The History of the Space Needle in Seattle

It is impossible to imagine Seattle without the Space Needle. Its unique shape and revolving restaurant have made it one of the city’s best known landmarks. Every Seattle logo and just about every Seattle postcard features the Space Needle prominent against the Seattle cityscape. And yet, were it not for the 1962 World’s Fair, it would never have come to be.

The theme of the Century 21 Exposition, better known as the 1962 World’s Fair, was scientific progress and space exploration. Against the growing backdrop of the superpower space race, what could be more logical that an American World Fair should embrace the newest next frontier? Sputnik I and Explorer I had been launched in 1957, just a few years earlier. In April 1961 Yuri Gagarin completed the first successful manned space flight, almost exactly one year before Century 21 was due to open. His space flight was followed less than a month later by that of Alan Shepard. On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy issued his famous challenge:

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”

As the home of Boeing, Seattle was already on the map as an aerospace city. All that remained was for Century 21 to come up with a suitably space-oriented theme structure. Edward Carlson, the chairman of Century 21, wanted something resembling a giant tethered balloon, similar to the design of the Stuttgart Tower. Architect John Graham envisioned something resembling a flying saucer. What resulted was a compromise, with the idea of the tethers retained in the gentle steel support curves and the idea of the flying saucer retained in the revolving restaurant, a cutting edge technology at the time. The Pentagram Corporation, consisting of John Graham, contractor Howard Wright, and investors Bagley Wright, Ned Skinner, and Norton Clapp, was founded to build and finance the creation of the Space Needle.

Coming up with the idea and the private financing proved much easier than coming up with the land. Even though Seattle had been planning some kind of world exposition as far back as 1955 and had already once postponed the planned date, the 120′ x 120′ plot of land that would become home to the Space Needle was not found until barely a year remained to Century 21’s planned opening date of April 21, 1962. The groundbreaking ceremony was held immediately on April 17, 1961.

After that, things moved quickly. Even so, the last elevator of the Space Needle was installed only a single day before the opening of the World’s Fair, and some design details, such as a grand stairway leading to the elevators, had to be set aside entirely. Its final cost was 4.5 million dollars.

To render the Space Needle as earthquake-proof as possible, its foundations were dug 30′ deep and took up the entire width of the building lot. The resulting concrete base weighs 6,000 tons, 4% of which is reinforcing steel, making the tower’s center of gravity only 5′ above the ground. Thus the saucer-shaped restaurant and its observation deck are wider than its base, measuring 138′ across. In theory this design can withstand winds of up to 200 mph and earthquakes of up to 9.5 on the Richter scale. The windstorm of 2006 bothered the Space Needle not at all, although the sway from smaller earthquakes has caused water to slosh out of the toilets. Despite the rushed build, the key elements of the tower had been built to such precision that it took only a one horsepower motor to start and maintain the rotation of the restaurant’s track.

When it opened in 1962, the Seattle Space Needle was the tallest structure west of the Mississippi. Nearly 20,000 people a day visited 520′ high observation deck, for a total of over 2.3 million visitors over the course of the World Fair. Two restaurants were available to them, the Emerald Suite and the Eye of the Needle.

It took twenty years after its opening before the SkyLine level, another part of the original design, was finally added to the Space Needle. This addition became the SkyLine Banquet Facility, which can accommodate up to 360 diners. Nine years later, in 1993, the original elevators were replaced with computerized technology, which whisks visitors to the observation level in only 43 seconds. The trip takes longer when it is windy, since the elevators are restricted to a maximum speed of 5 mph instead of 10 mph.

December 31, 1999, marked the first time the Legacy Light was kindled. Such a light, shining from the top of the tower, is shown on the official 1962 Century 21 poster, although it was not in the original plans. Thus the Legacy Light, or Skybeam, harkens to the conceptual roots of the Space Needle, while for the first time bringing something genuinely new into the design. On average, it is used roughly a dozen nights each year, during holidays and other major occasions. The lighting of the Skybeam also marked the beginning of a year of major renovations and general beautification of the Space Needle and its immediate surroundings, including the replacement of the earlier restaurants by the larger SkyCity restaurant, which specializes in Pacific Northwest cuisine.