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    Seattle's World's Fair: the do-over

    A plea for a big celebration of this critical event in Seattle's history, reliving its giddy stories and fulfilling its 1962 promises of Century 21.
    Seattle Center: enduring icons of 1962

    Seattle Center: enduring icons of 1962 City of Seattle

    Seattle is a young city. I’m reminded of this most when I think about Brewster Denny, former Dean of the Evans School of Public Affairs at the UW and now living downtown. Dean Denny is a descendant of the Arthur Denny Party, those early settlers who arrived in what’s now Seattle back on a rainy November day in 1851.

    I’ve often heard Denny tell that, as a young man, he remembers spending time with an uncle of his named Rolland Denny (who passed away in 1939). You see, Rolland Denny was an actual member of the Denny Party, an infant carried ashore at windswept Alki by his mother. Viewed this way, Seattle’s non-Native history so far spans less than two human lifetimes. I’ll say it again: Seattle is a young city.

    So it’s sometimes a challenge to get local history taken seriously in Seattle. That was something I experienced with regularity when I was deputy director of the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI). For instance, you are forgiven if you don’t remember the sesquicentennial celebration back in 2001 (or, for that matter, if you don’t know what “sesquicentennial” means). It took an email blast from the late Walt Crowley of HistoryLink sent to, among others, every single City Council member and nearly every reporter in town, to really get the 150th anniversary of the landing of the Denny Party taken seriously by the civic establishment. Walt’s infamous email questioned the city’s financial commitment, comparing the proposed celebration (not favorably) to a “potluck” rather than a “potlatch.” It was pure vintage Crowley — full strength, 200 proof.

    While celebrating the 150th anniversary of any event is possibly a questionable activity, one need only look south (or turn on a radio or look at an ad on the web) to see the massive “Oregon 150” tourism campaign under way this year to see what’s possible when interested parties cooperate and devote resources to celebrating local history with an eye to generating revenue. Oregon 150 is using the anniversary of the Beaver State’s 1859 admission to the Union to draw regional tourists, and is likely to have serious economic impact at a time when it will really help local businesses.

    Meanwhile, witness the centennial this year of the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition or “AYPE.” If you’re unfamiliar with the AYPE, you are, once again, forgiven. The AYP was Seattle’s first world’s fair, held on the UW campus in celebration of Seattle’s role in the Klondike Gold Rush and the city’s prominence on the Pacific Rim. By all accounts, it was a big deal and put the city on the map in countless ways that most people can’t exactly remember.

    There have been some special events this summer that are sure to be memorable for the usual history suspects who took part (my favorite was the cross-country Model T rally that ended on campus with a massive July downpour). But the AYPE centennial (like the city’s sesquicentennial before it) hasn’t exactly grabbed hold of the wider public consciousness.

    It could be that celebrating 100 years is more problematic than most of us thought. First, there’s nobody alive who actually remembers attending the AYPE. Second, 100 years could be just too recent for the anniversary to seem very important. In other words, maybe the original event isn’t yet distant and “mythical” enough (Seattle is a young city, as I may have mentioned already). Add to this the fact that, other than the layout and a handful of landmarks on the UW campus (the fountain, the old architecture building), the AYP’s legacy is invisible to the students who daily tread or pedal across its former home.

    Fortunately, another important civic anniversary lies just over the horizon, and our city has been given another chance. The 1962 Seattle World’s Fair will celebrate its 50th birthday in less than three years. The ’62 fair was a success by any measure, and, rather than looking back on past successes, the fair looked forward to Century 21. Ironically, the ’62 fair was originally envisioned by Seattle City Councilman Al Rochester as a 50th anniversary celebration of the AYPE (so it was three years late, but who’s counting?).

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    Posted Tue, Jul 14, 10:03 a.m. Inappropriate

    What Oregon 150 Tourism PR? I was there for three weeks last month and saw diddleysquat about it, other than some refrigerator magnets at Fred Meyer.


    Posted Tue, Jul 14, 10:33 a.m. Inappropriate

    I was only three, but I do remember the fair. I remember the hydro dam pavilion, standing knee-high to scores of adults in a room full of stars (which I believe was the former Eames Theater), the glowing black-light models of the planets, a telephone without a dial (Touch Tone!) and waiting for my grandfather outside the Chevron Pavilion, where he brought me a little tube filled with oil. I'm convinced that postmodern Seattle is a little embarassed by the fair. All that oh-so-non-hip belief in an optimistic future and progress. The only commemoration of the 40th anniversary was to paint the roof of the Space Needle the original orange, and that of course was done by the owners of the Space Needle, not the city. Look at every monumental tower built since the Space Needle. They look like microphones. A ball (or cylinder) on a stick. Paint the Needle in its original colors, clean all that damned junk out of the Science Center courtyard, bring back the bell-curve ball machine, and let's remember that the future was (and can still be) a hopeful, promising place if people just have the will to make it so.


    Posted Tue, Jul 14, 11:53 a.m. Inappropriate

    How about the city acts on the Seattle Center master plan before the "Fun Forrest" closes and we have nothing to celebrate but an exquisite corpse, $570 million for the whole plan (without a KeyArena remodel)?

    What would we really be exhibiting, urban blight?

    As much as I think this is a great idea, I am not convinced that political leadership preoccupied with avoiding blame would risk trying something so bold that would present a large target for the usual rock-throwers. By the time the sub-committee was formed and had a meeting with a random group of citizens chosen by other random citizens I fear your idea would celebrate the 53rd anniversay, too.

    Mr Baker

    Posted Tue, Jul 14, 9:48 p.m. Inappropriate

    I was going to say "'100 years could be just too recent for the anniversary to seem very important'? What? This is Seattle, where if something dates from the 1930s it seems old!" I know when I hear of a local business having been around, for example, since World War I, I am quite impressed — whereas that's nothing on the East Coast, and even less in the Old World.

    But then I realized that I, as a native Seattleite, am probably now in the minority. Maybe 1909 doesn't seem so long ago to those who have moved here from points east and south (Los Angeles, after all, was founded in 1781).

    I think people are interested in local history, still, here, but I wonder if it isn't more neighborhood-based — or even at a more hyperlocal level. I bet the 100th anniversary of the annexation of Georgetown to Seattle will be a reasonably big deal next year — in Georgetown. And I think people still get a kick out of businesses that have made it through the years, and pictures of what their house used to look like when the WPA photographed it during the '30s.

    I could be wrong, of course.

    And, either way, a 50th anniversary of Century 21 sounds like a good idea. Let's hope Mr. Baker's fears turn out to be unfounded (though I certainly understand where he's coming from).

    Posted Thu, Jul 16, 11:01 a.m. Inappropriate

    How about stopping the 25 year long destruction of this legacy.

    The latest silliness is the skateboard park which serves a micro-miniature segment of the population and repels nearly everyone else. Destroying in the process a venue that used to draw both people and revenue to the Center.

    Then there is the silly master plan which spends a half a BILLION dollars and nets us a big lawn with a kiddy playground. (Typical of Nickels "vision" for the city.) Seriously, whom does that attract? Is someone from West Seattle or Wedgewood going to drive to the Center for that? Aside from the fact that Nickels keeps giving our parking lots away to developers putting in buildings that will simply repel more visitors, there is simply nothing to draw people to the Center. And no the existing museums and performing arts will continue to draw their fans regardless.
    Besides one can easily see from the empty lawns that they aren't an attraction.

    A high school, music club or whatever Vera is, SIFF's proposed HQ, the Opera turning the Arena into offices, these are attractions?


    Posted Thu, Jul 16, 12:06 p.m. Inappropriate

    The skateboard park WAS part of the parking the city sold to B&M; Gates Foundation, mmmm irony, that was and is part of Seattle Center.

    Ron Sims' big ditch was nutty, the current plan was a new and exciting way to remodel the facility with the least cost to the wallet, and the neighbors.

    My thought was to put the "expanding" Convention Center and the KeyArena remodel into one new modern multi-use facility to host major national events, as well as major local events. Convention Center folks manage the convention type activities, the city keeps their festival and sport (storm, etc) dates.
    That got a $960 million dollar guess and proximity to downtown hotels as being the thing stoping that idea. Oddly enough, the WSCTC price tag was $774 million, KeyArena was $300 million.

    The partial rip down of the center house is about the best that could happen to that thing short of ripping it all the way down and spending a bunch of money for some other thing.

    I think much more could have been done there but we have a tunnel to build, and that is where the mayor's effort went, rather than secure long-term local funding to remake Seattle Center.
    The once every 50 year talk Nickels gave about the waterfront could just as well have been given about Seattle Center.

    I would like all of the mayoral candidates to give their opinion of Seattle Center, what should be done, how to pay for it.

    Mr Baker

    Posted Thu, Jul 16, 12:13 p.m. Inappropriate

    Speaking as one of those (very few) people who find the A.-Y.-P. fascinating (and who participated in some of the MOHAI 100th anniversary events) I have to say that one of the key reasons the fair has been forgotten is that no history of the fair has yet been published. (Okay, I know that Historylink published some sort of a book recently, but I haven't seen a copy.) Even the fair's major players seemed to forget about it shortly after it was held -- there really aren't any written reminiscences of note. There's a fascinating story behind the fair -- it's just that you have to spend months reading the newspaper microfilm to find it. And of course, as the writer points out here, virtually everything built for the A.-Y.-P. was torn down a few months after it was held.

    I suspect the 1962 world's fair would be just as forgotten if it hadn't left behind the Seattle Center, the Arena, the Science Center, the Space Needle and the monorail. We've done a better job of preserving the memories of those who participated in the fair. And for the 1909 fair, less than 10 minutes of motion picture footage has been found; for the 1962 fair there are hours of video and movies, not to mention a movie starring Elvis Presley.

    I'd argue that the 1909 fair was more significant for Seattle -- but it would be a thousand times easier to organize a whopper of a celebration for the 1962 fair.

    Here's one thing I'd like to see: In 1982, KING-5 re-ran a series of hour-long TV specials it had produced on the fair back in '62, all of them completely fascinating. The image that sticks with me is a shot of the monorail gliding over a street filled with cars with tailfins. It was the world of tomorrow, all right. I'd love to see these documentaries again -- and frankly, this would be one DVD I'd actually pay for.

    Erik Smith
    Olympia, Wash.


    Posted Fri, Jul 17, 5:08 p.m. Inappropriate

    AYPE came along toward the end of a glut of US expos in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and it was overshadowed by some very significant fairs (St. Louis, Chicago). I have been struck over the years how it seemed to fall into the expo memory hole, sometimes being left off of lists of world's fairs. The major remembrance of it was Century 21 itself, inspired by the 50th anniversary of AYPE (it was a little late). The new book by Historylink is terrific and does much to restore the fair's importance. And visually it's top notch.

    The reason a 50th anniversary is important is because it is still within living memory of many to attended and worked there (though the ranks of the fair's movers and shakers is already thinned; to my knowledge, the only surviving Seattle World's Fair executive and department head is Jay Rockey). Century 21's role in the history of modern Seattle is huge, its role in the history of expos less earthshaking, but still important (especially in its Cold War/New Frontier/Space Race context). Not only was it a BIE sanctioned event (New York was not), but it has impressed expo buffs and experts with its high quality (it's been called a "jewel box" fair). It was a role model for other fairs of the '60s, '70s and '80s. And the legacy of cultural infrastructure (ie. Seattle Center) has set the bar for other cities and is widely respected in the expo community.

    Another great thing about Century 21 is that they were smart enough to hire an excellent historian to document the event. Murray Morgan's "Century 21: The Story of the Seattle World's Fair" is honest, entertaining, readable, funny and takes people behind the scenes with good reporting and story-telling.

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