The Space Needle
Personal collection of Knute Berger
Space needle n. (a) each of a large number of short copper fibres placed experimentally in earth orbit to reflect communication signals (now rare); (b) a very tall, slender tower; spec. that opened in Seattle, United States, in 1962.
— Oxford English Dictionary
As 1962 dawned, the Cold War was simmering and the United States was lagging in the space race with the Soviet Union. It was an anxious time as thermonuclear war between the two superpowers threatened, citizens dug fallout shelters, air raid sirens screamed periodically, and schoolchildren drilled for the apocalypse,
But the residents of Seattle were not discouraged by the possibility of nuclear annihilation. In April 1962, an ambitious group of civic luminaries kicked off a world’s fair, the Century 21 Exposition, with the theme of science and the future.
The iconic Seattle landmark, the Space Needle, opened a few days before the fair in March 1962. The graceful, space-age tower quickly came to symbolize not only Seattle but also the hope for the future through innovation and technology. As New York Times writer Timothy Egan recently observed in his Opinionator column, it “was a product of whimsy“ created by optimists who dreamed beyond their jittery present.
The unusual 605-foot tall Space Needle was the main draw of the fair for thousands. Seattle historian and author Knute Berger has written a magisterial work in celebration of the 50th Anniversary of this iconic Northwest structure in Space Needle: The Spirit of Seattle (Documentary Media). The lavishly illustrated and meticulously researched book chronicles the unlikely creation and rapid construction of the Needle, describes the people who moved the project forward, and details its role during the fair as well as the amusing and at times poignant story of the ensuing 49 years. Knute Berger writes regularly for Crosscut.com and Seattle Magazine, where he is Editor-at-Large. He also is a news commentator on Seattle's public radio station, KUOW-FM. He has won numerous writing awards including the 2008 Washington State Historic Preservation Officer's Annual Media Award for his coverage of historic preservation issues.
Berger will be speaking about the Space Needle and the Century 21 Exposition with fellow Northwest writers Jim Lynch, Paula Becker, and Alan J. Stein at the Elliott Bay Book Company at 2 p.m., Saturday (July 14). (Belgian waffles, a specialty introduced to Seattle during the fair, will be served free.) Berger recently talked about the Space Needle’s history and reflected on its significance in a telephone interview.
Robin Lindley: You’ve written a magisterial biography of Seattle’s Space Needle — and now you’re the “official historian” of this iconic structure.
Knute Berger: I guess “official historian” is correct. They [the Space Needle Corporation] approached me in 2010 and asked if I’d be interested in writing the history of the Space Needle for the 50th anniversary. It wasn’t an automatic yes, but I was intrigued. I love the Space Needle, like most people. As I looked into it, I realized it was a really interesting story, and I feel privileged that they asked me to tell it.
Mary Bacarella was the project manager [for the Space Needle Corporation] and she contacted me about the book. I had written a piece for Crosscut when I got back from the world’s fair in Shanghai in 2010 about the Space Needle called “Tower of Power.” One of the things that impressed me was an exhibit put on by the Museum of Shanghai on what world’s fairs are. Images of the Space Needle kept showing up in the exhibit, and they had a display of models of all the legacy architecture from world’s fairs, like the Eiffel Tower. The Space Needle was central, and I realized that outside Seattle it represents not only Seattle but the kind of aspirations and architecture that embody what world’s fairs are all about. I was struck that the Space Needle meant one thing in Seattle, but had this other meaning for people across the world.
Lindley: You mention that you saw the Space Needle as a little boy. What do you remember about first seeing the Space Needle and going up in it?
Berger: My first memory of the Space Needle was actually while it was being built in the winter of 1961. My cub scout den went on a field trip to the top of the Smith Tower, which was then the tallest building in Seattle, built in 1914. At that time, there was nothing between the Smith Tower and the Space Needle (laughter). Now, from the Space Needle you can barely make out a small part of the Smith Tower, but back in the low-rise Seattle of 1961 we could see the building of the top of Space Needle. We were all very excited and jumping up and down. And I remember feeling this is the future right across town.
We went to the fair several times that summer [of 1962] and one of the things I remember most was the wait to get up in the Space Needle. It did not take reservations for lunch or dinner so it was first come, first served, and the lines were often two and three hours long just to get a meal. And you had to wait an hour and more to get up to the observation deck.
My grandmother and I got in line and it seemed we had to wait an eternity. The lines were so long that the Space Needle installed about 200 chairs so the people who waited in line the longest could sit down. It was like adults playing musical chairs as one group would get up and sit down and get up again
But it was exciting. We got up to the observation deck. I had a meal there and it was probably lunch. People left messages on the windowsill and you could communicate with people (as the restaurant rotated). As a little kid I got a kick out of that.
Lindley: Did they charge $1 to go up in the Space Needle?
Berger: Yes, to go up to the observation deck or the restaurant. If you went to the restaurant, I think there was a $2 minimum at lunch and a $5 minimum at dinner. That was an expensive visit if you went up to eat. You were paying prices equivalent to the top restaurants in town like Canlis or Rosellini’s.
Lindley: You explain the historical context of the 1962 World’s Fair, and you state that “the Space Needle would not exist but for the Cold War.”
Berger: That’s very true, and it’s something I hadn’t thought a lot about until I dug into it.
The world’s fair got its energy from the Cold War, particularly the [Soviet satellite] Sputnik. In 1957, Sputnik went into orbit and kicked off the space race. Eisenhower and then Kennedy both wanted to spend money on science and science education, and that became a national effort. In 1958, [Senator] Warren Magnuson told the world’s fair organizers in Seattle that, if they wanted federal money, he could get them money for a science fair. That was key. Once they knew they knew they were doing a science fair and they leaned in the direction of a space age theme — although they considered other aspects of science — they then had to have a physical representation of the space age and science. That ended up being the Space Needle, but the Space Needle was not the first concept put forward. It could have looked very different.
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