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The Space Needle: Back to the Future

Jeffrey Syken

“It’s my building, but it’s their skyline”
Raymond Hood, Architect

Prophetic words from the architect of such famous New York City edifices as the Daily News Building, 30 Rockefeller Center and the McGraw-Hill Building. It highlights the fact that a city’s skyline is the sum of all of its parts, with each part helping to define the whole and belonging to the observer, rather than the creator. Perhaps this was never truer than in the case of Seattle. When a photograph of modern-day Seattle is shown to people, with the Space Needle prominent, 78% of them can easily identify the city as Seattle, despite the fact that several other structures exceed the Space Needle’s 606-feet (when it was completed, it was the tallest structure west of the Mississippi River). By comparison, when the Space Needle is removed from the same photograph, only 8% of people can identify the city as Seattle. Such is the power of the Space Needle to be synonymous with the City of Seattle itself, akin to Paris’ Eiffel Tower, of which the Space Needle is a direct descendant for it too served as the centerpiece of a great International Exposition.

It all began innocently enough. In the spring of 1959, hotel executive Eddie Carlson, native of Seattle, was in Stuttgart, West Germany on business. While dining in the restaurant located at the top of the city’s brand-new 200-meter-high TV tower, he had a vision of a tower with a restaurant for his home town, which he duly sketched on a napkin. Besides running a large hotel business, Carlson was also Chairman of the Century 21 Exposition, which was to take place in 1962. Inspired by Stuttgart’s TV tower, Carlson presented his sketch to the Expo’s Board of Directors thus, a centerpiece for the upcoming fair was born. The idea for a 1962 Seattle World’s Fair had its roots in an earlier World’s Fair; the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific (A-Y-P) Exposition of 1909. Seattle’s 1962 World’s Fair would be “Convertible” in that many buildings and some infrastructure created for the fair would be “permanent” (for use post-fair), including the monorail and the Space Needle. As well, Seattle’s 1962 World’s Fair would be the first to be held in the U.S. that incorporated a component of a pre-existing city plan; a Civic Center, which Seattle voters had approved in 1955.

The Space Needle itself was symbolic of the era it was conceived and built in. The Cold War was at its height and the Space Race was on. With its Jetsons-like “Top House” looking like a flying saucer landed on top of its six curved legs, the connection to the “Space-Age” was obvious. The design for the legs supporting the Top House, with its revolving restaurant and observation deck, was influenced by an abstract sculpture entitled: “The Feminine One,” by Seattle artist David Lemmon, which happened to be sitting on the shelf of consulting Space Needle architect Victor Steinbrueck. Photographer George Gulacsik captured the images of the tower rising, documenting the construction from groundbreaking, in April 1961, to the opening of the fair a year later. Considering the unique dangers involved in constructing the tower, it’s amazing that, thankfully, not one life was lost. Built to celebrate the coming of the 21st Century, by the first decades of the new century the tower was looking tired and dated. The "Century Project," conceived in 2013 and implemented in September 2017, was a $100 million restoration project that brought the Space Needle into the future, where it was born.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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