How many times have you walked past an unusual building, structure, marking or sign and wondered what it was or how it got there? Cities are layered; traces of their histories hide in plain sight all around us. We might take passing notice of these mysterious clues, and some might even get around to a cursory Google search, but few seek answers with the dedication and enthusiasm of Kirsten Hively and Paul Lukas. What started as curiosity about two unusual waterfront shells snowballed into an extensive research project, exhibition, website and informal fan club. Here, Kirsten reminds us that our city’s forgotten structures and spaces have stories to tell and that “stories are what make a space into a place and connect all the disparate pieces of the metropolis.” –V.S.
In celebration of my birthday, a sunny three-day weekend, and the acquisition of a brand-new bike, I decided to take a ride out to visit the Candela Structures on Flushing Bay.
The Candelas are two fiberglass prefab shells that sit at the World’s Fair Marina, just north of the Mets’ new stadium. These relics of the 1964/5 World’s Fair were designed by architect and industrial designer Peter Schladermundt (not Félix Candela as the names and nearby signs might lead you to believe). A year ago, journalist Paul Lukas and I researched and produced a show about them at the inimitable City Reliquary in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Paul and I had first found out about the structures from a Mets fan message board. I’m a sucker for any kind of adventure, great or small, so as soon as I found them on Google Maps’ satellite view (they’re hard to miss once you look), I knew I had to see them in person. And once we did (on our way to a game at Shea Stadium shortly before it was demolished) we developed a crush on them that snowballed into a crazy-long research project, the exhibition, and a website documenting everything we know.
Our show was subtitled “A New York City History Mystery,” partly because up until the last minute (when we got a major detecting-assist from New York Times reporter Susan Dominus) we couldn’t confirm Peter Schladermundt as the structures’ designer (though we knew he had designed the overall marina), but also because the narrative of the show was as much about us unraveling the mystery of the structures as it was about the structures themselves. The buildinglets (as I like to call them) raised so many questions from the moment we first saw them. How had we never seen them or heard about them? How on earth could they be bus shelters (as the nearby signs claim) when they’re so far from the road and not at all closed off from the elements? Why were they named after Félix Candela? As we started researching them, we found more questions than answers, which just drew us in deeper. Why were they not mentioned in Candela’s archives? Why did his widow not remember them? We discovered there had been a third structure in the center that had housed a Coast Guard exhibit, but it disappeared soon after the Fair ended. Whatever became of it? And why did the other two survive when so many of the buildings built for the Fair were demolished when it closed?
Architecture is just another kind of storytelling, and stories are what make a space into a place.The structures are minimal surfaces, a topic that Candela researched extensively. But beyond looking like they might have been designed by him (though they weren’t), we never found any solid connection. They were, in fact, designed by Peter Schladermundt, an architect and industrial designer, and were made of prefab panels — a sandwich construction of fiberglass reinforced resin surrounding a 2-inch foam core — that snap together. As far as I was able to determine, they are the oldest standing fiberglass structures in the city.
Despite that, I know these structures aren’t central to the history of architecture or the history of New York (and they don’t even appear to have made the cut for the new AIA Guide—drat), but I love them nonetheless. They’re so unexpected, so unlike anything else in New York City, and so utterly charming. They’re not pretentious, they just stand guard by the bay, watching the sailboats come and go, the planes take off and land at LaGuardia, and the cars drive by. They were there long before I arrived in New York in 1993, waiting to be discovered. How many other pieces of New York history are hiding in plain sight, with stories to tell? Architecture is just another kind of storytelling, and stories are what make a space into a place and connect all the disparate pieces of the metropolis.
The structures sit at the water’s edge, on the northern end of Flushing-Corona Park — not the most convenient location to get to from North Brooklyn via public transportation — so I decided to pay my respects by bike, with the added incentive of a stop at Timmy O’s Frozen Custard in Corona on the way. What a ride! Grand Avenue passes by some beautiful old factories, but the roads are a mess and drivers are not particularly interested in slowing down for bikes. In Maspeth the traffic increased, the quality of the road decreased, and buses are ever present. But I made it across the L.I.E. on-ramps, past a Memorial Day observation, and crossed Queens Boulevard. There are some amazing views from this area back toward the towers of Manhattan, but admiring them requires stopping and clambering onto the sidewalk, as the roads are unforgiving of lapses in concentration.
Partway into Corona I lost the thread of Corona Avenue’s many curves. I managed to find my way back, though, and even found my way to Timmy O’s for a much needed break. A large frozen custard from Timmy O’s is huge, but I ate it all and headed for the home stretch. After a few wrong turns and dangerously pothole-filled roads I finally came to the edge of the huge fields of parking lots around the baseball stadium. I dismounted and walked along the narrow sidewalks to the one spot I knew led across the spaghetti of roads to the marina.
At last! My first glimpses of those two old friends were as delightful as ever. I’ve seen them now in all seasons: surrounded by cherry blossoms, dusted with snow, and capped with autumn foliage, but they really look smashing against the deep green of summer leaves. I was happy to see people enjoying the shade under the eastern shell, and I was only too happy to collapse under the shade of the western one and enjoy the breezes off the bay.
The Candela Structures are very much in need of repair. While from a distance they are pristine and white — an almost shocking sight in a city of grey concrete, grey asphalt, and bricks of various earthy hues — up close rust, cracks, gaps, and graffiti mar their graceful symmetry. The gaps reveal the seams of the prefab pieces and, in a couple of places, the metal clips that hold them together. It’s clear that rain and ice have invaded the interior. How much longer can they stand without a major overhaul? They’re amazingly resilient — a function of both their elegant geometry and their lightweight material — especially considering they were built for a temporary event. They no longer sport their angled glass walls and the middle structure is gone without a trace, but the remaining two fiberglass shells still stand as architectural icons on the waterfront.
I feel a real affinity for these quirky little structures. They’re elegant, but odd — they seem to belong to some other city — and they aren’t nearly as grand in scale as the other survivors of the two World’s Fairs in the park, but there’s something charming about that. And even though Paul and I had solved so many of their mysteries (it was a real pleasure to speak with Peter Schladermundt’s children who confirmed him as the designer after we had followed so many false leads), we never did find out what happened to the third one that once stood in the middle, but that mystery only adds to their appeal.
I’ll continue to visit them whenever I have time, hopefully to see them restored and enjoyed into the future, though I worry I’ll just be watching them fall further into disrepair. They lie in that unfortunate gap that swallows a lot of urban artifacts — the space between history and the too-recent past, out of fashion but as of yet unrecognized as part of our cultural heritage. I hope the Candelas survive that awkward transition and find a permanent spot in the cityscape, and that by uncovering part of their story I’ve helped in some small way.
Post script: While I wouldn’t recommend the bike route I took — though it was convenient for frozen custard on the way out and lemon ice on the way back — I definitely recommend a visit to the marina to see the Candelas in person. You can reach them by bike more easily, I think, using the 34th Ave bike lanes (what I plan to do next time), by subway from the number 7 stop at Willets Point, by car via Northern Boulevard, or by sailboat in Flushing Bay. And look for them next time you fly in or out of LaGuardia. Directions, photos (including historic photos from the World’s Fair), and all kinds of other information are available at candelastructures.org.
UPDATE 11.3.10: The third Candela structure has been found. It is now serving as a cabin in the Adirondacks.
.All photos by Kirsten Hively.