“…an eerie windowless space with a cathedral-high ceiling and irregularly curved walls that suggest convulsive ripples in time and space.”
“Stepping into the Great Hall is one of those ‘Oh, my God’ experiences.”
“Its glory is one of the grandest, eeriest, and least-seen spaces in all New York.”
“Standing in the darkened room, towered over by undulating walls of glowing blue glass, I literally felt like I had left the planet.”
“…at least as futuristic as it is medieval.”
One of New York City’s signature spaces, the Great Hall is NYSCI’s original exhibition gallery, constructed for the 1964-65 World’s Fair. Designed by Wallace K. Harrison, the Great Hall has undulating walls that rise 100-feet tall with no corners or straight segments. The Great Hall is an example of a technique called dalle de verre, which Harrison previously employed in his design of the Fish Church in Stamford, Conn. Small segments of glass are arranged within a concrete structure. More than 5,000 2 x 3-foot panels make up the facade. They were hung by hooks inlaid into the cast-in-place structure and panels.
The Hall of Science was not in the original plan for the World’s Fair. It’s inclusion at the Fair came after a prolonged political struggle between a group of planners trying to build a museum of science in Manhattan on one side and Mayor Robert Wagner and World’s Fair Corporation President Robert Moses on the other. Ultimately, the City endorsed a plan to use City dollars to build a Hall of Science pavilion for the World’s Fair and then convert and expand it into a proper museum after the Fair’s completion. Because of this delay, the Hall of Science did not open at the start of the 1964 season. Groundbreaking occurred on June 19, 1963, but construction took place throughout the first summer of the Fair, and the Hall of Science finally opened on September 9, 1964. Following the Fair, months of renovation and exhibit relocation took place before the Hall re-opened as a permanent museum on September 21, 1966.
In the ensuing half-century, the Great Hall has been home to a wide array of exhibitions and performances, not to mention several film shoots and at least two paper airplane competitions. In 1988, Ned Kahn built a 20-foot tall tornado sculpture. In 2012, Bjork moved in for a five-show residency to premiere her album Biophilia. Lightning has also struck within the walls of the Great Hall, courtesy of Arc Attack at World Maker Faire in 2010 and 2011. And there have been performances by acts ranging from circus aerialists to Chinese lion dancers. An archive of Great Hall exhibitions and performances is in formation here.
Beginning in 2008, NYSCI undertook a comprehensive modernization effort with $25 million in capital support from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, the New York City Council and the Office of the Queens Borough President. Major philanthropic support was also generously provided by American Express.
Repairs to the exterior facade were completed in 2009, and renovations to the interior and its surrounding plaza will be completed in 2014.
Wallace Harrison was also the architect of the United Nations headquarters, the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center, and the Empire State Plaza in Albany. The antecedents of the Great Hall’s design extend from medieval cathedrals to mid-20th century architectural innovations, such as the aesthetic exploration of reinforced concrete. When built, the Great Hall was the largest poured-in-place concrete structure in the world, involving unique technologies and systems.
The original Great Hall exhibition was Rendezvous in Space, which featured Frank Capra’s final film, narrated by Danny Thomas with (uncredited) voices by Mel Blanc. The film was projected onto a suspended screen in the Hall, and when the film ended, two space modules performed a docking maneuver overhead. Outside the Great Hall, a stairway led down to a series of underground galleries containing exhibits such as “Atomsville USA,” which was designed to explain nuclear energy to children, and “Biological Wonders, which traced sensory perception through a “brain” made of 38 miles of wire and 30,000 lights. In keeping with Fair’s twin themes of “Man’s Achievements in an Expanding Universe” and “A Millennium of Progress,” the Hall and its exhibits were designed to celebrate the boundless potential of science and technology for human betterment. It was a time when Americans were intrigued by the space program, as well as by the promise of a computer age and nuclear power that could provide electricity “too cheap to meter.” The flip side of the coin was the worry that with the Soviet Union’s launching of Sputnik, the United States was far behind the Russians in science, and the Fair was intended, in part, to help American children “catch up” as well as demonstrate America’s own scientific and technological prowess.
In his dedication, Mayor Robert Wagner said he hoped that in this building “the advances of science will be reflected and the history of science will be dramatized. Here there will be demonstrated the great ladder which leads from the firm footing of tested facts upwards, upwards toward the moon, toward our sister planets, outward into boundless space.”
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