How one building came to define Seattle

Throw in family celebrations, profit-making, plus some voyeurism (like the on-air reporting of the license plates of people parked at a hotel for some midday recreation) and you have the Space Needle.

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And the command center for the local Nike [missile] operation was at Fort Lawton, which was considered a site for the world’s fair, but it was considered too important to turn over to a world’s fair because, as someone put it, it contained “the electronic brain of the regional Nike missile operation.”

The Cold War and the possibility that we could get blown up was very real.  It was fascinating that the Space Needle was being built at the same time the Berlin Wall was being built. 

As I looked through [this material], it seemed clear that there was an effort on the part of America to say there’s two forms of government: capitalism and communism.  There’s America and there’s the Soviet Union.  One of those forms of government is about aspiration, increasing vistas, being global, democratizing the global view.  And the other people are building walls and putting up barbed wire and they’re looking at the world through a machinegun sight.

Lindley:  You tell the story of how fair commission director Eddie Carlson came up with the idea for the Space Needle and the name.  He did a little sketch of a circle atop a tower.

Berger:  Yes.  Carlson was head of the state commission looking into a world’s fair and he was involved in the planning of the fair and working tirelessly.  He was also a major hotel executive in Seattle for the chain that became Westin.

Carlson was very conscious that the fair needed a symbol.  He went on a trip with his wife and another couple to Stuttgart, Germany. He was supposed to be getting away from fair business, but if you’re in the international hotel business, you’re working when you travel. They got stuck in Stuttgart because the couple they were with was picking  up a new Mercedes Benz but it wasn’t ready. A local suggested that they have lunch on the Stuttgart Tower — a television tower built in the 1950s with a crow’s nest that had an observation deck and a restaurant.  It looked like a needle — a pointed tower with a basket. It had a dramatic view of a not particularly inspiring city. The place was full.  Carlson thought this was the kind of thing that could be built in Seattle. They wanted something permanent and a restaurant offered a financial model for how he would pay for something as time went on.

On that same trip, he visited the Eiffel Tower and the Tower of Pisa, and he began seeking out every tower he could visit. When he returned to Seattle, he sketched out this idea. He wasn’t sure who to go to with it. He was afraid he’d be laughed out of the room with this goofy doodle. 

He went to a good friend of his, Jim Douglas, who was vice-president of the fair and also vice-president of the Northgate Shopping Center.  He said, “I went to Jim Douglas because I knew he wouldn’t laugh at me, and that he [would] listen to my idea and not make fun of it.”  And Jim Douglas said they had to see John Graham, Jr., a well-known architect who had built Northgate and had offices in Seattle and New York. And Graham was looking for a major world’s fair project and hadn’t landed one. When he met with Carlson, it turned out he was building a rotating restaurant in Hawaii, and [Graham] said he could make a rotating restaurant, and that’s where it all started.

Lindley:  I was surprised that legendary Seattle architect Victor Steinbrueck also had a role in the design process.

 Berger:  Yes.  You had two very important architects in Seattle history involved in the project: Victor Steinbrueck and John Graham, Jr.

John Graham did big commercial projects and he was famous for shopping centers. The Northgate Shopping Center became the model for the suburban auto mall. He was thought of as a businessman’s architect.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Jul 9, 1:52 p.m. Inappropriate

Very interesting. Thank you. It happens that I worked for John Graham Architects the summer of '60. I worked for the store planning department under Alan Gerrard but, the entrance and corridors there at Graham's exhibited architectural presentation work that was underway at that time. We all looked that over very carefully. I believe the first design for the Needle was a simple enclosed shaft with a "doughnut" at the top. Quite phallic but clean and simple. Later, I think Steinbrueck (one of my teachers about that time) said that he had proposed a hyperboloid structure to support a larger top and he said he was disappointed to learn that it offered little in the way of structural advantage and (thinking about it) I would guess that the hyperboloid (tilted) arrangement of the columns would tend to conflict with three elevators. The current structure mimics the profile of an hyperboloid and accommodates elevators and utilities more easily. I think Mr. Raban characterizes the design harshly but fairly.

kieth

Posted Mon, Jul 9, 7:24 p.m. Inappropriate

I went to the Space Needle on the 50th anniversary of the day my parents and I visited the Fair. I got a helpful woman to take my picture at exactly the same spot where my dad had photographed my mom and me 50 years ago to the day. Then I went down to the gift shop and bought a copy of Knute's book. It is exceptional. I can heartily recommend it to anyone!

dbreneman

Posted Wed, Jul 11, 8:27 a.m. Inappropriate

I happen to ctd. to think that the so-called "Space Needle" is really an over-extended and mal-proportioned Chinese Umbrella! That was my first impression, in 1994, and I still feel that way, no matter that I have been reading about it, chiefly from Mossback, for longer than 15 years. Now, if Brancusi had designed the "Space Needle" it might be a work of art and actually go out into space - instead it has that little head with a restaurant on top! It's artsy-craftsy, and in that sense it befits Seattle - that was something I did not know in 1994!

mikerol

Posted Wed, Jul 11, 12:26 p.m. Inappropriate

Are you a proponent of the Shure Microphone School of monumental tower design, or the Marshmallow-on-a-Stick School of monumental tower design?

dbreneman

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