David Oats: Continuing His Fight For Our Parks
David Oats, in front of the New York State Pavilion, displays an architectural model.
(Photo: Greg Godfrey)
By Michael Schenkler
David Oats is gone but his force shall remain as an everlasting message to preserve our history and preserve our parks.
We reprint one of the last park advocacy pieces David shared with us. It was sent by his Flushing Meadows-Corona Park World’s Fair Association to then newly elected governor Eliot Spitzer.
For more information see: www.newyorkstatepavilion.org/revivenewyorkstate.pdf.
- M Schenkler
January 1, 2007
Day One, Everything Changes
Dear Mr. Governor:
Congratulations on becoming the 54th Governor of the State of New York.
Your campaign slogan above is an encouraging and energizing call for a truly new day of renewal for the Empire State. The other campaign themes you espoused were brilliantly and inspiringly summed up by your call to bring ‘passion back to Albany’ and in the theme song ‘...let it shine’.
Symbols can be important and potent ways to register a visible message that change is possible...and on the way. One of your illustrious predecessors as Governor of N.Y., Franklin D. Roosevelt, knew this well and changed the state and the nation.
And that is why with a sense of hope and optimism - but also a sense of urgency and distress, we bring this issue to your attention. It has to do with the state and future of a symbol that carries the name of the State you now lead. Specifically, the towering New York State Pavilion in Flushing Meadows.
To get immediately to our main point - Mr. Governor, TAKE THAT BUILDING BACK from the hands of a city that for 40 years has ignored, abused, neglected and debased a heroic symbol of the Empire State.
Our vision for this is fairly simple and we will explain here both the problems - and the possibilities. The New York State Pavilion is the tallest structure in New York City’s largest park. It was built for the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair and its height was dictated by Federal Aviation standards for a building in the direct proximity and flight path of LaGuardia Airport. The FAA has strict requirements that structures exceeding 200 feet tall have a red aviation light. This tower is 226 feet high and that important safety light was OUT for over three months in 2006 until our Association brought it to public light.
When our Association reported the light was out to the FAA, they said it was the responsibility of the landlord of the structure to report the outage within 30 MINUTES!
Despite the fact that the Parks Department has headquarters adjacent to the structure in the park, they were clueless about the problem, and after last year’s fatal Manhattan hi-rise airplane tragedy, it was only when our civic group notified the FAA, the Parks Dept. and the media that they woke up and took action on a serious safety concern for park users and airline passengers alike.
And what did they do to turn that red light back on?
They had to bring in mountain climbers to rope their way to the top of the tower. That’s right...mountain climbers.
To turn a light back on.
The light was also out in 2005. To put it back on then, the city said it got a huge crane and paid $12,000 to put the light back on. Twelve thousand dollars for a light bulb change! And more recently, mountain climbers! To put a light bulb on! Something is wrong with this picture and now we’ll give a brief reason why there is, well, something very wrong here.
Quite simply, they can’t get to the top of the tower because: The city let the sky elevators decay and rot. One is stuck in the basement, the other one has been stuck for four decades high in the sky in the tower. They can no longer access the tower because the staircase of the tower has, by lack of basic maintenance, become impassable because of decades of bird feces. So, we have $12,000 light bulb changes and mountain climbers to take care of a Federal safety requirement - because the city never maintained this structure. To change a light bulb!
In 1967, New York’s master builder Robert Moses handed over to the NY City Parks Department a completed 1,258 acre park in the geographic and population center of the city - a decades long dream of transforming a huge ash and garbage dump into the site of two World’s Fairs and first home of the United Nations, and finally a great public park. He sought in the words of the ancient Prophet Isaiah “to give the city beauty for ashes.”
On the day the park was handed back to the city, Moses said “Guard it well, Mr. Mayor and Mr. Parks Commissioner. It has echoed to the sounds of many footsteps and voices. The world has beaten a path to its doors. Now we return it to the natives.”
Well, today - we the natives of Queens and New York are getting restless. And angry.
The list of crimes against this structure is long. But to list just a few:
I - The rotunda of the pavilion, which featured a terrazzo map of New York State, was turned into a rollerskating rink thus starting the damage to this priceless work of art and homage to the State of New York.
That was in the 1970’s.
II- When it appeared that the beautiful stained-glass window that covered the rotunda might have some minor structural problems, the city just eliminated it by smashing the glass 100 feet to the map on the ground below, thus further destroying the map.
III- With the map exposed to the elements - rain, wind, ice, snow and vandals who would enter the empty pavilion it was doomed.
IV- The iconic towers and elevators were left unmaintained and over four decades made them useless for even simple maintenance and safety issues such as the aircraft safety light on top.
V - Adding insult to injury, in the early 80’s, our Association exposed the fact that the giant pavilion’s rotunda was used as a storage space for hazardous and toxic chemicals that the Parks Dept. needed “some place” to put, thus exposing the park going public a major health hazard.
We could go on and on. The recent aviation red light incident only highlights the depths to which the city has allowed this once glorious tribute to New York State become instead of a beacon of light - a tower of tragedy.
Day One, Mr. Governor, everything must change.
This magnificent structure has weathered forty years under the uncaring and unwatchful eye of the New York City Parks Department. And it is an embarrassment and atrocity of a symbol for the proud Empire State. Please Governor Spitzer, view this as a brave and clearly visible symbol of New York State’s resurgence and new life.
The taxpayers of this state paid $12 million to build this proud pavilion. Today, that would be over $85 million dollars. It was considered one of the greatest architectural triumphs of the world exposition and one of its most popular. It danced and sung to the heartbeats of all the counties, villages, towns and cities of this state from Buffalo to Jones Beach. It has been a cultural museum and theater from the pop-art of Andy Warhol during the World’s Fair to the drama and comedy of today’s Theatre in the Park, the only portion of this structure serving the public today.
But like the proverbial ‘elephant in the living room,’ this structure, designed, by one of the 20th century’s greatest architects, Philip Johnson, stands looming over the park - a giant landmark - a piece of the fabric of New York but forgotten and neglected by its caretakers. It is time that this ends.
Mr. Governor, we urge you today to take that building back and let New York State, and your administration, reclaim the pavilion that bears its name.
Let The New York State Pavilion once again stand high and tall and proud as the symbol of the Empire State.
First make the building safe to the public - government’s number one priority. Make sure we don’t have to spend taxpayer’s dollars for mountain climbers to screw a light bulb in. Second, we are asking the New York State Historic Trust to name this structure a Historic Landmark, something they have indicated they would do if were not for the City’s opposition. We will also demand that the City Landmarks Preservation Commission declare this structure what it is in reality - a Landmark.
Finally, we will not get involved with the city’s endless years of miasma and web of proposals and masterplans that go nowhere in their bloated bureaucracy. Take the suggestion of the building’s architect, Philip Johnson. Let the structure stand as a “glorious ruin.” Light it up, make it safe and preserve it - time and history will take care of the rest.
In Europe and elsewhere in the world, they have come to learn and treasure the glory of ruins. In Rome, the Coliseum and Forum, in Athens, the Parthenon, the Great Wall of China - around the globe certain structures stand for something great in civilization. Our Association saw what we were able to accomplish in saving the old 1939 World’s Fair Parachute Jump by having it landmarked and lit up beautifully. The parachute jump has begun the centerpiece for the rebirth of America’s first great entertainment center, Coney Island.
The City of New York has proven - over forty years - that they are an absentee landlord, or worse a slumlord to this historic building. Have the State take it back, Mr. Governor.
Let The New York State Pavilion stand as a shining light and symbol of a resurgent Empire State.
Respectfully submitted, David G. Oats, Founder and Chairman; Greg M. Godfrey, President