The Great Hall features dalle de verre, an architectural technique that arranges small segments of glass within a concrete structure. More than 5,000 2-by-3-foot panels of glass make up the building’s facade.
Architect Wallace K. Harrison previously employed the dalle de verre technique in his design of the Fish Church in Stamford, Conn. Harrison also led the design 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. When built, the Great Hall was the largest poured-in-place concrete structure in the world.
The World’s Fair did not include the Hall of Science in its original plan. Its inclusion at the Fair came after a prolonged political struggle between a group of planners who wanted to build a museum of science in Manhattan, and New York City Mayor Robert Wagner and World’s Fair Corporation President Robert Moses. Ultimately, the City endorsed a plan to build a Hall of Science pavilion, and then convert it into a proper museum after the Fair. Because of this delay, the Hall of Science did not open at the start of the Fair.
Groundbreaking occurred on June 19, 1963. But construction took place throughout the first summer of the Fair. On September 9, 1964, the Hall of Science finally opened to fairgoers. In his dedication, Mayor Robert Wagner said of the Hall: “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.”
The Great Hall originally exhibited Rendezvous in Space, which featured Frank Capra’s final film. The film, projected onto a suspended screen, included a narration by Danny Thomas with (uncredited) voices by Mel Blanc. 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 exhibit galleries. The Hall and its exhibits celebrated the boundless potential of science and technology. Exhibits included Atomsville USA, 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.
After the Fair
Months of renovation and exhibit relocation took place following the Fair. The Hall reopened as a permanent museum on September 21, 1966.
The Great Hall has been home to a wide array of exhibitions, performances, 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 even struck within the walls of the Great Hall, courtesy of Arc Attack at World Maker Faire in 2010 and 2011. And acts ranging from circus aerialists to Chinese lion dancers performed inside the Great Hall.
Beginning in 2008, NYSCI undertook a comprehensive modernization effort. The project received $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.
In 2009, workers completed repairs to the exterior facade. Renovations to the interior and its surrounding plaza were completed in 2015.
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