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Sunday, April 14, 2002 - 12:00 a.m. Pacific

Lions and Sonics and ballerinas, oh my!

By Sherry Stripling,
Seattle Times staff reporter

IllustrationWhen David and Louisa Denny bequeathed their land for "public use forever" in 1889, little did they know that 10 million of us would visit Seattle Center each year, finding activities that would occupy us from cradle to grave.

We are not arriving by personal helicopter and rocket belts as predicted at the 1962 World's Fair. But whether in mink or hemp, in throngs of 60,000 or alone in contemplation by the International Fountain, we come, keeping the 74-acre site one of the top gathering spots in the nation and the heart-thumping center of our community.

Click the numbers on the map below for a look at the evolution — or, in the case of the Space Needle, the revolution — of some of the sites we know so well.


Seattle Center map

Illustration1. Armory/Food Circus/Center House — Built in 1939 as the Washington State Armory, the basement still has markings for the old firing range and an unfinished swimming pool dug for recruits. An estimated 8 million of Seattle Center's 10 million annual visitors come through the Center House for 3,000 events a year, including ballroom dancing at noon on Mondays. Orange Julius is the last food holdout from the World's Fair days, when the building became the world's first vertical mall. Natives still say, "Meet me at the Food Circus."

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2. Space Needle — The original name of the Space Needle was the Space Cage. Born as a doodle on the back of a napkin, the Needle, 605 feet or 1,320 candy bars (end-to-end) high, remains Seattle's No. 1 tourist attraction (no wonder the city of Fife once offered $1 million to take it). The underground foundation, 30 feet deep and 120 feet broad, took 467 cement trucks an entire day to fill. Nearly 20,000 visitors a day went up to the world's second revolving restaurant during the World's Fair, taking elevators that come down as fast as raindrops (14 feet per second). Bill Gates, age 11 in 1966, won a free meal here for perfectly reciting chapters from the Sermon on the Mount. The Needle's first manager had a fear of heights.

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3. Pacific Science Center — National experts questioned the whole science idea as a draw for a world's fair, but the U.S. Science Pavilion outdrew everything with 6.7 million visitors. The British-born journalist Alistair Cooke gushed about the $10 million pavilion, "It is as if Venice has just been built." It was designed by Seattle-born architect Minoru Yamasaki, featuring five graceful arches that rise 110 feet above reflecting pools. Boeing's Spacearium, at the time the world's largest screen, was a forerunner to all IMAX theaters, including its own, the 1998 Boeing IMAX Theater. The science center's second director was future Washington Gov. Dixy Lee Ray, who was known to leave her office to shoo away hippies smoking pot at the International Fountain.

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4. House of Tomorrow/Seattle Children's Theatre — The Seattle Children's Theatre, which moved into its new building in 1993, has produced more original work than any other major company in the state of Washington (no wonder 250,000 folks a year attend). During the fair, this site was home to the House of Tomorrow exhibit, where people still using hand-cranked can openers learned that by the millennium they would have electronic bakery drawers, projected color TVs and home computers. Progress has been good to the Children's Theatre: Knocking down the Flag Pavilion last year at last opened the north entrance view of the International Fountain.

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5. Flag Pavilion/Fisher Pavilion — Built to last six months, the Flag Pavilion lasted 39 years, hosting the likes of President Lyndon B. Johnson and astronaut John Glenn. Other celebrities included circus animals awaiting performances at the Coliseum, which left maintenance crews the task of wiping lion urine off the walls before the next festival. A new festivals site, Fisher Pavilion, is being built into the slope of the land and will feature floor-to-ceiling glass that opens onto two acres of green space. Lions not allowed.

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6. Washington State Coliseum/KeyArena — These days if you've seen one hyperbolic paraboloid, you've seen them all, but the shape of the Coliseum — including its lack of roof supports and 3,500 four-foot cubes arranged in cluster chambers — was considered an architectural wonder in 1962. Sans the popular "Bubbleator," which carried passengers up to the World of Tomorrow 150 at a time during the fair, the Coliseum was remodeled as a sports palace in 1964 — just in time for the Beatles to play their first Seattle concert ($5 tickets were scalped for $30). Today, KeyArena is the No. 1 concert venue on the West Coast, drawing 1.2 million visitors a year following another little $74 million remodel in 1995.

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7. Kobe Bell — The one-ton temple bell was sent in 1962 by Seattle's sister city and was paid for in part by Kobe schoolchildren. The structure holding the bell was recently renovated with a meditative garden, including a cherry tree first planted by His Imperial Highness Crown Prince Akihito in 1960 and then transplanted here in 1975.

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8. Swedish Pavilion/Northwest Craft Center and Gallery — The Swedes had barely vacated the place when Ruth Nomura took over as director of the Northwest Craft Center in 1963. Thirty-nine years later, she's still there, outlasting most of the original artists but not all. Polly Stehman, an Edmonds jewelry maker in her 80s, continues to show in this ambitious little gallery that has housed the works of Northwest greats Guy Anderson and Richard Gilkey.

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Illustration Did you know that ...

• On a hot day, the Space Needle expands one inch.

• Native people used these grounds for potlatches through the 1800s.

• Computer-data cables installed in the Experience Music Project could wrap around the Earth.

• The much-loved Bubbleator elevator that led us to the World of Tomorrow in 1962 has retired to a private residence south of Seattle where today it enjoys gardening.

• Bumbershoot got its name in 1973 as a gathering of various arts programs under one umbrella.

• The writer of this story was caught trying to jump on the merry-go-round without a ticket at the 1962 World's Fair after being led astray by a visiting cousin who ran faster.

9. Civic Field/Memorial Stadium — Ted Williams appeared here several times in 1937 with the San Diego Padres on the field that was replaced in 1948 by Memorial Stadium, which honored Seattleites lost in World War II. Seattle's first live telecast of a sporting event took place here in 1948. In 1962, 12,000 people showed up here for opening ceremonies of the World's Fair.

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10. Civic Auditorium/Seattle Center Opera House/Marion Oliver McCaw Hall — The $125 million near-total rebuild is scheduled to open as McCaw Hall in summer 2003. Suffice it to say, if violin great Jascha Heifetz could come back, he likely would not repeat his remarks about how playing in the 1928-vintage Civic Auditorium was like playing "in a damn barn."

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11. International Fountain — When Disney Imagineering suggested the International Fountain be scrapped in the late 1980s, the mouths of Seattle protesters shot off like the 150 mist nozzles, 77 fleur-de-lis, 56 micro shooters and four super-shooters that would later be installed in a 1995 remodel. We love our fountain, and now that it has been redesigned to actually encourage children to play in it, we love it more.

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12. Experience Music Project — Architect Frank O. Gehry bought several electric guitars, took them back to his office and cut them up, and the rest is architectural history. Each of 3,000 outside panels has seven shingles and each shingle is cut and bent to fit exactly in its designed location, aided by a three-dimensional computer program previously used to build fighter jets.

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13. Fun Forest Amusement Park — No rides remain from "Gayway," but the Robertson family, which purchased the area after the fair, is still here. Today, Stella Aubin and her son-in-law, Steve Robertson, run the 19-ride "Fun Forest," which includes the 20,000-square foot Fun Forest Pavilion which added laser tag and electronic games in 1997, part of the public's request to keep the Center a place that welcomes teens.

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Sources: "Meet Me at the Center," Don Duncan, Seattle Center Foundation; Seattle Center and Space Needle Web sites and publications.

ILLUSTRATIONS BY PAUL SCHMID / THE SEATTLE TIMES

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