Mossback's Northwest: JFK's secret visit to the Seattle World's Fair

A rare photograph shows President Kennedy's 1961 detour under an unfinished Space Needle.

Knute Berger looks through the camera that photographer George Gulacsik used to document President John F. Kennedy's 1961 detour through the World's Fair grounds. (Resti Bagcal/Crosscut)

The 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, also called the Century 21 Exposition, was about the future, but it was rooted in the politics of the present. Organizers wanted nothing more than a visit by President John F. Kennedy. It didn’t happen. Or did it?

The fair was planned during the Eisenhower administration and the Sputnik-driven space race of the late 1950s, but it came to fruition during Kennedy’s New Frontier with the first successful American manned space flights.

Seattle organizers — a bipartisan group — wanted Kennedy’s seal of approval for the fair, and desperately wanted him to come in person. Yet he was unable to attend the opening, though he opened the fair by telephone in April of 1962. He pledged to come for the closing of the fair, but begged off because he had come down with a bug. He hadn’t. He had come down with the Cuban Missile crisis, and that was the real reason for canceling his appearance.

The fair was successful, but Seattle felt a little snubbed.

But JFK did in fact do a drive-by of the fair as it was being built. In November of 1961, the president came to Seattle to give a major speech at the University of Washington. When he landed, he was given a gold ticket to the fair by local boosters. He was also given a big parade through downtown.

His motorcade took a detour and dashed through the fair construction site on the road that runs between what was to be the Gay Way (later the Fun Forest) and Memorial Stadium. On that brief ride, JFK saw the Space Needle under construction and caught a glimpse of the fair five months before it opened.

Proof of this drive-by hadn’t existed until a few years ago, when a photo of JFK’s car ride was discovered. The photographer was George Gulacsik, who was hired to document the construction of the Space Needle. He kept an almost day-by-day account in a notebook. While doing research, I found an entry in that notebook for Nov. 16: “President visits Century 21. He didn’t stop — passed thru.”

And lo and behold, there was the photographic proof: a shot of Kennedy’s car with the president’s identifiable profile clear under magnification. The shadow of the newly erected Needle is visible. Gulacsik had shot the picture from the Needle. The moment was brief, but the visit of Camelot was duly recorded for posterity. As far as I know, this is the only known photo of JFK at the fairgrounds. But you can see in the picture that there were some spectators with cameras, too — people who were even closer to the action.

Maybe somewhere in a closet or an attic there’s an undeveloped roll of film with another, and maybe better, image of that magic moment. If you find one, send it to me!

George Gulacsik’s photographs, notebook and the camera he took the pictures with are now in the collection of the Seattle Public Library, and his images have been digitized for the public.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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

Stephen Hegg

Stephen Hegg

Stephen is formerly a senior video producer at Crosscut and KCTS 9. He specialized in arts and culture.