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Beyond the Village and Back: The Queens Museum

Opened in 1972 as the Queens County Art and Cultural Center, the Queens Museum stands in the midst of busy Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in a building as old as the park itself, when it was created out of the Flushing River wetlands, garbage dump, and ash heap that had been located here (immortalized by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby) in 1939. Inside are unique collections that reflect the diversity of the borough, as well as The Panorama of New York City, the 9,335-sq.-ft. model of every street, building, and park in all five boroughs, including Greenwich Village, built to a scale of 1 in.:100 ft. But aside from having a tiny piece (or scale model) of Greenwich Village inside, this noteworthy New York institution’s home has one other important connection to Greenwich Village — its very existence can be traced back to one very prominent resident of our neighborhood.

Queens Museum at Night, photo by Scott Rudd

The institution is housed in the New York City Building, designed by Aymar Embury II and built for the 1939-40 World’s Fair to feature exhibits on the city’s municipal agencies. One of the few World’s Fair structures intended to be permanent, it was also the temporary home of the United Nations General Assembly from 1946 to 1950, prior to the organization moving to Manhattan. The New York City Pavilion was redesigned for the 1964-65 World’s Fair by architect Daniel Chait to house Panorama.

The New York City building, ca. 1939.

The museum was given a home in the Pavilion in 1972, part of nearly a dozen improvements the city completed for Flushing Meadows-Corona Park that year. Today, the institution’s permanent collection consists of around 10,000 items, including more than 6,000 documents and objects related to the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs, some of which are on long-term display.

So what’s the connection?

Grover Whalen, who lived at 43 Fifth Avenue in Greenwich Village from 1926 through the 1930s, dedicated his life to public service in New York City. Born in 1886, he was named commissioner of plants and structures in 1918 by Mayor John F. Hylan, a position that put him in charge of the city’s transportation system. He also proposed the idea of a city-run public radio station in 1922, an idea that eventually grew into today’s WNYC. From 1928 to 1930, he served as police commissioner under Mayor Jimmy Walker; he was a strict enforcer of Prohibition laws, and became embroiled in controversy after 1,000 baton-wielding policemen confronted 35,000 marchers at the International Unemployment Day demonstration on March 6, 1930.

In the 1930s, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia appointed him chair of the Mayor’s Committee on Receptions to Distinguished Guests. The new position allowed him to officially welcome celebrities to the city, making him a familiar face to New Yorkers.

Grover Whalen accepting a check from a General Electric official, courtesy NYPL Digital Collections

In 1935, that face became even more well known when he was named president of the New York World Fair Corporation, and put in charge of the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair. The event hosted exhibits from 60 countries, the League of Nations, 33 states, several federal agencies, and the City of New York. The second most expensive American World’s Fair of all time, it lured over 44 million visitors in spite of the dark clouds of World War II which overshadowed the fair just five months after its opening. The fair introduced the iconic Trylon and Perisphere to the world, television to the American public, many of the iconic rides from which Coney Island would come to be known like the Parachute Jump, and it began the tradition of World’s Fair’s endeavoring to provide a glimpse into the “World of Tomorrow.”

If you’d like to learn more about great landmarks like this located outside our neighborhoods with histories connected to Greenwich Village, the East Village, or NoHo, check out our Beyond the Village and Back Maps. We have one covering great landmarks below 72nd Street as well as one that covers Upper Manhattan and the Outer Boroughs.

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