The United Nations came to Manhattan by way of Queens, and only after sites for its permanent world headquarters were considered as far as San Francisco and the Black Hills of South Dakota. Those shortlisted, however, were all in the Northeast—Philadelphia, Boston, Fairfield County in Connecticut, and “Kykuit,” the Rockefeller family estate near Tarrytown. New York City entered the race in late 1945, when Mayor William O’Dwyer assembled a blue-ribbon commission—the Mayor’s Committee on Plan and Scope—to advance the former World’s Fair grounds in Flushing as the best place for the world peacekeeping body. Robert Moses, chair of the Mayor’s Committee and driving force behind the Queens proposal, had already presided over the miraculous transformation of the Flushing ash heaps into the World of Tomorrow; making the old dumping ground the UN’s permanent world headquarters would be a sweet second act. The board members all agreed, and a mighty lot they were—Nelson A. Rockefeller, Arthur Hays Sulzberger of the New York Times, IBM chief Thomas J. Watson, Frederick H. Ecker of Metropolitan Life, political kingmaker and Postal Service boss James A. Farley, the man who helped put FDR in the White House.
In an October, 1946 New York Times essay, Moses pronounced New York “the natural and proper permanent home for the United Nations,” with Flushing Meadow Park affording “the acreage and opportunities to build an entirely new, independent, self-contained United Nations city on virgin soil.” The site was ideal in many respects—green and spacious, well-served by new infrastructure, a short drive from Manhattan and only minutes from the city’s main airport at the time (La Guardia Field). Using an approach that worked well in planning the Fair, Moses appointed a Board of Design to produce a vision of what the UN Flushing complex might look like. It included Louis Skidmore of SOM; Wallace K. Harrison, designer of the Trylon and Perisphere and one of the architects of Rockefeller Center; and Aymar Embury II, a Moses favorite who created the fair’s New York City Pavilion. Chairing the board was another Moses man, Gilmore D. Clarke. Clarke and his partner Michael Rapuano had planned both the 1939 Fair grounds and subsequent Flushing Meadow Park. No one knew the vast site better.
The Mayor’s Committee presented its final report to UN Secretary General Trygve Lie in September, 1946. It was an extraordinary piece of work, with breathtaking perspective sketches by Hugh Ferris and a glorious master plan by Rapuano—a last, late example of the luminous watercolor-wash rendering style developed at the École des Beaux-arts and popularized in the City Beautiful era. The roots of the plan reach back even further. A 1927 recipient of the Rome Prize in Landscape Architecture, Rapuano spent several years studying Italian villas and piazze. His use of an extended axis to organize the UN buildings is reminiscent of a Renaissance space he knew well–the Villa Gamberaia at Settignano, in the countryside near Florence. Rapuano’s mentor at Cornell, Edward G. Lawson, prepared the first measured drawings of the villa while himself a fellow at the American Academy in Rome (for more on Lawson see my 2012 article in Landscape Architecture Magazine, available here).
However impressive, the proposal failed to sway the UN’s Headquarters Commission, which balked at the enormous cost for the sprawling campus—some $65 million. A newly arrived French delegate to the Commission, Le Corbusier, dismissed Flushing as too suburban for his tastes. There were rumors, perhaps apocryphal, that delegates themselves dreaded being marooned in outerborough Queens, so far from Manhattan nightlife. Thus Moses was handed one of his rare defeats, even as the UN General Assembly voted to accept his offer to use, rent-free, a refurbished NYC Pavilion as temporary quarters.
Of course, both the city and Moses prevailed in the end, when William Zeckendorf, Sr. suddenly made available a 17-acre patchwork of parcels on the East River he had planned to develop into a larger version of Rockefeller Center (Wallace Harrison was to design it). Harrison and Nelson Rockefeller convinced Nelson’s father, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., to purchase and gift the Zeckendorf land to the city for the UN complex. As planning of the East River complex moved forward, Moses made sure his trusted designers were at the center of the effort. Most scholarship on the United Nations complex has focused on the Board of Design Consultants, which included a number of internationally prominent architects—Le Corbusier, Oscar Niemeyer, Sven Markelius and China’s brilliant, tragic Liang Sicheng.
But equally influential, if not more so, were Harrison and the so-called Associate Architects and Engineers—”professionals who knew the city,” recalled George Dudley in A Workshop for Peace (1994), who “had the confidence of conservative and ‘modern’ architects, and whose firms could also make personnel available.” Moses and Harrison handpicked three architects to head this team—Clarke of Clarke and Rapuano; Skidmore of SOM; and Ralph T. Walker of Voorhees Walker Foley and Smith. It was immediately after meeting with Moses on in January, 1947 that the UN Secretary General appointed the trio as “associates for the planning of the United Nations Headquarters.” Only weeks later did member nations began forwarding their nominations to the high-profile Board of Design Consultants, and not until February 12 that its first members were approved. Thus the Moses’ men had a solid month’s lead over the Board of Design. Though this latter group—and especially Le Corbusier—would dominate media coverage on the UN project, it was the former, beholden really only to Moses and the Mayor, that held virtual veto authority over any fancy schemes the elite Board came up with. In the end, it was Clarke and Rapuano who quietly determined the final site and landscape plans for the headquarters complex and streets around it.
Though it lacks Manhattan’s cache, Flushing would have been a better place for the United Nations in the long run. The Flushing complex would have been just minutes from JFK, with plenty of free parking for all those diplomat-tagged luxury sedans that collect tickets like leaves in an autumn gutter (UN diplomats owe the city some $16 million in unpaid parking tickets). Big UN powwows could take place without costly, congestion-making police escorts and other VIP tie-ups of tiny, crowded Manhattan. And as Manhattan slowly morphs into an isle of the super-rich, it is the oft-scorned outer borough that may well be a better representative of the world in all its richness and color today. With nearly 140 languages spoken on its streets, Queens is the most ethnically diverse place in America and possibly planet Earth.