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Friday, April 12, 2002 - 12:00 a.m. Pacific

Space Needle: Forty years after World's Fair, Seattle's symbol still stands tall

By Tyrone Beason
Seattle Times staff reporter

For 40 years, the Space Needle has held court on the northern edge of downtown Seattle. And after posing for countless snapshots with the city skyline and Mount Rainier as its backdrop, the retro-chic beacon with a UFO sitting on top has more than lived up to expectations.

Six months before the Needle opened its doors to the public in the spring of 1962, Seattle World's Fair Chairman Eddie Carlson uttered some prophetic words about his brainchild:

"This will be to Seattle what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. The Space Needle will be the great symbol of a great city."

The $4.5 million, 605-foot tower turned out to be more than a landmark.

Not only did the Space Needle physically change the skyline, it helped change how the city viewed itself and how the world viewed the city. With the Needle as the main icon of the science-and-technology-themed World's Fair, the old image of Seattle as an industrial outpost was replaced with one that screamed Ultra-Modern, City of the Future!

The World's Fair ended after six months, but the spirit of cheerful optimism and innovation reflected in the Needle live on.

Today, the city is still known internationally as a center for all things cutting-edge, even if the beloved tower with spindly legs is looking more and more vintage.

The Needle was very much a product of the organic, collaborative processes for which Seattle is also known.

It took designers and construction workers about a year of feverish planning and building — much of it with uncertain financial backing — to complete the steel structure in time for the six-month World's Fair that started in April 1962.

The tower's earliest days as a tourist magnet can be forgiven. The Space Age color scheme of "re-entry red," "orbital olive," "galaxy gold" and "astronaut white" was totally of the era.

It was on Feb. 20, 1962, after all, that John Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth. Maybe it seemed a fitting tribute to dress the female elevator attendants at the Space Needle in skin-tight gold "spacesuits" during the fair.

Kitsch aside, the Needle was a monument to technology.

When completed, the Needle boasted some of the world's fastest elevators — they ferried passengers at the speed of raindrops, 14 feet per second.

And it had one of the world's few high-rise revolving restaurants.

"The Space Needle was sort of a high-tech exclamation mark on the cityscape of Seattle," said Lorraine McConaghy, a historian at the Museum of History and Industry.

A new look on life

But the all-encompassing view from the observation areas, about 520 feet up, was its most compelling draw.

"No one had been able to look out from that vantage point," McConaghy said. "Many people reflected on seeing the city fresh, for the first time. It made it look like a big hometown from up there."

And today, "We see a lot of transformation in our city in the 40 years that followed the fair," McConaghy said.

Of course, some of the innovations forecast for the 21st century during the World's Fair didn't materialize. The metropolitan area isn't criss-crossed by monorails. The man-made island villages envisioned for Lake Washington never came to pass. Downtown is not covered by a rain-proof plastic dome.

How it came together

But the Space Needle, though designed for a specific purpose — icon of the "Century 21" World's Fair — wound up with a strangely enduring look.

Carlson, the fair committee chairman, came up with the preliminary design for the Needle after a visit to Stuttgart, Germany, home to its own tower. The Seattle design and engineering firm John Graham and Co. was put to work to develop the project.

Retired engineer Roderick Kirkwood was part of the design team that created the Space Needle's curvaceous, "light and delicate" look. He says the tower we see today, with its gracefully bent steel legs, was very much an organic, collaborative enterprise.

"People ask what kind of mathematical formula we used to design that curve, but it wasn't a math formula," Kirkwood said. "It was primarily a matter of aesthetics. Curved legs are certainly more graceful."

The firm had earlier designed a shopping center in Honolulu that would be accompanied by a high-rise office building topped by a revolving restaurant. They decided to add a revolving restaurant to the Space Needle.

Why does the top resemble a spaceship?

Kirkwood, now 82, doesn't have an answer. But after 40 years, he believes his firm, led by John Graham, achieved a monument that served its immediate purpose and then some.

"We were designing something that was going to look appropriate for the Space Age," he said, but "it had to last more than the six months of the fair to get financing. That meant it had to be attractive for years to come."

"We think we did a very good job, " Kirkwood said.

"Almost anywhere you go, you mention the Space Needle and people know exactly where it is."

A kind of retro charm

The most conspicuous symbol of the '62 World's Fair and still the most intriguing feature of the Seattle skyline, the tower still says something about the city growing around it. But what, exactly?

McConaghy says that a lasting legacy of the Space Needle and the fair as a whole is that people began to associate Seattle with what she calls "hot, exciting, forward-looking, high-tech thinking."

The needle symbolized Seattle's innovative spirit and eagerness to meet the challenges of the next century. But in 2002, Seattle's deeply entrenched high-tech industry can generate its own buzz.

"Whether people still associate (the Needle) with the future, I'd be dubious," McConaghy said of the Needle. "It seems to have a kind of retro charm."

John Findlay, a University of Washington history professor, is equally split.

"In a way, the Space Needle's obsolete," Findlay said. "We're not quite as fascinated by space exploration as we were then. We're not quite as optimistic about technology as we were then."

Still, Findlay said, "The optimism and confidence in technology may have diminished, but that doesn't mean the Space Needle doesn't symbolize Seattle. It's the logo for Seattle."

The Space Needle may not boast the Eiffel Tower's lacy 19th-century elegance or height (the Paris beacon is 986 feet high), but admirers of the Seattle landmark never had trouble heaping compliments on it, even before it opened.

The U.S. Steel Corp. published an advertisement in U.S. News and World Report on Dec. 6, 1961, that described the tower as "a 400-day wonder from design to completion for sheer audacity and imagination. The world has never seen anything like an amazing tower called the Space Needle now being built in Seattle."

'So weird it's delightful'

Some believe the tower is just as worthy of raves today as it was then. In fact, '60s-retro came back into fashion recently. Ask Dr. Evil, of "Austin Powers" fame, who uses the Needle as his lair.

"I think it's poised for a comeback," says Tom Holst, an associate real-estate broker who presides over the Web site www.seattlemodern.com, an Internet shrine to midcentury design.

"It doesn't quite have Eiffel Tower status, though," says Holst, who admits to owning a Space Needle pepper grinder and lamps that look like spaceships.

Still, "it's so weird it's delightful," Holst said of the Needle's "science-fictiony" silhouette.

When the Needle informally opened in March 1962, The Seattle Times' lead story summed up the public's response in one sentence: "It was love at first sight."

Evidently, the affair continues, even if the infatuation with the Needle's futuristic qualities has simmered to a loving acknowledgement of how things used to be.

Tyrone Beason can be reached at 206-464-2251 or tbeason@seattletimes.com.

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