Small World

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In 1992 the Queens Museum began a three-year $15 million renovation, including an $850,000 overhaul and renovation of the Panorama by Lester Associates. Landfill would be added to shoreline areas, buildings added or removed, playground and park areas brought up to date, roads and airports modified, even more tiny tombstones added to the city’s cemeteries—nearly sixty thousand changes in all.

During the late spring of 1992 the Panorama was taken apart and returned to Lester Associates in six semi-trailers. “Thirty years’ worth of dirt was a major problem,” says Joseph Ivanick. “We had to start there.”

Each panel was cleaned, first with small bristle brushes and vacuum cleaners, then with larger brushes and water. Next the model makers used the land maps, the same ones from the original Panorama, and a new development, satellite photographs, to begin block-by-block changes. Time had taken its toll on the phosphorescent paint, and most of the windows had to be redone, as did the lighting system representing city facilities.

BY LATE 1994 THE RENOVA- tion was complete, and the Panorama was reloaded into the trucks for the trip back to Queens and an exciting new environment designed by Rafael Viñoly Architects. A new entrance faces the Unisphere, and a ramp connects the two levels of the museum, “echoing,” according to one curator, “all the ramps of the World’s Fair’s past.” Access to the Panorama has been vastly improved, allowing visitors to get much closer to the massive model than ever before. Cantilevered glass floors make them feel as if they are flying high over the city.

And residents of Far Rockaway can take satisfaction in having their homes fully represented at last. The orphaned panel that was never installed had been saved, and during the renovation the structure was altered so it could finally join the rest of the city. “Yes, Far Rockaway is finally in,” says Ivanick. “It sure would have been a shame to leave it out twice .”

NOTHING LIKE THE PANO- rama will ever be built again. Today’s world’s fairs and expos are dominated by technological extravaganzas, while the combination of computers and cinema makes it possible to create a city of the past, present, or future on the screen with comparative ease. At the Seville World’s Fair in 1992 every pavilion, save one, was devoted to a movie. And a film can be repackaged to generate additional income after the fair ends. A model, especially on the scale of the Panorama, needs a permanent home or has to be destroyed.

The refurbished Panorama is a miniature mirror of the New York of today, but it still reflects the vision of Robert Moses. John Tierney, writing in The New York Times Magazine , lamented, “The good news was that the Panorama looked just like the original. That was also the bad news … all in all, the three decades’ worth of building looked like about six months’ work for Moses.”

Moses’s brand of social engineering got things done, but his empire was built on implicit faith in big government and public authority. Today’s New York, with years of neglect, reduced tax revenues, and endless regulations, finds it hard to maintain itself, much less consider projects on the scale of those created by Moses. But New York is a city that thrives on chance. We can only hope that thirty years from now Lester Associates will be loading the Panorama into trucks for another sixty thousand changes. Robert Moses would have wanted it that way.

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