It’s privately owned, it inspired The Jetsons cartoon and it was modeled after the shape of a woman.
And everyone from Walt Disney to the Kennedy family came to see it when it premiered at the 1962 World’s Fair .
“It” is the Seattle Space Needle, the topic of Thursday’s Columbia Forum talk featuring Knute Berger, a Seattle native and author who has written the official history of the Space Needle.
“Around the world, it’s hard to name a major city that doesn’t have a restaurant, a tower, a revolving restaurant tower, on its skyline,” Berger said. “But the Needle is still a compelling symbol today. It represents Seattle, our past and our future, but it also has become a symbol of World’s Fairs themselves.”
The Space Needle, he added, “embodies everything that fairs embody – hope, fun, technology, trade, high-flying aspirations and optimism. These attributes are a part of the Needle, and they are not obsolete. They are a part of our future.”
Berger told the audience in the Columbia Memorial Hospital’s Columbia Center about his fascination with World’s Fairs since seeing Seattle’s, called at the time by Time magazine the biggest thing to happen to the Northwest since Lewis and Clark, some 150 years earlier.
While that may not be true, Berger said, he has been to eight World’s Fairs in eight countries, and was eight years old when he saw the Space Needle for the first time, while under construction.
Berger came to the Columbia Forum to talk about his recently written book, “Space Needle: The Spirit of Seattle” on the Needle’s 50th anniversary.
“It was a big deal and it shaped how a lot of people of my generation thought about the future and what to expect about the future,” Berger said.
of a landmark
Berger began his presentation with log cabins, roofless and plain, that first appeared on what is now Alki Point on Elliot Bay in Seattle in 1851. It was the year of London’s first World Fair, the year of a settlement in Seattle.
“They called it New York Alki,” Berger said, adding that Alki means “by and by” in Chinook jargon, and is now the state motto. Seattle dreamed of becoming New York someday, Berger said. “That’s what that means.”
As time went on, Paris held its World Fair in 1889, debuting the Eiffel Tower. (That was the same year Seattle burned down.)
Portland brought the first World’s Fair to the West Coast in 1905. And then, in 1909, it was Washington’s turn.
Called the Alaska–Yukon– Pacific Exposition, it was Seattle’s first World’s Fair.
“The impacts of the AYP would be long lasting,” Berger said. The fair gave birth to the notion of civic planning and the Municipal Plans Commission was created in 1910. “That Municipal Plans Commission decided that Seattle needed a civic center. But one didn’t materialize until almost a half-century later. Ideas had been floated and rejected over the years, but in 1955, voters finally approved funding for such a project, a permanent cluster of civic and cultural institution.”
Over drinks, Berger added, a small group of boosters decided the civic center should be tied to the 50th anniversary of the AYP by hosting another World’s Fair. Seattle’s would be unique among World’s Fairs because the structures would include an arena, a monorail, an opera house and a science pavillion that would be converted to permanent use when the fair was over.
Originally slated for 1959, it was beaten by Oregon in the Oregon Centennial Expo. It was then moved to 1962 and soon Edward Carlson was named chairman.
How the design
Berger’s talk was titled, “From napkin to the Needle: How a doodle became an icon,” because of Carlson’s original idea that launched the idea of the Seattle Space Needle. Government funding was available if the fair was not boasted as a World’s Fair but as a science fair, in step with the space race and the fasciation with what was in the sky.
“In 1957, they kicked of the Cold War Space Race with the launch of the satellite Sputnik. The beeping of the small beach ball-sized revolution unleashed a massive dedication of government resources on the part of the U.S. government to make science and science education a national priority to boost our space program,” Berger said. “Seattle’s fair planners approached their powerful U.S. Sen. Warren G. Magnuson.”
Magnuson told planners he could get money for a science fair.
That’s when the space theme was born, Part 2 of the puzzle that became the Needle.
“Century 21 would be a fair about the future,” Berger said.
But Carlson was tasked with coming up with a lasting monument that would be the center of the fair – something that could embody the fair’s theme but be a permanent fixture. Without an concrete ideas, Carlson “had been working on the fair for three years, and by the spring on 1959 he was tired and he needed a break,” Berger said.
Carlson, a Seattle hotel executive who later became the CEO of the Westin Hotels, found himself on a trip to the Stuttgart Tower in Germany with his wife and friends. That city’s TV tower was built in the 1950s that featured a restaurant and an observation deck.
His idea became closer to a reality when he sketched a design on a napkin – a simple sketch of a tower with a ring around the top.
“Carlson said that he became obsessed with the idea,” Berger said. Others had suggested restaurant towers earlier, including a design for one in Auburn, Wash., by a man in Tacoma, and one that was designed for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair but was never built.
But Carlson returned to Seattle to begin work on the design. Several ideas were suggested but the one that inspired the design came from an unlikely source – an abstract of a woman.
John Graham, the man who designed the first shopping mall, now Seattle’s Northgate, and was in the process of designing a flying saucer-style bar for a Hawaiian shopping mall, teamed with Carlson, and the two designed what would become the Space Needle. They enlisted the help of Seattle architect Victor Steinbrueck who worked for $5 per hour.
“They went through many designs in the next year,” Berger said. An abstract of a woman, made of wood by Steinbrueck’s friend and artist David Lemon, a piece called “the feminine one,” featured a slim waist and arms reaching towards the sky with what appears to be three legs. That became the missing puzzle piece for what would become the Needle, with “her” holding a saucer above her head.
From there, the idea grew, designs changed and finally, it was ready for public debut in September 1960 – just 18 months before the fair was set to be held.
gets under way
To avoid international embarrassment, Berger said, the city of Seattle bent a lot of rules to get the structure built in time for the fair.
“There was no final design, no engineering, no permit, no zoning, no financing and no place to build it,” Berger said. “This was a project that had to be completed by April 21, 1962, a year and a half away.”
Five local investors solved the financing problem however, which is why the Space Needle is still – to this day – privately owned. It was paid for with cash and with no bidding process.
Contrary to popular belief, the city of Seattle doesn’t now and never has owned the Space Needle. It was privately funded by John Graham who designed the building; Howard S. Wright, who constructed the building as well as Hanford; Bagley Wright, a former New York newspaper journalist and editor and later was called “the patron saint of the arts” in Seattle; Ned Skinner, a shipping heir and one of the first owners of the Seattle Seahawks; and Norton Clapp of Weyerhauser fame.
Howard S. Wright’s family now solely owns the structure.
The beams were ordered from a catalog. Some 70,000 bolts hold the structure together, placed by hand.
work on Needle
Berger saw the construction of the Space Needle during a Cub Scout trip that took him to Seattle’s Smith Tower, the tallest building west of the Mississippi River constructed until the Space Needle. The Smith tower was built in 1916.
“Here was the future, and it was being built in our town,” Berger said of the Space Needle. “And at that time, Seattle had no skyscrapers, so you could stand on the observation deck of the Smith Tower, and you could look right at Queen Anne Hill on the other side of downtown. And when I went up there in 1961, the Space Needle was under construction and they were just beginning to put the top on.”
“It took only nine months from groundbreaking to topping out,” Berger said. “Today, you couldn’t get zoning approved in that time.”
People recruited to help build it on a short time table came from Disney. “The United States had not hosted a World’s Fair since 1940 so there was 22 years, in between,” Berger said. “The only people they had to really draw on were people at Disneyland.”
The workers had the experience and knowledge for rides such as It’s A Small World.
And the Space Needle was a ride of it’s own.
“The needle provided the squeal factor for the fair,” Berger said. “Now, when you go up the Space Needle, it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. In 1962, first of all, elevators were not on the outside of buildings. In 1962, elevators did not have windows. In 1962, elevators did not have windows that opened to empty space.”
There was no safety grid on the observation deck either, Berger pointed out. It was strictly the open air and a handrail.
“It was a ride, as well as a tower and a restaurant,” Berger said.
The top, repainted for the 50th anniversary, was painted galaxy gold.
“It wasn’t gold at all, it’s more of a tangerine orange,” Berger said. There was a mistake in Chicago when the paint was ordered, and there wasn’t sufficient time to order new paint.
The five investors earned their money back for the building before the World’s Fair 1962 was over. Price of admission to go to the top of the Space Needle was $1 with more than two million visitors or 12,000 per day. Today admission is $19 for an adult and an average of one million people visit every year.
The structure was built to withstand a 9.0 earthquake and 200 miles per hour winds. It weighs 9,550 tons.
The needle on top of the structure was built by hand and the entire structure was built without nets, harnesses or other safety equipment. The photos are shocking of construction, showing men clinging to the edge of the 605-foot building. Amazingly, no one was killed on the Needle during the construction.
Legacy of the
Walt Disney, the Kennedys, princes and princesses, John Wayne, and others all came to the Space Needle.
Elvis Presley made a movie, “It happened at the World’s Fair,” set in Seattle, where he is seen dining in the Space Needle. But it wasn’t the Space Needle, at all. It was an impressive replica built in an MGM studio.
“Stars were drawn to the Needle,” Berger said. In fact, Disney believed Space Needles would crop up everywhere overtime as a wave of the future. The Jetsons cartoon was also inspired by the Space Needle and homes that would be shaped like Space Needle’s in the future.
“Seattle was being recognized around the world,” Berger said. It continues to be recognized today. It graced the cover of Life magazine twice.
Berger was commissioned by Seattle to write the history in time for the 50th anniversary. He was a “writer in residence” and had a desk on the observation deck to conduct interviews and write his book in 2011.
It is available for $25 in bookstores and online.
Berger is the editor at large for Seattle Magazine and pens the Mossback column for www.crosscut.com, a Pacific Northwest nonprofit online daily. He is also author of the regional bestseller “Pugetopolis,” and is a regular weekly news commentator on Seattle’s NPR affiliate, KUOW.
This story originally appeared in Daily Astorian.