A mid-afternoon rainfall has saturated the dirt just enough that Dr. Lori Walters easily unearths some with the tip of her black loafer. A few yards away, groups of Latino men in bright t-shirts and blue jeans are playing a casual game of volleyball, bumping but never spiking, on a lazy Sunday in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, the largest park in Queens.
Dr. Walters is tired. She has been on her feet for much of the past two days, running an exhibit at a science fair teeming with children and parents. Her fingers brush back strands of brown hair that a gentle wind has blown out of place, and she tucks her hands into the large pockets of a maroon jacket. Her slender body is weary, her voice cracking, and she still has a long trek home to Florida, where she is a history professor.
A wayward volleyball—actually an old soccer ball, which serves the same purpose—hits the hard ground with a thud. Greenery envelops most of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, but not here, where patches of brown grass sprout between large swaths of exposed dirt. Saplings never seem to stand a chance.
Surely, trampling takes a toll on the turf. But can that be enough to stop the growth of trees? Might something be down there, obstructing their existence?
Dr. Walters perks up.
“It’s a mystery,” she says, beaming. “Is it there? What does it look like?”
She grows eager and smiles, wondering if something, anything, remains at this spot from nearly half a century ago, when it was transformed into Block 50, Lot 5, at the 1964 World’s Fair.
“We could probably figure out something at this moment if we wanted to just dig.”
Size mattered at the World’s Fair—especially height. Spread across nearly a square mile of Queens were hundreds of exhibits from states, countries and corporations that equated altitude with esteem. The Unisphere, a stainless steel globe that came to symbolize the fair, towered twelve stories tall. Elevators dubbed Sky Streaks whisked passengers 226 feet to the observation deck of the hulking New York State Pavilion. Other attractions had spires or high-pitched roofs.
But not at Block 50, Lot 5.
“Most of the architectural highlights of the World’s Fair spiral skyward,” the New York World-Telegram & Sun reported on November 18, 1963. “And then there’s the Underground World Home.”
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Coinciding with the 300th anniversary of New York City, the 1964 World’s Fair offered an awe-inspiring array of whimsical rides, displays of state-of-the-art technology and glimpses of exotic cultures. Many of the 140 pavilions looked to the future, imagining radical, wondrous changes in the life of the average American. Organizers slated the fair to run for two six-month seasons, from April to October in 1964 and ’65.
In the lead-up to the fair, the New York press marveled at the newly constructed subterranean dwelling that most knew simply as the Underground Home. The Wall Street Journal welcomed “a new frontier for family living.” The Herald Tribune extolled the virtues of living with “good old earth on all sides.” By the time the fair opened on April 22, 1964, the Underground Home had already generated headlines in all the major dailies.
Jay Swayze was delighted. A lumber dealer and home builder from Plainview, Texas, Swayze designed the Underground Home in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when many Americans feared an impending nuclear attack. Families hurried to build fallout shelters, but many of them were bland and cramped. Swayze began tinkering with spacious underground homes suitable for year-round living.
Protection from radioactive fallout, as well as everyday noise and pollution, lured a bold-faced name to Swayze’s work. In 1964, Girard Henderson, who sat on the board of directors of Avon Products, the beauty manufacturer, had an underground residence built for him in Colorado. He was so enthralled that he financed Swayze’s Underground Home at the World’s Fair, convinced that the masses would buy into subsurface living, too.
Swayze’s team scored a plot on the fairgrounds between the Hall of Science and the Port Authority Heliport, and they began to dig fifteen feet into the Flushing Meadows marsh. Within a few months they had created a concrete shell of about 12,000 square feet and installed the home’s gypsum board ceilings. Candelabras sat on the Steinway & Sons piano in the living room. A simulated garden featured a bed of plastic flowers, artificial wisteria and an organ.
Like other exhibits at the fair, the Underground Home incorporated many novel accoutrements. A snorkel-like system pumped air into the ten-room house. The lighting allowed residents to pick the time of day and the season they wanted with just the turn of a knob—like “midnight at noon” and “summer in winter,” as Swayze bragged. He also installed “dial-a-view,” which let occupants pick the murals they would see through the windows. One of the choices was a knight riding a horse to a castle.
The Underground Home was billed as “sub-urban,” in keeping with the clever marketing that permeated the fair. But it was not like other exhibits. A glance at a bookshelf inside the home underscored the chief motivation for buying such a dwelling. One book was titled “Our New Life with the Atom.” Another was “Foreign Policy Without Fear.”
The Miami News ran a telling caption with its profile of the home’s interior designer, Marilynn Motto: “Her designs are enough to calm a subterranean dweller during an H-bombing.”