What did you say they are?
Ever since Gustave Eiffel erected his famous tower at Paris' 1889 Exposition Universelle, succeeding fairs desperately attempted to replicate its unrivaled success. Chicago's 1893 Columbian Exposition came closest with George Ferris' giant spinning wheel. Therefore, planners for "The World of Tomorrow" undertook a dauntless search for an epochal symbol for the '39 fair. They soon discovered THE iconic representation for the 1930s.
Suggestions abounded for the fair's signature symbol. An early proposal centered on a large statue of Diana similar to Augustus Saint-Gaudens' sculpture which graced the top of the Columbian Exposition's Agriculture Building. That seemed too World of Yesterday.
The design board hired Wallace K. Harrison and André Fouilhoux's architectural firm. Harrison stated: "They have a wonderful theme here, and our problem is to find something that will express it quickly to those who approach. The essence of the fair is the expression of the life of the future and that is the idea that we will try to develop in the most modern way."
The architects presented a circular theme building dominated by three-hundred-foot twin towers. A circular theater within the 95,300 square feet of floor space would house a diorama showing the interaction between rural and urban life and production and distribution. That seemed too World of Today.
Harrison and Fouilhoux returned to their drawing boards.
In mid-March 1937 Grover Whalen proudly announced: "We promised the world something new in fair architecture, and here it is - something radically different and yet fundamentally as old as man's experience." (Whalen may have been correct that the design was "as old as man's experience." In mid - July 1939 Dr. Charles Toll, an Amherst psychology professor, sent an engraving showing a similar heavenly structure published in an 1875 Bible to Harrison and Foulihoux.) We feel that simplicity must be the keynote of a perfectly ordered mechanical civilization."
Whalen unveiled an artist's rendering – a massive theme sphere connected to a towering pylon. But, what was it?
New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses proclaimed the fair's publicity department put a terrific strain on the English language. Unable to find any appropriate designations, they simply dubbed the duo the Trylon and Perisphere: Trylon - tri (three) sided pylon and Perisphere - peri (beyond or around) a sphere. And to add another entry in Webster's Unabridged, they labeled the exit ramp from the Perisphere - the Helicline.
While the general public accepted the terminology, a most persistent question remained: What do they represent? Explanations varied according to the source. Persons in the know insisted they stood for Faith, Hope and Charity or Aspiration and Dispair. One wag concluded the duo reflected the high cost of living and the difficulty of getting around.
The Trylon and Perisphere's radical design required extensive research experiments.
After wind tunnel tests, engineers insisted the Perisphere be raised four feet off the ground to prevent the water from being sucked out of the pool underneath the huge ball during a wind storm. The elevation caused an esthetic problem, however. The Persiphere no longer appeared to be balancing on the water and an architectural critic found its eight mirror - encased legs resembled "colonnades in a department store."
These same wind tunnel tests also found the Perisphere could withstand winds up to 90 miles per hour. Wind velocity produces a pressure of 30 pounds per square foot on a flat surface, such as a bridge truss, but only 15 pounds per square foot on a spherical surface. The engineers gleefully declared that in a major storm the Perisphere would not blow off its pedestal.
On April 8, 1938 Grover Whalen and Edward Stettinius, chairman of U. S. Steel, drove bolts into a steel shield with an air hammer, symbolically initiating the Perisphere's construction beside the partially completed Trylon. On August 13, Mayor La Guardia celebrated the completion of the Trylon and Perisphere. Of the fifty-four steelworkers who assembled the theme center, only a crushed toe marred their work record.
Advertisements now filled the print media from companies proud of their part played in the Trylon and Perisphere, and also seeking further business: Armstrong Building Products - the Helicline paved with Armstrong's sure-tread, long-wearing Monocork; Johnson Automatic Temperature and Air Conditioning Control; Westinghouse – two escalators; U. S. Gypsum Company - sheathing for the Trylon and Perisphere; U. S. Steel - structure steel; Celotex - acoustical materials; B. F. Sturlevant Company - air conditioning at 160 tons per hour.
As with the rest of the fair, the Perisphere took on a totally new appearance after dusk. Richard Engelken designed the huge white sphere's color transformation into a myriad of hues for the evening utilizing color filters over the 5000-watt incandescent spotlights aimed at the theme center. Westinghouse's director of applied lighting, Samuel Hibben, believed Engleken's innovative techniques would soon replace wallpaper in modern homes.
Engelken's designs, utilizing 340 projectors and fifty-four mercury - capillary lamps banked on the roofs of nearby buildings, included patriotic red, white and blue stripes and clouds passing over a blue sky.
While the theme center's image dominated the pre – opening print media for months, the visitor's desire to witness the Trylon and Perisphere personally never wore thin. Fairgoers felt an impelling urge to immediately head towards the theme center. Comments such as startling, exciting, unique, magnetic, and an architectural beauty seemed barely to suffice.
Arthur Gruterman warned:
Let no one vent his bile on
The starward – pointing Trylon
At this our Perisphere.
Perhaps Joe del Percio awarded the Trylon and the Perisphere its review. Standing in the theme center, the fourteen year old Queens native commented: "This was our ball field, here at the Perisphere. Over there by the parking lot was the golf course where we worked as caddies. The fair wiped out both of them and we were pretty sore for a while, but this makes it all right."
Henry Pringle, also in a poetic mood, felt differently about the fair's iconic symbols.
The Trylon and the Perisphere
Which mark the two this busy year,
Are both, perhaps, a trifle queer.
Others agreed with Mr. Pringle about "such a strange contraption since Ferris' wheel at the Columbian Exposition."
Robert Moses, the always opinionated park commissioner, said "Barnum had his sacred white elephant and every fair is entitled to at least one theme tower." Harold Urey, the Nobel Prize winning scientist, felt dismayed over the meaningless symbols of a sphere with a long shaft standing beside it. And Gutzon Borglum, in the midst of creating Mount Rushmore, somewhat disagreed with Mr. Urey, finding the Perisphere acceptable but the Trylon "the most meaningless thing in creation."
The vast white Perisphere of April 30 unfortunately soon resembled a stale snowball due to dust and soot. With George VI and Queen Elizabeth expected in mid-June, painters began a refurbishing of the great sphere with fresh coats of "theme white." Steeplejack John Spidone lowered himself in a boson's chair from one of the sixteen vents in the Perisphere's crown to slap on the rubbe-based white paint.
The Trylon didn't fare as well. On October 28, days before the first season's closing, seventy-five square feet of plaster from its northwest triangle unexpectedly fell to the ground. Fortunately its trajectory missed patrons on the Perisphere's Helicline. Engineers assessed autumn storms with heavy winds and rains loosened the plaster. Within two weeks, three additional holes appeared. The fair's maintenance crew resurfaced the Trylon at a cost of $35,000 over the winter break.
The hapless Trylon experienced yet another embarrassment during the 1940 season. On July 27, heavy storm clouds rolled across Flushing Meadows. Within the next twenty minutes, lightning struck the 700- foot Trylon four times with minimal damage.
Although many requested the Trylon and Perisphere remain in the proposed Flushing Meadows park, practical heads prevailed. Meant only as a temporary installation, a permanent Trylon and Persiphere would require massive renovations. Instead, industrial plants throughout the United States repurposed their structural steel for World War II armaments.