I first met Bagley Wright in high school when we argued about art in his Washington Park living room. I was there with a group of Lakeside students who were inspecting his incredible collection of modern art. As to the argument, well, I lost. Later, I was an editor at Seattle Weekly when Wright, who died on Monday (July 18), and the Wright family were our major backers. I have long admired the major contributions he made to the arts and civic life.
This May, I had the chance to meet with Wright and his wife, Jinny, while researching a book on the Space Needle. Bagley Wright played a key role in the creation of the Needle, and I wrote a short sketch of our lunch at the Needle together. It appeared on the Needle's 50th anniversary website.
We had a delightful meal, pleasant conversation, and I had a chance to hear about his role in creating an icon. He was sharp, opinionated, reflective, and even self-critical. In old newspaper stories from 1962, he was always referred to as "C. Bagley Wright," and this embarrassed him now. "The 'C,' it's so pretentious," he said. (The initial stood for "Charles.")
It was Wright's critical eye that made him a great art's patron, but it also helped him pick the height of the Needle, which he and David "Ned" Skinner did from a helicopter flying over the potential site. It was both a smart business and aesthetic decision. The optimal view turned out to be at about 500 feet; the Needle didn't need to be 1,000 feet high like the Eiffel Tower. A shorter Needle allowed people to get the full, spectacular view and rise taller than neighboring Queen Anne Hill, but it would also keep them close enough to the ground that the city did not become an abstraction. And it was the city that the developer Wright was determined to build and cultivate.
Here's the short blog item about our Needle get-together, about this one-of-many contributions to shaping Seattle:
Thursday at the Needle: May 26, 2011
Today was memorable because I had lunch at the Space Needle with Bagley and Virginia "Jinny" Wright. They are not only two of Seattle's greatest civic and arts patrons, but one [of] the founding families of the Needle itself.
It was Bagley Wright, then a young real estate developer, who came across the designs for the Space Needle in the office of architect John Graham. The Needle project was stalled because public financing had fallen through and private investment would have to be raised if the fair was to have an iconic architectural symbol. Wright was taken with it, took the idea to his friend David "Ned" Skinner, and in a few months a small group of investors was found. Bagley was the Space Needle's first president.
Why did he decide to risk his money on such a speculative project? "Youthful optimism," he reflected.
Wright loved the Needle but says he had no idea it would become such an icon. But he and Jinny loved the view it offers of a city that has grown up so much in 50 years. At the time of the fair, few new office buildings had been built in Seattle since before World War II, and the view of downtown from the Needle was unobstructed all the way to the Smith Tower (built in 1914 and until 1962, the tallest building in the city).
The real innovation of the Needle, Bagley said, was the revolving restaurant that gives people a 360-degree view. "In 1960, it wasn't much of a city, but look at it now."
When the papers announced that four local investors, Bagley Wright, Ned Skinner, Norton Clapp and John Graham had been found to finance the Needle (a fifth, Howard S. Wright [no relation] was named later), Bagley said that in fact they had not yet all agreed to fund the project. The premature announcement created a dilemma. Bagley said to Skinner, "We can build the damned thing and look up and see what fools we've made of ourselves every day, or we can leave town."
They chose to risk being fools. If Bagley Wright feels any regrets today, it isn't having built the Needle, but in having bailed on it [years later]. When he stepped off the elevator into the restaurant waiting area today, he said "Man, I was stupid to have sold my interest."