Space Needle

Seattle, Washington | C.1962

Photo Credit: Oksana Smolianinova

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It all began with a bar napkin sketch. Edward E. Carlson, a hotel executive and head planner of the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle, sought to create an Eiffel Tower-like statement piece for the exhibition. And after visiting a newly built TV tower in Stuttgart, Germany, with its very own restaurant and observation deck Carlson was inspired, drawing a simple scribble that would begin the story of Seattle’s most famous landmark. 

Opening during the height of the Space Race (the USSR launched the Sputnik I satellite in 1957), the 21st Century theme for the World’s Fair was a response to the space fascination of the era and the possibilities of the future. There were a series of drawings after that first napkin, and at one point, Carlson even thought it might be dandy to have a UFO at the top of the tower. However, it was architect John “Jack” Graham who was brought in to oversee the final design of the towering attraction. After a few design iterations the three-legged tower visitors observe today finally took shape, featuring a rotating restaurant, a 360-degree observation deck, and perhaps most famously—a tower-capping needle.

You didn’t need to look far into the future to know time was not on Graham and Carlson’s side. Financing and purchasing a location for the tower took longer than expected, and once ground was broken, the team only had 400 days until opening day of the fair. Assembled as fast as a rocket blasting off to the moon (well, maybe not that fast), the tower itself was assembled in only eight months with the last elevator being  installed just one day before the fair’s opening. Phew!

Contrary to what someone born in the actual 21st Century might think, the modern tower wasn’t always fully painted the “Astronaut White” it wears today. For the fair, the tower’s saucer was painted “Orbital Olive”, ”Re-entry Red,” and  “Galaxy Gold,” which one might argue was a little more orange than it’s space age pun-name. In 2012, for the Space Needle’s 50th anniversary, it was re-painted its original coloring for six months.

Over 2.65 million people visited Seattle’s World’s Fair in 1962, with most of those visitors taking a ride to the top of what was then the highest structure west of the Mississippi. The Tomorrowland-style tower has continued its success far past the year-long exhibition, cementing itself as an icon of the city, and even celebrating its 45 millionth visitor in 2007. To keep up its status as a must-visit attraction in the city, the tower was renovated in 2017 to include many new features alluding to original concept sketches by Graham and his associates. The most notable addition being The Loupe, located above the observation deck and featuring the world’s first and only rotating glass floor observation area—500 feet off the ground.

His tower design may have been a mission accomplished, but what happened to Jack Graham? Graham’s firm continued to achieve great success in the Seattle-area, and lives on today—just reporting to a different mission control. A part of Omaha-based DLR Group since 1986, the Seattle office continues to design for the metropolis on Puget Sound, known for a library catalog of landmarks with that Space Age needle being the cherry on top.

While it may not have perfectly predicted 21st Century architecture correctly, the Space Needle was certainly one small step for the “design of tomorrow” and one giant leap for the Seattle skyline.

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