Seattle World's Fair? We almost invited the world to Auburn

A look back at the what-might-have-beens for Seattle's signature event. Thankfully, Mount Rainier didn't get the planned 21-foot-tall "decoration."

Crosscut archive image.

Jeff Wright, Chairman of the Space Needle Corp., signs an enlarged reproduction of the original Eddie Carlson 'napkin design' for the Needle.

A look back at the what-might-have-beens for Seattle's signature event. Thankfully, Mount Rainier didn't get the planned 21-foot-tall "decoration."

The Seattle World’s Fair of 1962 is fixed in civic memory: the Space Needle, the Science Center, the Monorail. But just as interesting as the fair that was is the fair that wasn’t. The Century 21 Exposition had many possible incarnations that remained on the drawing board, for better or worse. So consider this column the opposite of Elvis Presley’s Century 21 film. Call it: “It Didn’t Happen at the World’s Fair.”

We take for granted that the fair was held at Seattle Center, the permanent legacy of Century 21, but the location was no slam dunk. Both the 1955 state commission that first explored the idea of hosting the fair and, later, the Century 21 organizers looked at many proposed locations. Tacoma boosters pushed hard for the old Auburn Army Depot between Seattle and Tacoma. One Bellevue developer advocated for a south Lake Sammamish site and proposed a spectacular monorail connection to the top of Issaquah’s Cougar Mountain. In-city sites on First Hill, Duwamish Head, Union Bay, Fort Lawton (now Discovery Park), and Sand Point were all seriously considered, and all would have offered more scenic views than the site eventually chosen.

The fair was originally conceived as being held in 1959 or 1960, the 50th anniversary of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, Seattle’s first fair. The dates kept slipping until the fair was finally slated for 1962 — three years “late.” The futuristic theme “Century 21” colors all our memories of the fair, but it could have been so different; the theme “Festival of the West” was considered for a time, playing up the Northwest’s ties with the Orient.

What would be the landmark of Century 21? Paul Thiry, the fair’s primary architect, had some ideas. One was a giant geodesic type of structure made of 20 pentagonal panels called the Cosmodrome. It was to be located where the Pacific Science Center is now, and it would have been built over a giant lagoon symbolizing the primeval sea of life. People would have arrived there by “Carveyor,” a people-moving system featuring passenger pods shooting down elevated tubes along Fifth Avenue. Another idea Thiry had early on: putting the whole fair, all 74 acres, under a suspended roof, thus turning Century 21 into an all-weather mall.

The Space Needle went through many versions. One looked like a balloon trapped in a net. Another featured a giant plastic dome on top that housed a planetarium. Builders also considered painting the Needle various colors, including “navy gray” and “international orange” like the Golden Gate Bridge.

Another idea that was pitched and ditched: a 21-foot replica of the Space Needle atop Mount Rainier. The Mountaineers objected. The president of the group said, “The whole idea is illegal, impractical and downright silly.”

The U.S. Science Pavilion, now known as the Pacific Science Center, is famous for its “Space Gothic” arches, but an alternate idea pitched by the fair’s chief space adviser, Dr. Donald Menzel of Harvard University, was a giant rocket tower. Menzel said visitors would experience a trip across the universe as they moved from level to level up the tower. “As Alice in Wonderland fell down the rabbit hole, she drank some magical potion that generally changed her size. I am proposing that we employ similar imagination as we go ‘up the rocket hole.’ ” Wouldn’t that have made a provocative slogan?

Next door to the rocket, Menzel wanted a hemispherical structure replicating the moon. He consulted with science fiction writers Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov on the exhibit, which would have featured U.S. space explorers cooperating with the Russians. Menzel’s ideas were ahead of their time. Higher-ups nixed the plan and also put the kibosh on an Asimov script for a space-travel film.

Another idea ahead of its time was linking the fair to Puget Sound by digging a salmon-spawning stream. The idea was pitched in 1958 by Dr. H.M. Parker, chief health physicist of Hanford Nuclear Reservation’s laboratories. Fair organizers did look hard at some kind of aquarium exhibit. Architect Jim Jackson of John Graham & Co. designed one in which visitors could view sea creatures from an underwater plastic tunnel.

Century 21 was a smash hit and did the job of putting Seattle on the map. Still, it’s fun to remember the road — or rocket ride — not taken. With the 50th anniversary coming up, we could be remembering a very different fair.

This story first appeared in the February issue of Seattle Magazine, where the author is a regular columnist.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.