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.
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Seattle Center: enduring icons of 1962

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 is a young city. I'ꀙm 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'ꀙs now Seattle back on a rainy November day in 1851.

I'ꀙve 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'ꀙs non-Native history so far spans less than two human lifetimes. I'ꀙll say it again: Seattle is a young city.

So it'ꀙs 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'ꀙt remember the sesquicentennial celebration back in 2001 (or, for that matter, if you don'ꀙt know what 'ꀜsesquicentennial'ꀝ 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'ꀙs infamous email questioned the city'ꀙs financial commitment, comparing the proposed celebration (not favorably) to a 'ꀜpotluck'ꀝ rather than a 'ꀜpotlatch.'ꀝ 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 'ꀜOregon 150'ꀝ tourism campaign under way this year to see what'ꀙs 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'ꀙs 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 'ꀜAYPE.'ꀝ If you'ꀙre unfamiliar with the AYPE, you are, once again, forgiven. The AYP was Seattle'ꀙs first world'ꀙs fair, held on the UW campus in celebration of Seattle'ꀙs role in the Klondike Gold Rush and the city'ꀙs 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'ꀙt 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'ꀙs sesquicentennial before it) hasn'ꀙt 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'ꀙs 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'ꀙt yet distant and 'ꀜmythical'ꀝ 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'ꀙs 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'ꀙs Fair will celebrate its 50th birthday in less than three years. The 'ꀙ62 fair was a success by any measure, and, rather than looking back on past successes, the fair looked forward to Century 21. Ironically, the 'ꀙ62 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'ꀙs counting?).

Unlike the AYPE, a major legacy of Century 21 is visible from nearly everywhere in the city in the iconic and internationally known form (thanks, Al Qaeda) of the Space Needle — not to mention the elevated tracks (and, occasionally, the sometimes flaming and smoking trains) of the Monorail. And, unlike the UW campus, millions of people of all socioeconomic stripes continue to gather year-round on the old fairgrounds, where converted Century 21 facilities — Center House nee Food Circus, Pacific Science Center nee United States Pavilion, Intiman nee Playhouse, McCaw Hall nee Civic Auditorium, Key Arena nee Washington State Pavilion and so on — offer up as diverse an assortment of opportunities for civic recreation as any similar place in the country. Furthermore, vibrant performing arts groups such as the Seattle Rep and the Seattle Opera trace their birth to the 'ꀙ62 fair and are still going strong.

Even more important: Thousands of people who remember the 'ꀙ62 fair are still alive, still able to share with us their memories of the fair and how it changed them as individuals and how it changed the face and heart of a city that was then known mostly as a rainy home to Boeing. Many individuals and families who played key roles in the 'ꀙ62 fair are still with us and deserve to be honored as part of the 50th anniversary — people like Jay Rockey who promoted the fair, Bagley Wright who helped build the Needle and found the Rep, and descendants of the fair'ꀙs leaders, the late businessmen Joe Gandy and Eddie Carlson, who still live in the area.

There are also hundreds if not thousands of people who took part in the fair in lesser known roles, but whose stories are no less compelling. My friend June Nelson worked at the 'ꀙ62 World'ꀙs Fair and once told me of the spontaneous party that broke out on the very last night after all the exhibits and attractions had closed down. My favorite part of June'ꀙs story of that final night back in October 1962 is her description of the staff — the locals, of course, combined with the countless foreign nationals here only for the duration of the fair — joining into a spontaneous international conga line stretching around the fairgrounds into the early hours of the next morning.

I want to hear more stories like that, see more snapshots, watch more home movies, and learn more about the 'ꀙ62 World'ꀙs Fair while there'ꀙs, literally, more life left in it. I also want to see more people engaged in meaningful debate about the future of Seattle Center, and the future of Seattle. After all, Century 21 is already about 10 percent expended, and if we'ꀙre going to do any justice to the forward-looking spirit of the 'ꀙ62 fair, we'ꀙre overdue for seriously thinking about Century 22.

In the meantime, I'ꀙd like to propose that an effort to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1962 World'ꀙs Fair in 2012 — let'ꀙs call it 'ꀜCentury 21.5'ꀝ — be launched as soon as possible. In my estimation, it'ꀙs going to take a different approach than was taken for the sesquicentennial and for the AYPE to really do something special and memorable for the region. This means, as with the 'ꀙ62 fair, that private business must take a leadership role in putting together a vision, getting it funded with public and private funds, and then executing it in a way that we can all be proud of.

I don'ꀙt know what Walt Crowley would think of all this. But, if we get it right, maybe rather than a potluck or even a potlatch, Century 21'ꀙs 50th anniversary (and Seattle'ꀙs past and present) will be like a giant conga line stretching well into the future.


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