Symbols of the Fair: The Trylon and Perisphere
Black ink drawing on vellum showing detail of “World’s Fair-Astoria” electric sign for Grand Central Station on the IRT Flushing Line (today’s 7 train). NYTM Collection, 8/24/1939.
The Trylon and Perisphere were the iconic structures of the 1939 World’s Fair. Towering over other buildings at the center of the fairgrounds in Flushing Meadows, the Trylon measured in at 610’ and the Perisphere stretched to the height of an 18-story building, visible from Manhattan and the Bronx. No longer standing, they were for a short time international symbols for the “World of Tomorrow.”
Architects Wallace Harrison, Max Abramovitz, and J. Andre Fouilhoux opted for a simple yet modern theme, basing the buildings off basic geometric figures. The architects balanced the Perisphere on eight small pylons, masking the structural supports with strategically placed fountains. The setup gave visitors the illusion of a weightless ball rotating above jets of water. The Trylon took inspiration from the Washington Monument, honoring the 150th anniversary of George Washington’s inauguration in New York City.
Trylon and Perisphere, 1939. Lent by the Found Image Press.
Despite careful planning, the architects ran into problems. The rising costs of concrete during the Great Depression made the material too expensive to use. Covered by gypsum instead, the structures developed bumpy surfaces, detracting from their sleek modern aesthetic. Even still, they wowed fairgoers, lighting up at night with patterned projections.
Inside the Perisphere, in an area about twice the size of Radio City Music Hall, the Democracity exhibit offered visitors a fantastic look into life in the future. Conceived by industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss, the same man who designed the iconic Twentieth Century Limited trains inaugurated in 1938, the huge model featured skyscrapers, open spaces, parkways and freeways, with lives structured around suburban “Pleasantvilles” and industrial-residential “Millvilles.” “Centeron” acted as the cultural, educational, and corporate center for this miniature community. Dim lights and phosphorescent paint gave buildings the illusion of light from within as visitors gazed down from rotating balconies and a narrator described the exciting new life presented before their eyes.
Dreyfuss himself strongly believed in the world depicted in his handiwork. To him, Democracity was not an “impossible dream of a Jules Verne or an H. G. Wells.” Instead, it was a city that could be constructed using advancing technological knowledge, a city for the world of tomorrow.
As we celebrate the 75th Anniversary of the 1939 World’s Fair, how do you envision the “World of Tomorrow?”
The new exhibition, Traveling in the World of Tomorrow: The Future of Transportation at New York’s World’s Fairs, is free and open to the public, running from July 26 to November 2 in the Transit Museum Gallery Annex at Grand Central Terminal.