much a hamburger stand as a chance to appear in a movie that became somewhat iconic,” he said.

McDowell’s plays heavily into the “Coming to America” plot. Shortly after arriving in America, Prince Akeem Joffer (Mr. Murphy) and his companion Semmi (Mr. Hall) begin working at the restaurant, without disclosing Akeem’s royal roots. Hilarity ensues when the restaurant’s owner, Cleo McDowell (John Amos), tells Akeem and Semmi that he has a “little misunderstanding” with McDonald’s. “They got the Golden Arches. Mine is the Golden Arcs,” McDowell explains. “Now see, they got the Big Mac. I got the Big Mick.”

Mr. Amos, who also starred in the hit 1970s TV series “Good Times,” said that he used to drive by the old McDowell’s location to remember what he called “a hallmark of my career.”

“It’s sort of a historical landmark for me,” he said. “There is an attachment to the brick and mortar, but everything crumbles in time and you have to make way for the new stuff. I guess they call it progress, and in the process we lose a lot of memories.”

As the film continues, Akeem falls in love with McDowell’s daughter, Lisa, played by Shari Headley in her first movie role. Ms. Headley, who was 23 at the time, had a quick commute between the McDowell’s shoot in Elmhurst and her childhood home in St. Albans, Queens.

But the fast-food set-up confused passersby.

“People were coming by and they were like, ‘Wow, what’s this new place McDowell’s?’” Ms. Headley said. “They really thought they could come there and eat. So that was pretty funny.”

McDowell’s also witnessed one of Mr. Jackson’s first cinematic performances, long before his roles in “Pulp Fiction” and “A Time to Kill.” In a pivotal scene, Mr. Jackson marches into McDowell’s, fires a shotgun into the ceiling and demands the cashier empty the register. Lisa’s vain boyfriend Darryl (Eriq La Salle, of “E.R.” fame) hides behind a chair while Akeem and Semmi manage to disarm the hold-up man.

The blocks around McDowell’s also made cameos in the film. A running joke in the movie surrounds a hair product named Soul Glo, which Darryl applies incessantly to his Jheri curls. The film’s director, John Landis, said the studio wanted to plaster a Soul Glo ad on a billboard at Queens Boulevard and Broadway, but the man who rented the billboard refused to give up the space. Eventually, the sides agreed to a cumbersome solution – creating the Soul Glo ad on canvas.

“We would roll it down and cover his ad only for the length of the shot,” Mr. Landis said. “As soon as I said, ‘Cut,’ there were guys with walkie-talkies that would roll it up. I remember what a pain in the ass it was.”

The legacy of McDowell’s figures to outlive the building. The faux eatery has its own page on Yelp, with five glowing reviews from “Coming to America” fans from as far away as California and Texas. Online retailers also sell T-shirts with the McDowell’s logo, though the profits don’t go to the men who first imagined McDowell’s, the screenwriting team of Barry Blaustein and David Sheffield.

“I directed a few movies, and once an actor came in with a McDowell’s T-shirt, and he said, ‘Look, I got this for you!’” Mr. Blaustein said. “And I went, ‘I don’t receive a penny from it. It’s not a tribute!’”

But the writers may earn their keep yet. Mr. Sheffield revealed the pair is seeking a composer to adapt the film into a Broadway musical that would prominently feature McDowell’s.

“You’ve already got a potential production number at Soul Glo,” Sheffield said with a laugh. “And then you’ve got another big production number at McDowell’s. It’s got to include mops and roller buckets.”