The Space Needle – that flying saucer sitting on three spindly curved legs example of modern architecture – is the iconic image of Seattle and this year is its 50th birthday. That’s right, our symbol of ‘Century 21’is officially historic!
Built specifically for the 1962 Century 21 Exposition World’s Fair which opened in downtown Seattle on April 21st, the Space Needle has been an official City of Seattle historic landmark since 1999. However now that it has turned 50, it also meets the National Parks Service National Register of Historic Places definition of a historic structure, which is one that is 50 or more years old.
Taking inspiration from a trip to the Stuttgart Tower in Germany, fair chairperson Eddie Carlson sketched the initial idea out on a placemat at a coffee shop (how appropriate). A team of architects including John Graham Jr., Victor Steinbrueck, Art Edwards, and John Ridley were then put to work on the design and construction. Original sketches went from one resembling a tethered balloon, to a balloon-shaped top house on a central column anchored by cables and finally into the flying saucer we know today.
The Space Needle stands 605 feet above the city; it is 138 feet at its widest point and is 102 feet in diameter at the base. The three pairs of steel legs curve inward as they ascend to the ‘waist’ level at 373 feet above ground and then flair out to form an hourglass shape. The restaurant at the top makes a slow 360-degree rotation that can take from 48 to 60 minutes to complete. Built to withstand wind speeds of 200 mph (it sways only 1 inch per 10 mph of wind speed) and earthquakes of magnitudes below 9, the Space Needle was a substantial engineering accomplishment in 1962 and was also the tallest building west of the Mississippi River.
Although recognized today as a historic landmark and important piece of architectural history, there is a very sad side to the Space Needle story. Prior to its construction, the area that was to become the exposition site was a neighborhood of turn of the 20th Century residential, commercial and institutional buildings. Regrettably, most of these historic structures were demolished to make way for the fairgrounds, although some were repurposed for the fair and then adaptively re-used later for the Seattle Center. We may not be able to undo this misguided decision, but we can do our best to prevent it from happening to our precious few remaining historic buildings.
With more than one million visitors to the top each year the Space Needle has become a favorite tourist attraction, although it is said that most Seattleites have never gone. Have you?
Do-No-Harm to Historic Buildings – Do not destroy anything and preserve as much as possible. Be a steward of our historic buildings and show a deep level of respect for them.
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