The Story of the Better Living Center ... an essay by Eric Paddon

An historic Civil War locomotive! ... The world's largest model train exhibit! ... Daily shows featuring the latest fashions from America's leading designers! ... A dream house display of home furnishings! ... Exotic animals living naturally among home furnishings! ... A flowing water faucet seemingly suspended in mid-air! ... Priceless works of American art! ... Tasty samples of chocolate and cookies! ... A musical revue puppet show featuring one of the most famous commercial symbols of American industry!

Does that sound like the kind of diversity that best epitomizes the things to be found in the vast 600 acres and 150 plus pavilions of the 1964-1965 New York World's Fair? Actually, all of this could be found in one building alone: The Better Living Center, situated in the Industrial Area and flanked on either side by two of Walt Disney's major attractions, the General Electric and Pepsi Cola pavilions. This four story structure was both the tallest and largest in the entire Industrial Area and was meant to provide, not just a diversity of exhibits, but an outlet for exhibitors who wanted to be involved with the Fair yet were unable or unwilling to spend the money necessary to build their own pavilion. In addition, those exhibitors who might have at first glance been more at home in a more specialized building like the Pavilion of American Interiors or the (never-constructed) World Of Food conceivably saw the Better Living Center, with it's "potpourri" approach of a variety of exhibits dedicated to the theme of better living, as an ideal place to call attention to themselves in a smaller setting.

Ground Level view of the Better Living Center

SOURCE: New York World's Fair Publicity Photograph presented courtesy Craig Bavaro collection

Ground Level View of the Better Living Center

The 1964-1965 New York World's Fair's own "potpourri" approach of soliciting sponsors for multi-exhibitor pavilions, whether done consciously or not, hearkened back to the first significant World's Fair in London in 1851. For that Fair all of the industrial exhibits, scientific demonstrations and international displays were housed inside one facility, the massive glass and iron "Crystal Palace. " The success of the "Great Exhibition" of 1851 insured that the legacy of the Crystal Palace would never be forgotten. The Better Living Center, World of Food, Pavilion of American Interiors, Hall of Education and the Transportation & Travel Pavilion were all privately sponsored, multi-exhibitor buildings and among the largest structures at the at the 1964-1965 Fair. By their nature they were the Fair's own Crystal Palaces -- yet not constructed or financially supported by the Fair itself. Interestingly, a history-minded organizer of the Better Living Center was no doubt thinking back to 1851 when it was decided that one of the major exhibits planned for the building, a daily fashion show, would be called "The Crystal Palace of Fashion."

Promotional advertising for the Better Living Center suggested that it might be a pavilion geared more toward women. That certainly seemed true with such planned exhibits as The Crystal Palace of Fashion and the presence of a "Women's Hospitality Center." But there were plenty of other exhibits that cut across gender lines, as well as others that were aimed at children. With an observation deck offering one of the best views of the entire Fair next to that of the New York State Pavilion's observation towers, and a rooftop restaurant, the Better Living Center should surely have been able to draw in large crowds of Fairgoers of all ages. Such was not to be the case. While the Better Living Center ultimately didn't do as poorly to the degree that true disasters like the Pavilion of American Interiors or the Hall Of Education did, it was one of the Fair's more conspicuous failures. Even its prime location next to some of the Fair's biggest successes did not help it.

The Better Living Center had to overcome a rocky beginning. It failed to open smoothly in April, 1964 with the rest of the Fair. A number of top exhibits, especially those on the third floor, were not ready on Opening Day and weren't fully in place for as much as a full month after. As Better Living Center President Richard Burge explained in a May 26, 1964 letter to Fair officials discussing the state of the pavilion, "There are very great problems inherent in effectively coordinating and installing in excess of 125 exhibitors in a building of the nature and size of ours." Construction delays in getting new exhibit space finished after the Fair opened grew so bad that the pavilion operated during its first month without a formal Operating permit (third floor exhibitor Canada Dry regarded the building conditions as "deplorable"). This led the Fair's Director of Safety, W.J. Hyland, to make a subtle threat that unless problems were immediately dealt with he might have the pavilion closed. Burge then employed work crews around-the-clock to make sure Hyland's objections were addressed.

The major problem with the Better Living Center was that it forced Fairgoers to take only one proscribed route through the pavilion to visit the exhibits. All visitors were required to start their tour from the top floor by taking the Lifesavers-sponsored glass elevator to the rooftop restaurant or an escalator that went from the Lobby to the first floor mezzanine, then a second escalator leading to the third floor exhibit area where they would begin to wind their way down through every exhibit in the building. The New York World-Telegram, in what was for the most part a favorable profile of the pavilion, likened the whole design to that of a mousetrap aimed at trapping Fairgoers into seeing every part of the building (and forcing them to follow yellow-painted footprints on the floor as they made their way down). For someone who was only interested in seeing one or two specific things in the pavilion, there might have been a disinclination to enter the building and allow oneself to be "trapped" for however long it might take to make one's way back down -- having to enjoy (or endure) every exhibit along the way. By designing the building this way the pavilion's sponsor, Edward H. Burdick Associates., Inc., could assure exhibitors that they would get their money's worth out of exhibiting in the Better Living Center. Once inside, the Fairgoer had no choice but to see their exhibit. It was a classic example of an "idea that looked good on paper." Ultimately, this concept kept more people away than it enticed to venture in.

Despite its ultimate failure the Better Living Center's mere existence, and a closer look at some of what it had to offer, can provide a genuine insight into the nature of what Robert Moses called "Something for Everyone" and the vast scope of what the 1964-1965 New York World's Fair was all about.

So ... taking the proscribed route of top floor down, let's visit the Better Living Center!

Aerial view of the Better Living Center
(View a Larger Version of this Photograph)

SOURCE: New York World's Fair Publicity Photograph presented courtesy Craig Bavaro collection

Aerial view of the Better Living Center

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