The importance of seeing the Space Needle

The Space Needle: In some ways, as impressive as the Eiffel Tower. Credit: Chethan Shankar

I spent a good part of the last couple of years researching and thinking about the Space Needle. I was appointed the Needle's Writer-in-Residence in 2011 and was hired by the Needle's owners to write the tower's 50th anniversary history, which came out in April 2012.

As a consequence, I spent many hours on top of the Needle, where I had a desk. Like most Seattleites, I had come to take the tower for granted, visiting only once in a great while to show guests the view over a meal. The Needle had become part of the backdrop of daily life, something I accepted simply as a thing in itself. In short, I didn't think about it much.

It turned out to be a rich subject. The Needle's story is complex and amazing, and it is ongoing. One of the threads that continues is its role as a landmark, and the public-private nature of the enterprise. Most people are surprised to discover that it is privately owned by a single family of one of the Needle's founders and builders, Howard Wright. The men who conceived the Needle for the Seattle World's Fair in 1962 wanted it to be publicly financed, but had no luck getting backing from the city, state or county. The city's building superintendent, Fred B. McCoy, called it a "white elephant." A group of five wealthy backers stepped in to get it up and going.

But the Needle is a unique structure, and despite private ownership and financing, it serves a public purpose. It was built not just to be an icon of the fair, but to be a permanent symbol of the city, and has spurred imitators around the world. What modern big-city skyline does not feature a rotating tower restaurant these days?

The city bent over backward to get it built. It sold the property the Needle stands on without competitive bidding. It bent its zoning laws to allow a 600-foot structure in a neighborhood zoned for 60-feet. It looked the other way for years when the Needle's Top House turned out to hang over the structure's property lines. The Needle was unveiled to the public in September of 1960 with no final design, engineering, financing, zoning or permits. Ground was broken in April, 1961 and it was "topped out" in December of that year. Public process for the Needle was streamlined, to say the least. Back in the late 1990s and early '00s, it took nearly 10 years just to build a water tower on Queen Anne Hill.

But make no mistake: While the Needle is private owned and operated, it is the result of public support and protection, and the city has a role in ensuring that it continues to perform its duty as an international civic symbol and landmark. The Needle is currently seeking protections for views of the tower, spurred by the proposed raising of height limits in South Lake Union. (There's even a Facebook Page about it.)

The city already protects 10 "beloved views" of the Needle from public parks including Gas Works, Alki, Volunteer, Myrtle Edwards, Olympic Sculpture and Kerry Park. Mayor Paul Schell and others at the city wisely saw the value of these sightlines.

The protection of views is very important. For one thing, the Needle is the urban landmark of the region. It is the city-builder's answer to Mt. Rainier, the statement of the city's power, position and ascendency to — as Jonathan Raban put it — "Seattle's capital status across the hinterland." It embodies the characteristics of self-image that we all still promote today — that Seattle is a modern, high-tech, aspirational city. If you can see the Needle, you can see Seattle's mission statement.

Seen by its creators as a new Eiffel Tower for the 21st Century, the Needle in fact received the full support of its French alter-ego. The Eiffel volunteered to fly out their entire kitchen crew to prepare the Needle's first dinner and champagne from its cellar christened the Needle when it opened. The Eiffel Tower was a role model and the Needle is the only world tower that has come close to matching its legacy as an exposition centerpiece and symbol of a city. One reason is that for the nearly 125 years the Eiffel Tower has stood, it has continued to be visible. High-rise Paris never subsumed it. It stands out today just as it did when it was built in 1889.

A forest of skyscrapers has sprouted between the Smith Tower and Seattle Center since the Needle went up in 1962, but it has continued to stand out, protected by the relatively low development around the Center, South Lake Union and the Denny Triangle. While the downtown core went up, the Needle stood apart. As development has moved north, however, it is being challenged. The view from the Needle is still impressive — even more impressive because of so much urban growth downtown. But the city needs to be very conscious and careful of how it stewards our relationship to the Needle visually.

A view of the Needle is something people are passionate about. It was true even before the Needle was finished. New apartment developments on Capitol Hill touted their views of "our Eiffel Tower" when they were built in the early '60s. Other developments, like Newport Hills, promised both Needle and "Needle-like" views. Painters painted the newcomer into the skyline; a family on Queen Anne Hill had a painting of Seattle's cityscape re-painted by the artist to include the new Needle. It became our compass, our whimsical billboard, our weathervane, our reference point in space, time and urban evolution.

I believe it is critical that views of the Needle be considered in new zoning. Not simply for high-rise dwellers, but for folks at ground level, seeing the Needle through public view corridors from parks and streets. This doesn't mean blanket protection, but protection that is specific, strategic and thoughtful.

It is also important that this concern not be framed as anti-growth NIMBYism. The owners and investors of the Needle also invested in some the region's first major growth: The Howard Wright family made their fortune building this region up and out; the Pentagram group that formed to finance the Needle was itself a developer and Bagley Wright, the Space Needle's first president, built one of the first modern high-rise office buildings downtown (the Logan Building). Its founding fathers saw the Needle as a spur to such growth. And it worked.

Unlike the Jetsons' image of us living in Space Needle-like "Sky Pads," the vision of its builders was to have a platform from which to see the city grow. Pro-density Seattle should be first to argue, not for a few more high-rise units at any cost, but for an orientation of growth that protects the city's most potent urban symbol.

When the city rushed the Needle through its process, there was a case to be made for its exceptionalism. That remains true today: With a minimum of public investment, but significant public support, the Needle continues to be a self-sustaining profitable enterprise that has boosted the city's profile around the world. Visited by a million or more people a year, it impresses all of our psyches. We owe it to ourselves to ensure that the symbol of the 21st century is not overwhelmed in the century it was designed to celebrate.

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