By Bill Parry
When Joe Somers was growing up in Whitestone, his parents brought him to the 1964 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows Corona Park where he fell in love with the space-age New York State Pavilion. Now 57, and still living in Whitestone, Somers recalled the sadness he felt every time he drove past the structure on the Long Island Expressway or the Van Wyck and saw the state of disrepair it had fallen into during the last few decades.
“It broke my heart to see how ugly this place got over the years,” Somers said Oct. 15 at the Pavilion, his chest “swelling with pride” at the role he played during the first restoration project at the site. Somers was one of 30 bridge painters who donated 8,000 hours repainting the crown of the Pavilion its original “American Cheese” yellow, part of the city Parks Department’s ongoing efforts to restore and beautify the World’s Fair relics.
The New York Structural Steel Painting Contractors Association completed the project, valued at an estimated $3.25 million, on time and at no cost to the city as part of the union’s apprenticeship program, giving them valuable work experience. The project turned out to be far more difficult than the bridge painters expected.
“Once we got up there, we realized we couldn’t do it with apprentices alone,” Keiran Ahern, the president of the Structural Steel Painting Contractors Association, said. “We had to bring in professional riggers to do the job right, safely. It just goes to show you that when labor, management and government are all on the same page, we can accomplish some pretty cool things.” Ahern said the association covered the cost of the riggers, estimated to be a half million dollars.
Borough President Melinda Katz made the restoration of the New York Pavilion a priority when she came into office. Together with the de Blasio administration and the City Council, nearly $8.9 million has been allocated so far.
“This is one step in a long process,” Katz said. “The next step is electricity for the towers, and those towers could really use a paint job, just saying.”
She announced the commencement of a $650,000 design contract to draft plans for electrical and structural improvements on the towers. The design is expected to be finalized by next fall with construction anticipated to begin in 2017.
Once the structures are fortified and the steps are reconstructed, the bridge painters will come back and finish the job.
“They all want us to come back at some point and that’s definitely on our radar,” Ahern said. “My father would want that.”
Timothy Ahern, the founder of Ahern Painting Contractors in Woodside, came up with the idea of painting the crown with its original color. He died suddenly in July with the work 80 percent completed.
Former City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, Sr. praised his late friend, who came to New York as a penniless immigrant from Limerick, Ireland, at the age of 21.
“Tim was a gentleman, a true American story,” he said. “The quintessential Irish immigrant story. They came with nothing, built a wonderful business and a fantastic family. He was what this country is all about.”
And he was revered by his workers at Ahern Painting Contractors.
“I loved Mr. Timothy Ahern, he was a fantastic man and this is his final project,” Somers said. “We can’t wait to be back for the observation decks. We want to finish the job for him.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr