The Space Needle 'has a thousand fathers'

The author of a new book on the Space Needle gives a talk to those who built Seattle's icon, and how he fell in love with the Needle as a Cub Scout watching the future rise on the horizon.

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A Seattle celebration of New Year's.

The author of a new book on the Space Needle gives a talk to those who built Seattle's icon, and how he fell in love with the Needle as a Cub Scout watching the future rise on the horizon.

Editor's Note: The following remarks were made at the Space Needle's 50th Anniversary Legacy Luncheon on April 21, 2012. The event marked the official opening of the Needle and the Seattle World's fair in 1962. Also speaking were Space Needle chairman Jeff Wright and Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn. Attending were individuals and families who played roles in the fair and Needle's history, from ironworkers to engineers, from elevator operators to executives. There were many familiar names represented: Gandy, Carlson, Rochester, Wright, Steinbrueck, Graham, Minasian, Dingwall, Clinton, Moffett, Rockey, to name a few. This was a day to pay tribute to the amazing people and unique accomplishments that gave Seattle not only a fair to remember, but a permanent civic center and an international icon.

As the Seattle world's fair was being built, President John F. Kennedy quoted an old saying in the wake of the Bay of Pigs debacle in Cuba: "Victory has a thousand fathers, defeat is an orphan."

Century 21 and the Space Needle were victories — huge successes. They are certainly not orphans. They have a thousand fathers, and mothers, and children and grand children — including you, the people attending this 50th anniversary Legacy Luncheon. You represent their vision and their living legacy, their memory and impact. You were witness to amazing events and part of an important story in the history of our city, our country, and the world.

A year ago, I was hired to write the story of the Space Needle for its 50th anniversary. I was given the title of Writer-in-Residence at the Needle and  a desk and chairs on the Observation Deck which I used to conduct interviews, write for the Needle's blog, and to meet the people who pass through the "Eye of the Needle" on a daily basis.

I quickly realized three things on this project. First, that I couldn't complain about the deadline. If the Space Needle was built in a year, I certainly could research and write a book about it in a year. The Needle sets the bar for all of us.

Second, I came to understand that the Needle, like Century 21, has no single story. How could it? More than 50 million people have visited the Space Needle since it opened in 1962. It has been a place featuring births, anniversaries, engagements, marriages, first dates, and even a few deaths. When the flag was raised on the 10th anniversary of 9-11 last fall, it was a statement about endurance, remembrance and hope. The Needle has been at the center of Seattle's civic and cultural life for half a century. I met more than one person who told me proudly, "my father built the Space Needle."  No one is putting the Needle up for adoption.

Although some have tried to steal it away. You might remember that the city of Fife offered to buy and move the Space Needle there in the late 1970s. Some said they'd change its name to the "Fiffel Tower." As Walt Disney predicted when he visited the Seattle fair, Needles would soon be cropping up everywhere. This one is staying where it is.

The third thing I realized was that if you want to experience the thrill of the world's fair, if you want to experience the wonder, the fun, the chaos, the energy, there's one place in America where you can still do it. America has not hosted a world's fair since 1984, and likely won't for many years, if ever. Generations of Americans are growing up with no sense of what world's fairs are like, or even that they are still happening around the world, which they are. There's one this summer in South Korea, in a coastal city not unlike Seattle in '62.

But our fair is still here to remind Americans of the power of such events to inform, entertain, to reshape cities, to uplift people with science, technology, the arts, even Belgian waffles. The Seattle Center has some of the characteristics of a permanent fair.

If you want to experience what a world's fair is like, go to the top of the Needle on a crowded summer day. You will hear the gasp of newcomers as the elevators lift-off. The restaurant still turns and the view still stuns. You will meet passengers from around the world as they look out on the amazing city and landscape that inspires and nurtures us, and hear them exclaim in many languages. As King Olav of Norway said when he saw the view, "Dette var flotte" — "That was impressive."

He could have been speaking of the entire Century 21 legacy.

Wonder, inspiration, fun, aspiration. The Needle and the fair were offered as antidotes in a world threatened by nuclear war. It was a statement to the world: While you build walls and guard towers and bomb shelters, in Seattle we build global vistas and dream of new frontiers. The utopian vision still lives in our civic discourse.

I fell in love with the Needle, when I first saw it from the Smith Tower, as it was being built in 1961. I was an 8-year-old Cub Scout. You could get a clear view of the Needle from the Smith Tower back then; there were no skyscrapers in between. To me, the Needle was the future, being built right there on the horizon, in my home town. It was being built by some of you, for a fair that galvanized the city as nothing else has before or since.

I'm here today to thank you fathers, mothers, families and friends of the fair and Needle, for what you have done for the city. It was an honor to tell my version of the Space Needle's story because it embodies the collective story of Seattle's spirit.

Thank you.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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