Never-before-seen image of JFK's motorcade through Seattle World's Fair

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George Gulacsik, who photographed President Kennedy, perched on the Space Needle.

In 1962, Seattle hosted a world's fair, the future-looking Century 21 Exposition. The idea was to put Seattle on the map as a launching point for the Space Age. Its legacy was the cultural cluster we call Seattle Center and permanent infrastructure such as the Space Needle, the Monorail, Pacific Science Center and Key Arena.

One of the great disappointments of the fair's organizers was that President John F. Kennedy never visited the actual fair. Many political big-wigs did, including Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and brother Bobby Kennedy and his entire brood. But not JFK.

President Kennedy was slated to open the Century 21 Exposition in April of 1962, but ended up doing so remotely by telephone from Pam Beach, Florida, using sound waves from a remote star and a historic telegraph key. Kennedy said he hoped the fair would usher in a new era of “peace and understanding of all mankind.”

It had been hoped that the president would be there in person, especially since the fair, launched by President Dwight Eisenhower and the post-Sputnik space race of the late '50s, embodied JFK’s embrace of the Space Age and his New Frontier politics. It was in May of 1961 that Kennedy pledged to put a man on the Moon by the end of the decade. The White House promised the president would return for the fair’s closing in October but he could not: the Cuban Missile crisis kept him away.

But Kennedy did briefly visit the fairgrounds during construction of the fair, an event sometimes mentioned, but not seen in the photographic record of the newspapers, books and accounts of the fair’s history.

Until now.

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I was hired by the company that owns the Space Needle – the tower is owned by the Howard S. Wright family, who were among the Needle's original private investors – to write the history of the landmark, published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the fair in 2012. I dug through archives and photo collections while doing the book and appeared in a KCTS public television documentary about the fair. Over the last few years, I’ve continued doing work for the Needle, researching and documenting its history, including going through new material that was surfaced by all the publicity surrounding the fair’s anniversary. It’s amazing what is in people’s closets.

One of the key things that turned up was the photographic collection of a man named George Gulacsik who was hired to document the construction of the Needle for a book, Space Needle USA, that came out in 1962. His family had a closet full of his images and outtakes—thousands of pictures, most never before published, tracking the construction of the Needle from the pouring of its foundation to its topping off. That collection has subsequently been generously donated to the Seattle Public Library and will eventually be fully available to the public.

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Iron workers continued their day as the president visited. Credit: George Gulacsik, courtesy of Seattle Public Library

In reviewing the Gulacsik materials, I found that they included a notebook where the photographer wrote by hand the work that was going on the days he visited—certainly several times a week, and sometimes all seven. The small pocket-sized book gives a brief, day-by-day picture of the erection process. Some of his notes are rain-spattered, evidence he was up on top along with the ironworkers even during inclement weather. He became a fixture on the construction site, snapping pictures of all phases of the work and the workers.

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Gulacsik’s notebook noting Kennedy drive-by. Credit: Courtesy of Seattle Public Library

On the 34th page, dated Nov. 16, his entry reads, “President visits Century 21. He didn’t stop—passed thru.”

What Gulacsik was noting was the fact that on Nov. 16, 1961, six months before the fair’s opening, Kennedy visited Seattle to speak at the University of Washington’s centennial celebration. Upon arriving at Boeing Field, the president was presented with a “golden pass” to the World’s Fair. His motorcade passed through downtown Seattle, where crowds lined the street and confetti streamed down to welcome him.

The president had been scheduled to visit the fair construction site and give a short speech at the base of the Needle, but, according to Sen. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson, the Secret Service “turned thumbs down” on that idea. According to the Seattle Times, “the presidential cavalcade made only a hasty swing through the area.” The newspapers ran pictures of the visit, but not of the president’s fair drive-by.

However, in reviewing the thousands of Gulacsik images, I happened on a single frame earlier this year that didn’t look like the usual construction shots. It seemed a bit fuzzy and was framed with a dark line down the middle, not the usual careful composition of a Gulacsik photograph. I got a digital scan and low and behold: it was a single shot of JFK’s motorcade passing through the fair site. The image was taken from above, and I quickly realized that it was taken from the Needle itself—probably on the 100-level (now the enclosed Skyline Level) when it was an open-air platform. The dark line in the frame is most likely a cable that was used to raise and lower materials during construction.

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JFK’s motorcade passing through the site of the Seattle World's Fair on Nov. 16, 1961. Credit: George Gulacsik, courtesy of Seattle Public Library

In November of 1961, the Needle tower was up and the halo on top was partially built. Just after the president’s visit, the parts for the Needle's revolving restaurant track were hoisted to the top for installation. In the photo, you can see the newly erected tower casting a shadow that the motorcade and its motorcycle escorts have just passed through.

There are two cars—a white convertible in the lead, and a black one following. The cable appears to obscure some of the men in the black limo—I thought, what bad luck that Kennedy is being blotted out by a bit of wire. I just assumed he was in the second car. But when I looked at other images of that day, I realized that it was in the backseat of the front car of the motorcade—the white car—where Kennedy and his VIP hosts—Gov. Albert Rosellini and Sen. Warren G. Magnuson—were sitting shoulder-to-shoulder. And by blowing up the image, you can distinctly make out JFK’s signature hairline.

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President John F. Kennedy (circled) rode in the back seat of a convertible during a visit to the Century 21 Exposition site. Credit: George Gulacsik, courtesy of Seattle Public Library

To my knowledge, this is the only known image of JFK at the fair site, now Seattle Center.

It’s easy to place the location: they are moving up the street by Memorial Stadium; you can see the Arena in the background. In the foreground are construction workers and guests and probably fair staff in hard hats and overcoats. During the fair, this was the Gay Way amusement zone, later the Fun Forest. There appear to be some journalists there too—at least one man appears to be getting a photograph of the motorcade. Somewhere out there could be another, closer shot of the event.

The shot has an eerie aspect. Because of the distance and grainy quality, it feels a bit like it was taken from a vantage similar to Dallas two years later. It’s poignant too because the fair—a Cold War response to the U.S.-Soviet competition—captured the uplifting spirit of the times. I’ve often thought that it was too bad that Kennedy didn’t get to enjoy the event that embodied so much of his message about belief in the future, technology and the spirit of innovation.

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Copy of an old UPI wire service photo of showing Gov. Albert Rosellini giving President John F. Kennedy a golden passport admitting him to all World's Fair -- which he never attended. In the middle are Fair President Joe Gandy, left, and Sen. Warren G. Magnuson.

Those all are still messages that resonate in modern Seattle.

Photographic proof of the connection between the New Frontier past and Seattle’s future is now in hand, connecting icons of the fair, city and the fleeting “Camelot” of the JFK years. It was a drive-by visit symbolic of a lasting legacy.

It was in a closet for over 50 years; now we can see it for ourselves.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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