When was the last time you actively thought about a park bench? I mean, beyond, “Hey, there’s a bench! What a wonderful place to take respite from my outdoor activity! I am going to sit on that bench, and sit on it good!”? Benches are one of those objects that we prize for their utility. Yes, they are also often lovely, but that isn’t our primary interest in them. In an ideal world, they are just set-dressing in a beautiful park, and there is always one available for us to use under the shade of a broad-branched tree.
One of my first weekends here, I was taking a walk through our local postage-stamp park when I glanced at a park bench and noticed the embossed mark of its maker on the leg.
This bench hailed all the way from the Nutmeg State! Just like me! Because I am a sucker, I immediately decided it was a sign that I could also find a comfortable home in Alabama, where I could grow lichen all over me, just like that bench!
And then, through the magic of Twitter, the story unfolded:
Fantastic! If there was ever a bench for me to discover, it was this one! This bench was designed and built originally for the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair, though it is in use in parks around New York City and the rest of the country through today (obviously). It’s a pretty classic park bench. According to the manufacturer’s website, Robert Moses collaborated with Kenneth Lynch himself on the design of the benches, in order to maximize comfort and improve the efficiency of the manufacturing process. Ms. Sears also informed me that Central and Prospect Parks use the Central Park Settee, also created by K. Lynch and Sons, and they still order them from the company today.
Both the 1939 and 1964 world’s fairs were held in the same place in New York City, Flushing Meadows Corona Park. I’ve written about the remnants of the fairs before, more than once. It probably doesn’t surprise you that one weekend just before I moved, on my way to LaGuardia to return a rental car, I stopped off at the former fairgrounds for a last look-see before I headed south for a while. While I was there, I noticed the benches. Because, I am learning, I apparently like benches. Anyway, this is what they look like in 2014:
Those curved legs and that jaunty posture! No other bench has ever shouted “SPACE AGE” at me so clearly. I had walked by these benches dozens of times before without giving them a second glance. This visit, though, I snapped a photo, figuring they were part of the park’s infrastructure that hasn’t been changed since the 64-65 fair.
I remembered seeing a photo of women seated on benches at the 60s fair, and did a quick Google search to turn it up. The photo was shot by Gary Winogrand, and was recently on exhibit at SF MoMA.
If you look beyond the ladies, you’ll recognize the shape of the benches’ legs from the photo above.
Armed with the information about the manufacturer of the 1939 World’s Fair benches, I took to their website and discovered that K. Lynch and Sons also has a 1964-65 World’s Fair model bench, though it’s not clear to me if they designed the ones originally used during the fair or just based their model on those. I did find some info on the materials used in these benches, and about updates made to them in the years since the fair:
All benches for the 1964 World’s Fair were composed of cast aluminium supports with green fiberglass slats. Only 8 of these benches retain their fiberglass slats and all the rest have been replaced with wood, which are fixed on top of and not wrapped around the aluminum knuckles. This changed their ergonomic profile, so sit on each type and see which is more comfortable!
I also found a piece from the NYC Parks Department identifying this model as one still used in parks, but without much further information. I haven’t seen this bench type in any other parks in NYC or elsewhere, but if you have, let me know!
The 1960s bench seems a perfect artifact of its era and for its purpose. The 20th century world’s fairs were future-gazing extravaganzas, and 1960s futurism was all curved lines and modern materials (remember, these benches were originally outfitted with fiberglass slats). Think of the intro to The Jetsons, which originally aired in 1962-63. Everythaaang is curvy, and all those buildings on tall poles remind me of the observation decks on the NY State Pavilion, still standing 100 feet from where I snapped the photo of benches a few weeks ago.
The 39-40 World’s Fair was also preoccupied with the future, but its benches were Victorian in design. In fact, that NYC Parks post actually says the 30s bench was based on a turn-of-the-century design. I don’t mean this as a condemnation of the benches, since they are lovely and still in use all over the place. In fact, perhaps they were based on an older design as a way of future-proofing them; Moses, et al, knew the benches would be in use beyond the end of the fair, and didn’t want them to be immediately dated. We saw similar attitudes in approaches to futuristic theming later in the 20th century, when anyone trying to create a futuristic world went back to 1950s ideas and aesthetics about the future.
I did a little more sleuthing around, and found similar benches in this post about seating at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. And, in Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Jack Spence photographed what I’m pretty sure is actually a 1939 World’s Fair bench, though it’s missing the crossbars behind the back:
Another photo in that post shows a bench with legs similar to the 64-65 World’s Fair bench. I only wish I’d done this research before my recent trip to Walt Disney World, so I could have been on the lookout for more!
The fact that each fair had its own bench designs, that several of the parks in NYC have their own, and that so many different thematic areas in Disney theme parks have their own seating designs, speaks to the importance of seating in setting the stage for the activities that go on there. In 1964, organizers wanted visitors to the New York World’s Fair to be thinking about the future, to feel like they were getting a glimpse into it, to feel like the Avenue of Progress wasn’t just a street, but a path to the future. So they created a bench. In the area of Disney’s Hollywood Studios where the above bench was found, designers wanted visitors to relax in a picturesque version of the USA where some of their favorite movie characters may have lived. And, in the parks that still use the 1939 World’s Fair bench today, everyday citizens are invited to sit on a picturesque, stereotypical park bench, the kind you see in paintings and in the movies, and enjoy the day. You may not realize it when you’re participating in it, but the design of the bench you’re sitting on – the whimsy of the curved wrought iron, the classic green slats – is probably influencing your park experience in a positive way. By sitting on that bench, you are giving a performance of What it Means to Go to the Park, whether you’re in Central Park in New York City, or Cloverdale Park in Montgomery, Alabama.