“More fun than hooky”

When the Hall of Science opened as a museum in September 1966, it was an instant attraction. In the first three weeks, 25,000 people visited. “Frankly the acceptance of the Hall has passed everyone’s wildest expectations,” Francis Miller, the Executive Director, was quoted in the World Journal Tribune. “We are packed all the time, and on Sundays it’s wall-to-wall people.” The Hall offered classes that introduced schoolchildren to scientific-thinking. The waiting list stretched to the end of the year.

But the exhibits were a patchwork, and the facility built as a World’s Fair pavilion still had a way to go before becoming a proper museum. There was no shortage of vision. Plans called for expansion across 23 acres of Flushing Meadow Corona Park. One early consideration was to annex the Federal Pavilion (now the site of Arthur Ashe Stadium) at the opposite end of a campus that would span the Grand Central Parkway and include a life sciences center, exhibits on physics, oceanography, behavioral science, industry and transportation. On the 111th Street perimeter, the Atomic Energy Commission would install the country’s first Atomarium, a nuclear reactor built as a public display for educational and research purposes—a five-story amphitheater where visitors could look down through a 16-foot-wide peephole at a pool 23-feet deep to where the reactor’s core glowed blue.

Who would design this new Hall of Science? Robert Moses thought someone other than Wallace Harrison should be retained. Moses found Harrison’s original pavilion “too much form, too little function,” and thought someone “less busy” would be better for the job.

Apart from curatorial coherence, there was one other critical element missing. Money.

Mayor Lindsay committed $3 million in the spring of 1966. By the following June, the expansion pricetag was estimated at $10 million. This would provide for a new 190,000 square-foot building to house the Atomarium (the exhibit itself would be funded with $4 million from the Atomic Energy Commission), plus classrooms and laboratories. The Hall of Science had to find another $1.5 million from foundations and individuals for exhibits and programs. Lindsay said this would be just step one of an expansion that would make the Hall of Science “a cultural center equal to the Museum of Natural History, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lincoln Center and other such great institutions.”

Next, we’ll see what became of all this early exuberance.

 

The NYSCI Archive: Rediscovering 50 years of stories about a science museum and its City.