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Originally published April 17, 2011 at 8:41 PM | Page modified April 18, 2011 at 10:57 AM

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'It was a crazy idea': Space Needle, 50 years later

The 50th anniversary of the groundbreaking of the Space Needle was celebrated below the iconic structure Sunday by the visionaries who made it happen or their surviving relatives.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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A collection of Space Needle memories: www.spaceneedle50.com

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Tourists from Kansas driving by the Space Needle on Sunday may have thought they were looking at a very tall, slightly goofy '60s artifact, a preposterous tower with a top reminiscent of a spaceship.

Down on the ground, though, those who gathered under the Needle for the 50th anniversary of its groundbreaking spoke of it as a symbol of synergy — of what can happen when creativity, financial wherewithal and caring for the community come together.

"When I think of the Space Needle, I think of passion and vision and commitment," said Barbara Graham, the daughter of the Needle's architect, John Graham.

The event, held outside beneath the Needle on Sunday morning, gathered surviving relatives and a few of the men themselves whose efforts and investments turned a scribble on a cocktail napkin into the $4 million symbol of Seattle.

As the sun broke through clouds to warm a chill, windy day, about 30 people listened to the handful who had come to tell stories about the Space Needle, including a tale about an Elvis sighting and recollections of being taken up in scary construction elevators as young children. After the brief program, they posed for a group photo with golden shovels and reminisced among themselves.

When it was built, the 605-foot Space Needle was the tallest structure west of the Mississippi River, its 3,700-ton tower of steel held steady by a 5,850-ton concrete foundation.

Against the odds, it was completed in time for the opening of the 1962 Century 21 World's Fair on April 21, 1962.

"I was young enough and inexperienced enough not to dwell on difficulties," said Bagley Wright, 87, who brought together the group of investors and developers who would form the backbone of the project.

Those men included contractor Howard S. Wright, financier Ned Skinner and timber magnate Norton Clapp, along with Eddie Carlson, then a hotel-company president whose crude sketch in a restaurant in Stuttgart, Germany, became the fodder for Graham, the architect, who had designed Northgate Mall.

Together, they overcame skepticism, regulations and, ultimately, a tight time line to get the Needle open for the start of the fair.

Much like Paris and the Eiffel Tower, said those gathered Sunday, the Space Needle has since become one of the few structures in the world that so immediately evokes its city.

"It was a crazy idea," Bagley Wright admitted. "I didn't ever think it would become the symbol of a city."

Jay Rockey, 82, the original public-relations director for the fair, also was on hand Sunday, recalling the mad scramble to get the Needle completed in time. "This thing was only completed a few days before the Fair opened," he said. "There were an awful lot of people who said, 'What are you going to do when it's not ready?' "

Ultimately, though, the "team process" pulled it together, Rockey said.

David Skinner, Ned's son, said his dad, a shipping-company executive, deserves a lot of credit for helping build the Needle, but the effort never would have proved successful without the other families.

The fair itself was about "passionate curiosity," and so were the men who envisioned the Needle, he said. Add collaboration and creativity and it's also about "who we are as a culture."

Then, as now, there were upheavals in the world: the Cold War was heating up, with the failed U.S. invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs one of the most dicey and oft-recalled examples.

Today, Skinner said, we face many challenges in the city, the country, the state, and the world. "I'm suggesting if we apply what got us here today to that, I think we'll be in good shape."

Carol M. Ostrom: 206-464-2249 or costrom@seattletimes.com

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