During the holiday season of 1945, a most unusual conversation was taking place in the Northern New York. It was a pivotal year in the twentieth century―history’s worst war had just ended, and an effort to prevent future wars had resulted in the formation of the United Nations, which officially came into being on October 24. The groundwork had been laid earlier in San Francisco, where delegates from fifty governments joined forces and drafted the original UN Charter.
The next order of business was to find a home for the new alliance, referred to widely then as the UNO (United Nations Organization). Since San Francisco hosted the charter conference, it was considered a favorite in the running. But as the process played out, northern New York was abuzz with the possibility of being chosen as permanent host.
Early in the process, plenty of lobbying among member nations had reduced the possibilities. About half favored a European site, while the other half favored a location in the United States. A vote was taken, and by a narrow margin, America was chosen.
The next issue was UNO headquarters: where would it be? A division within the group developed, based mainly on the world map. Australia and countries of the Far East preferred a West Coast location, while many European nations favored the East Coast. For most of them, the biggest concern was distance from their homelands. We have to remember that the organization was just forming: no one knew that it would someday feature enormous buildings housing contingents from every member country on the planet. As far as they knew, representatives would have to travel whenever important issues were addressed.
Subsequent voting eliminated the West Coast from contention, and to finish the process, delegates offered preferences and suggestions. Although Washington and New York City seemed obvious possibilities, there were strong feelings against those sites. It was feared that a Washington location would invite the powerful influence of the US government, and for to New York, many countries preferred a site away from any large metropolis.
Typical among those countries was England, who had led the battle to base the UNO in Europe. Once Europe and the West Coast of the United States were eliminated, the influential British committee announced their decided preference for “a small community in the eastern part of the United States, not near Washington.”
For residents of the North Country, that’s where it really got interesting. Within days of the British announcement, a most unusual parade of hopefuls began. Watertown submitted a formal bid, noting their closeness to adequate highways, Canada, and outstanding recreational opportunities.
A campaign promoting Saratoga Springs was led by publisher Frank Gannett, owner of the Saratogian. His cablegram to British Prime Minister Clement Attlee noted that Saratoga was “a center of a large part of the country’s population, easily accessible to all our eastern seaports, and convenient to all capitols of the world by air.” The city’s climate and its background as a convention center were also mentioned.
Ogdensburg stepped up as well, with much to offer. Their proposal cited easy access to the city by rail or water; great scenery; plenty of space for construction; the friendly border with Canada and proximity to its capital, Ottawa, about an hour north; and most of all, its location on the St. Lawrence, allowing access to Montreal, the Atlantic, and all major cities on America’s east coast.
Both Watertown and Ogdensburg received support from nearby communities on both sides of the border. Plattsburgh, not to be outdone, cited its closeness to Canada, easy access to Albany, New York City, and Washington, and “the advantages of its unlimited historical background.” Eyeing the support given Ogdensburg by the mayors of Prescott and Ottawa (in Ontario), Plattsburgh reached out to St. John’s and Montreal (in Quebec) for similar backing.
Lake Placid, as past host of the Olympics, already enjoyed worldwide credibility. They submitted what was described as “a strong bid.” Besides lobbying the preparatory commission and several other contacts in England, Lake Placid officials reached out to the US State Department, prompting a flurry of messages between Washington and London.
By this time, five northern communities had entered the competition, and the entire North Country was excited at the possibilities. If any of the area’s cities were approved, it would surely benefit everyone else, providing a tremendous, long-term boost to the region’s economy.
But competition soon began popping up everywhere. Some of the stronger New York proposals came from Syracuse, Niagara Falls, and Kingston (its location on the Hudson was considered particularly attractive). Outside of New York, the greater Boston area was also in the running, along with many smaller coastal communities of Massachusetts.
It was heady stuff, but by year’s end, the selection committee had reviewed all the proposals and voted several more times, further narrowing the field. The focus was now on sites within ten miles or so of New York City and Boston.
In the end, as usual, money talks, and it spoke in such a way that not even the assets of the entire North Country could hope to compete. Early in 1946, New York City offered the use of the former World’s Fair site at Flushing Meadows as temporary UN headquarters, sweetening the pot with $1.25 million to upgrade office facilities. The UN accepted.
In December 1946, a year after so many northern communities were eliminated from consideration, a much larger pile of money led to the selection of New York City as the UN’s permanent home. What could have changed the committee’s mind about avoiding an urban location?
Simple. A seventeen-acre piece of Manhattan, purchased by John D. Rockefeller Jr. for $8.5 million, and donated to the United Nations. The plan for an expansive compound in the suburbs was abandoned in favor of the city site, where the new facilities would be decidedly vertical.
Northern New Yorkers took solace and pride in knowing that Europe and the western United States (including candidates San Francisco, Seattle, Denver, and several others) were out of the running even while Lake Placid, Ogdensburg, Plattsburgh, Saratoga Springs, and Watertown remained in the hunt.
Hey, it was fun while it lasted, and the publicity didn’t hurt.