The Relief Map of the New York City Water Supply System

For the 1939 World’s Fair, city agencies were invited to produce exhibits for the New York City Pavilion, now the Queens Museum. Each exhibit shared “what the various branches of municipal government are doing to serve the citizens of today.”

To educate New Yorkers about the water supply system, the Department of Water Supply, Gas, and Electricity, created the relief map now displayed at the Queens Museum. A team of cartographers began work in 1938 with a depression-era budget of $100,000, roughly $1.5 million in today’s dollars. But at 540 square feet, the model was too big for the allotted space. Ten years later, it made its only public appearance in the City’s Golden Anniversary Exposition at Manhattan’s Grand Central Palace.

In 2008, after decades in storage, the 27-piece relief map was in desperate need of conservation. The model was sent to McKay Lodge Fine Arts Conservation Lab in Oberlin, Ohio and restored to its original brilliance. In collaboration with the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, it will now remain on long-term loan in its originally intended home in the New York City Building.

The Watershed Model is one example of the use of models to inspire people about the grandness and complexity of New York City. This tradition continued at the 1964 World’s Fair with Robert Moses commissioning the Panorama of the City of New York, then and still the world’s largest full-scale architectural model, which is also permanently housed here at the Queens Museum. These models represent the Museum’s close ties to the history of our building, the history of this park, as well as to New York City.

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