Reaching for Space
“In 1959, Seattle hotel executive Edward E. Carlson, who was a chief organizer of the 1962 World’s Fair, traveled to Stuttgart Germany where he was inspired by a broadcast tower featuring a restaurant. He doodled an idea of a dominant central structure for the fair on a napkin in a hotel café convinced that such a tower could make a permanent center-piece for the fair and an enduring symbol for Seattle. He called it a “Space Needle.”
Carlson and his supporters soon found moving the symbol from doodle to the drawing board, and then to the construction phase, was far from easy. The first obstacle was the structure’s final design. Carlson’s initial sketch underwent many transformations, including designs that resembled a landed UFO, a tethered balloon and even a cocktail shaker with a tram ferrying visitors to the top.
Architect John “Jack” Graham, Jr. fresh from his success in designing the world’s first auto-centric shopping mall (Seattle’s Northgate) and experimenting with a revolving bar in Hawaii, focused on a flying saucer-shaped top house. Graham’s team worked on sketches and ideas before a final design was reached just a year and a half before the World’s Fair. Architect Victor Steinbrueck came up with the wasp-waisted tower shape based on an abstract sculpture of a dancer called “The Feminine One.”
Location and financing were also major challenges. The tower had to be privately financed and situated on land that could be acquired for private use on the fairgrounds. Early investigations indicated such a plot of land did not exist. However, just before the search was abandoned, a suitable 120-foot-by-120-lot on the site of an old fire station was found and sold to investors for $75,000 in 1961, just 13 months before the opening of the World’s Fair.
Construction, managed by the Howard S. Wright Construction Company, progressed quickly. An underground foundation was poured into a hole 30’ deep and 120’ across. It took 467 cement trucks an entire day to fill the hole, and the largest continuous concrete pour ever attempted in the West. Once the pour was completed, the foundation weighed as much as the Space Needle itself, establishing the center of gravity just five feet above ground.
The basic Space Needle tower was completed in December 1961, eight months after it began. In keeping with the 21st Century theme of the World’s Fair, the final coats of paint were dubbed ‘Astronaut White’ for the legs, ‘Orbital Olive’ for the core of the structure, ‘Re-entry Red’ for the Halo and ‘Galaxy Gold’ for the sunburst and pagoda roof. The Space Needle’s chief engineer, John Minasian, had also designed rocket gantries for NASA.
The Space Needle officially opened the first day of the World’s Fair. During the expo the tower hosted an estimated 2.65 million visitors. They included world celebrities including Elvis Presley, the Shah and Empress of Iran, Prince Philip of Great Britain, Bobby Kennedy, Walter Cronkite, John Wayne, Bob Hope, Chubby Checker, Billy Graham, John Glenn, Jonas Salk, Carol Channing, Neil Armstrong, Lyndon Johnson, Walt Disney and scores of others. The mast originally topping the structure was a natural gas torch that was lit up at night in rainbow colors. A ride up the elevator cost only one dollar, and dinners averaged $7.50, including a cocktail.
In September 2017, the Space Needle commenced construction on the largest renovation project in its history, “The Century Project.” The renovation aimed to reveal the tower’s internal structure and harken back to the original conceptual sketches, all while expanding and improving its views. The Space Needle remained open to the public during its 360-degree “Spacelift,” revealing its new look in late summer of 2018. Guests are now surrounded by two breathtaking, multi-level, floor-to-ceiling glass viewing experiences including an outdoor observation level with open-air glass walls and Skyriser glass benches. The upper observation level is now connected by the Oculus Stairs to The Loupe, the world’s first, and only, rotating glass floor below.”
Excerpted text copyright of the Space Needle LLC.