How a 'Sputnik moment' built modern Seattle

It began with the idea of a world's fair, desperately in need of a theme.

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Seattle Center: enduring icons of 1962

It began with the idea of a world's fair, desperately in need of a theme.

President Obama has said today's economic crisis and competitive challenges from China constitute a "Sputnik moment." He even goes so far in his nostalgia as to call for more emphasis on science fairs. In fact, a New York Times story discovered, science fairs at schools are in sharp decline. Some elite students still have high-level contests, but the modest fairs that gave ordinary students an early taste of building projects and experiments are fading away.

Seattle in fact had a mighty big Sputnik moment, and you might almost credit that small Soviet satellite orbiting the earth in 1957 with creating modern Seattle. That's because Sputnik was the real genesis of the Seattle World's Fair, hence Seattle Center, hence our arts, hence our emergence into big-time cities, hence...

I came across this mostly forgotten story some years ago in doing research about the 1962 World's Fair, whose 50th anniversary we'll be celebrating for half of next year. It seems that the idea for a fair, hatched in 1955 by some civic boosters and the newspapers, was first meant to be a 50th anniversary of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909. The civic fathers and mothers missed that deadline and kept searching for an appropriate theme. The settlement of the Canadian border was one possibility (that would have packed 'em in!), as was "a celebration of the American West" and the hoary old Gateway of the Pacific theme, looking toward Alaska and Asia.

Enter Sputnik and the American panic over its math and science education. Sen. Warren Magnuson, marvelously creative in tapping federal funds, said that if the theme-starved exposition were to make science its focus, particularly if it would embue young people with a desire to study science and engineering, he could rustle up $10 million in federal money for a science-themed fair.

The main federal money went into the fair's biggest hit, the United States Science Pavilion, which stands today as the Pacific Science Center. The exposition became a futuristic Century 21 mini-world's fair, playing on Cold War fears and competition with Russia (notably absent at the fair). Thanks to the federal funds and high attendance, the fair broke even financially and left behind several buildings to stir Seattle's artistic awakening.

One of the ironies of this story is that the exposition supporters very much wanted to avoid a fair built around aerospace and Boeing. In those days, there was a lot of fear that we were becoming known as a one-industry region. Needing to diversify, the last thing you want to do is have people come to a fair all about space exploration and other Boeing exploits.

Additionally, Seattle downtown interests were alarmed at the way jobs and shoppers were fleeing to the suburbs, largely fueled by Boeing's rapid expansion in the suburbs. (Cold War policy insisted on dispersing Defense-sensitive plants to the suburbs, rather than concentrating them as tempting targets in cities.) It was supposed to be an un-Boeing fair.

In the end, with local money and particularly state money short for an ambitious fair, the federal agenda won out, and Seattle's scrappy undersized exposition was very much a Boeing and Cold War vision of the future. And we became even more of a company town.

Still, the last laugh was with the city's civic leaders. The fair was, at bottom, an urban renewal project designed to help an ailing downtown. Typically these world's fairs need many hundreds of acres, which means putting them in an outlying area. Instead, Seattle's was crammed into 74 acres of a rundown district, the old Harrison neighborhood, near downtown.

Secondly, first-tier expositions (Seattle's was one notch down) are required to tear down the exhibit buildings within a year of the fair's closing. This rule is meant to prevent cities from gouging exhibitors in order to leverage fairs into needed civic projects like stadiums and opera houses. But that's precisely what the Century 21 folks pulled off, gaining a fixed-up Opera House, a new theater (home of Intiman), KeyArena, a spacious parkland, and the Science Center. (And don't forget that the Science Center launched the career of its first director, Dixy Lee Ray, who went on to become a truly awful governor!)

So when do we get to have another Sputnik moment?


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