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The 1970s was probably the era when the Space Needle was considered the most out of date. And there were people, like [Seattle writer] Jonathan Raban, who famously said that “living with the Space Needle is like having to live with a velvet portrait of Jesus.”
But many architects and the general public think of it as quite beautiful. It went through a stage early on when it was considered kitschy, but people who see it every day against the backdrop of scenery and see the way light plays on it and see it as a literal landmark in the city that tells you where you are — the vast majority of people see it as something quite special.
Lindley: As you mention, celebrities have been drawn to the Space Needle, like and scientists Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking. And many celebrities were eager to see it at the time of the world’s fair like Walt Disney, John Wayne — and famously Elvis Presley.
Berger: During the fair, every VIP wanted to go up in it, and a lot of those people came to the fair. You had people like Roy Rogers and Dale Evans and John Wayne, but you also had people like Dick Gregory and Liberace. Of course, Elvis is the big celebrity that people remember.
It’s interesting that in 1962, Elvis was at the beginning of the end for him, and Elvis’s music wasn’t the music of the world’s fair. It was “Louie, Louie” and “The Twist.” Elvis is associated with the Space Needle, but the Space Needle was ahead of Elvis even with his visit there and the movie they made that helped make the Space Needle famous.
An amazing young guy, Albert Fisher, was only 21 then and was in charge of film and TV for the world’s fair. He hung out with Elvis and tells a great story about how, when they had to film the view going up and down the elevators for the movie, they took doors off the outside of the elevators — and riding those elevators without doors is a risky thing. At the top of the Needle, they filmed the view, but they shot the restaurant scenes at the MGM studio. They had a drum with a painted skyline of Seattle, so the skyline moved and not the actors. In the movie, it looks as if Elvis and his date are in the rotating restaurant. They built an exact replica of a wedge of the Space Needle restaurant and they had the uniforms, menus and silverware. Everything is completely accurate, but it was filmed in Hollywood with a fake backdrop.
Lindley: The construction of the Space Needle is fascinating and, being acrophobic, I appreciated how unharnessed ironworkers built it.
Berger: In that era, harnesses were not used in a standard way, and they preferred working without those things because, as they were raising these enormously heavy, multi-ton beams on cables in the wind and the beams were moving, they had to get out of the way or they’d be crushed. The only major injury was a man whose leg was snapped by a large beam that they were trying to move into position. Two guys quit on the first day because it was just too nerve wracking.
The ironworkers considered themselves an elite and they took tremendous pride in building it. Their boss, an egalitarian blue-collar guy, insisted that the ironworkers would have the first meal on the Space Needle so he had a catered meal shipped up in the middle of winter, and the ironworkers had a Thanksgiving-style buffet on top of the Needle. Before it was finished, the food was blowing off their plates.
I love the bravery and union pride of these men. They weren’t going to let a bunch of businessmen have the first meal up there. It was going to be the workers who had the first meal.
Lindley: What was the total cost of the construction of the Space Needle at that time?
Berger: It turned out to be about four and a half million dollars with the total initial cost of putting up the Space Needle and running it through the fair. During the fair, about two and a half million people went up in the Space Needle and they paid a buck apiece and that’s before any meals or souvenirs. By the end of the fair, the Space Needle itself had made a profit. The four and a half million-dollar cost was about a million more than expected originally, but they invested more in the engineering to assure it was built to last.
Lindley: Wasn’t it built to withstand high winds and a 9.0 Richter level earthquake?
Berger: Yes. It was built to double the earthquake standard at the time. One of the reasons is that they hired an amazing chief structural engineer, John Minasian. He was Armenian and raised in Egypt. He came to the United States, wound up in southern California, and became a structural engineer. He was at Cal Tech when Richter was there. He became a tower expert and a big part of his business was building TV and radio towers throughout the west. He also built gantries for NASA and the military, including the big Saturn rocket gantries at Cape Canaveral.
He actually had experience in the space age. When insurance companies and the banks here put up money for the Space Needle they wanted to be sure this thing was going to stand up, and it wasn’t the kind of structure people had built before. John Minasian knew that the biggest danger to a tower was wind and earthquakes.They did wind tunnel tests and made some changes to the Needle to make sure it could withstand the kinds of lateral forces of an earthquake or a windstorm.
And during the fair, there was an actual hurricane — one of the rarest events in the Pacific Northwest and the only one in modern history in October 1962 — the so-called “Columbus Day Storm,” which was a non-tropical cyclone. The Space Needle withstood this tremendous windstorm. Then, in 1965, there was a major quake in Seattle, and the Space Needle did fine. People up there got thrown around a little bit. They broke a bottle of booze or something, and that was about it.
The extra money to make it safe proved [worthwhile because] it was tested by the windstorm and the quake and passed those tests with flying colors.
Lindley: It seems that the Space Needle was a main attraction for many fairgoers and helped make the fair profitable.
Berger: I don’t think there’s any question that the fair needed something like the Space Needle to get people excited about it. In talking to some of the people who were selling tickets and doing publicity at the time, they all said that when people saw the Space Needle rising up, that was when the reality of the fair hit. It acted as a thermometer of enthusiasm, and as the Space Needle went up so did public temperature.
And the Space Needle became the de facto logo of the fair, and everybody wanted it on souvenir items: every button, every postcard. The Space Needle became the image of the fair itself. It’s the thing that got on the cover of Life magazine and it catalyzed the excitement of the fair.
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