This week, the Space Needle started to dress up for its 50th anniversary. Its owners began painting the top of the Needle orange, a color known in history as "Galaxy Gold." It doesn't make much sense to call it gold when it's more tangerine. The color has always been somewhat controversial. Some observers in 1962 didn't like it much. Prince Philip of Great Britain thought it looked like bridge primer waiting for its coat of real paint. Tom Robbins, new to town, wrote that it made the Needle look like a Howard Johnson's.
The last time the top house was Galaxy Gold was 2002 for the 40th anniversary. People get excited about it at first. At this week's start of painting the top, the head of the Needle corporation, Jeff Wright, son of original Needle investor and general contractor Howard S. Wright, daubed the slanted pagoda with paint, along with his teenaged daughter Mauren, brother-in-law Stuart Rolfe, and former Seattle World's Fair's staffer C. David Hughbanks, together representing three generations of Needle history. Wright told an interviewer that he liked the orange, but after a while he says it's like one of those old '60s refrigerators colored "Avocado." It doesn't wear well with time. The Needle will go back to white in six months. Most of Seattle is used to seeing the Needle in neutral shades.
When Seattle first saw the Needle's legs rising in 1961, it was bright yellow. That's because the steel beams came from Pacific Car and Foundry's Structural Steel Division painted with industrial primer. In the meantime, the Needle's designers were trying to figure out a color scheme.
A model for a large steel structure on the West Coast was the Golden Gate Bridge. Part of the goal of Century 21 boosters was to launch Seattle into cosmopolitan status, and San Francisco, a city built from Seattle trees, was a model. The first name announced for the Space Needle restaurant, for example, was Top of the Needle, but the public hated that partly because it was so obviously derivative of San Francisco's Top of the Mark. Promoters came up with Eye of the Needle instead, which is how it was known during the fair.
In the same spirit, the designers experimented with a Needle that was painted Golden Gate Bridge red. There were even brochures produced by the Washington State Department of Commerce and Economic Development that promoted the fair with a scarlet Space Needle. I had always thought such paintings were simply artistic license, impressionistic attempts to add flair to the fair. But, while researching the history of the Needle, I came across slides from John Graham & Co., the Needle's architecture firm showing a six-foot-tall Needle model painted bright red. The Needle in some images has a saffron top — a color much more likely to be called Galaxy Gold.
There's some indication that the original orange was supposed to be a different color. The paint was mixed in Chicago with sealant, and the Needle's first president and investor, Bagley Wright, said "It just didn't come out the way we expected." In mid-April of '62, just before the fair opened, he said, "Although we're not satisfied with the present orange color on the top of the Needle, it does contribute to the bright flavor of the fair. When the fair is over, we will completely repaint the entire structure to obtain a more muted look consistent with permanency." The Needle being a rush job as it was, there was no time to repaint before the fair. When I interviewed Bagley last year, he had no recollection of being dissatisfied and said he loved the original colors. Most people grew used to them, and the Needle grew famous with them.
In addition to Galaxy Gold, the colors said to have been named by the Needle's promotion-minded first manager, Hoge Sullivan, were Orbital Olive (for the core), Astronaut White for the tower, and Re-Entry Red for the halo and highlights. The floor of the Observation Deck was painted a metallic gold, as were the original Needle elevators. The "white" of the base was more a yellowish cream color, but such impressions could change with the weather, light, and artificial lighting. And remember: The Needle originally had a multi-colored natural gas flame on top.
The basic color scheme wasn't changed until the late '60s when it was repainted neutral shades of white and gold. The change was not universally well-received. One letter writer to The Seattle Times in 1968 complained that the Needle "no longer had the jewel-like appearance it once had, especially at night. It is plain dull."
Trying to match the exact original hue is difficult these days because so much of the color film, prints, and slides of '62 have faded, gone purple, and otherwise morphed. In the last four decades, Seattleites have grown to prefer their Needle to be a kind of blank slate color-wise, a canvas for Northwest light and the occasional Angry Birds or King Kong promotion.
The Needle could have been both bolder and blander. In the John Graham & Co. papers, I found a sketch showing a rainbow colored Needle starting out with white at the bottom and going to yellow, orange, and red toward the top. Architect Victor Steinbrueck, whose elegant feminine tripod gave the Needle tower its indelible character, wrote that he spec'd a Rust-Oleum off-white and a gray for the Needle when asked for his suggestion. I've also seen references to "battleship gray." Steinbrueck's ideas are closer to the Needle of modern times and Bagley Wright's concept of "permanency," but the Needle of '62 was more festive, more of its era. And, as on the gray day when the Needle paint-job was started this week (it'll take two coats to cover the roof), Galaxy Gold actually looks quite lovely against the color-blotting power of the clouds.
The color and shape of the Needle were suggestive of forms other than a saucer or a rocket ship. George Ross Leighton, a writer for Harper's covering the fair, wrote that "The Needle has been described as 'sheaf-shaped' and that is so, but in some respects it suggests a flower. The graceful off-white enamel of its legs soar up and burst into flame color at the crown and the effect on a bright day is enchanting."
In 2002, descriptions were less romantic when the orange re-appeared after a nearly 30 years absence. Jean Godden wrote that people referred to the color as looking like "steamed crab," "carrots steamed in butter," or a "traffic cone left out in the weather too long."
Since the Space Needle was, and is, a unique structure, there was, and is, no rule book for what to paint it. But as someone who knew the Needle in it's '60s garb, I have to say I'm glad that the old enchanting flower is back to bloom until fall.
Disclosure: Knute Berger was hired by the Space Needle to write their 50th Anniversary history. His book, Space Needle: The Spirit of Seattle is due to be released on April 21.