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The Space Needle at Fifty -- Historian and Writer Knute Berger on His History of the Seattle Landmark

You’ve written a magisterial biography of Seattle’s Space Needle -- and now you’re the “official historian” of this iconic structure.

I guess “official historian” is correct. They [the Space Needle Corporation] approached me in 2010 and asked if I’d be interested in writing the history of the Space Needle for the fiftieth anniversary. It wasn’t an automatic yes, but I was intrigued. I love the Space Needle, like most people. As I looked into it, I realized it was a really interesting story, and I feel privileged that they asked me to tell it.

Mary Bacarella was the project manager [for the Space Needle Corporation] and she contacted me about the book. I had written a piece for Crosscut when I got back from the world’s fair in Shanghai in 2010 about the Space Needle called “Tower of Power.” One of the things that impressed me was an exhibit put on by the Museum of Shanghai on what world’s fairs are. Images of the Space Needle kept showing up in the exhibit, and they had a display of models of all the legacy architecture from world’s fairs, like the Eiffel Tower. The Space Needle was central, and I realized that outside Seattle it represents not only Seattle but the kind of aspirations and architecture that embody what world’s fairs are all about. I was struck that the Space Needle meant one thing in Seattle, but had this other meaning for people across the world.

Things like the Space Needle have been a part of world’s fairs since the beginning, and the Space Needle created a new model for towers around the world -- the tower with a disk on top and a rotating restaurant. Observation towers like the Space Needle were built in San Antonio, Toronto, and cities all across the world.

The Space Needle painted gold for its 50th anniversary. Credit: Wikipedia

You mention that you saw the Space Needle as a little boy. What do you remember about first seeing the Space Needle and going up in it?

My first memory of the Space Needle was actually while it was being built in the winter of 1961. My Cub Scout den went on a field trip to the top of the Smith Tower, which was then the tallest building in Seattle, built in 1914. At that time, there was nothing between the Smith Tower and the Space Needle (laughter). Now, from the Space Needle you can barely make out a small part of the Smith Tower, but back in the low-rise Seattle of 1961 we could see the building of the top of Space Needle. We were all very excited and jumping up and down. And I remember feeling "this is the future, right across town."

We went to the fair several times that summer [of 1962] and one of the things I remember most was the wait to get up in the Space Needle. It did not take reservations for lunch or dinner so it was first come, first serve, and the lines were often two and three hours long just to get a meal. And you had to wait an hour and more to get up to the observation deck.

My grandmother and I got in line and it seemed we had to wait an eternity. The lines were so long that the Space Needle installed about 200 chairs so the people who waited in line the longest could sit down. It was like adults playing musical chairs as one group would get up and sit down and get up again.

But it was exciting. We got up to the observation deck. I had a meal there and it was probably lunch. People left messages on the windowsill and you could communicate with people (as the restaurant rotated). As a little kid I got a kick out of that.

Did they charge one dollar to go up in the Space Needle?

Yes, to go up to the observation deck or the restaurant. If you went to the restaurant, I think there was a two-dollar minimum at lunch and a five-dollar minimum at dinner. That was an expensive visit if you went up to eat. You were paying prices equivalent to the top restaurants in town like Canlis or Rosellini’s. It cost two dollars to get into the fair, and a dollar to go up in the Space Needle, and a five-dollar minimum for dinner, before you spent money on anything else, so it was not a cheap date.

You explain the historical context of the 1962 World’s Fair, and you state that “the Space Needle would not exist but for the Cold War.”

That’s very true, and it’s something I hadn’t thought a lot about until I dug into it.

The world’s fair got its energy from the Cold War, particularly the [Soviet satellite] Sputnik. In 1957, Sputnik went into orbit and kicked off the space race. Eisenhower and then Kennedy both wanted to spend money on science and science education, and that became a national effort. In 1958, [Senator] Warren Magnuson told the world’s fair organizers in Seattle that, if they wanted federal money, he could get them money for a science fair. That was key. Once they knew they knew they were doing a science fair and they leaned in the direction of a space age theme -- although they considered other aspects of science -- they then had to have a physical representation of the space age and science. That ended up being the Space Needle, but the Space Needle was not the first concept put forward. It could have looked very different.

As a child of the Cold War era, I remember being afraid. Khrushchev banging his shoe, and the “We will bury you rhetoric,” and the Cuban Missile Crisis. All of that was very real. We were doing the duck-and-cover drills and every Wednesday the air raid sirens went off in Seattle and you’d hear this eerie wailing.

The peak of the fallout shelter craze was 1962. They were put in public buildings. They built a fallout shelter in the basement of the Science Center. When they were building I-5 in 1962, they built a community fallout shelter north of the Ship Canal in the Roosevelt-Green Lake neighborhood under the freeway. It’s technically a bridge, but it’s essentially a big bunker and it’s still there.

And the command center for the local Nike [missile] operation was at Fort Lawton, which was considered a site for the world’s fair, but it was considered too important to turn over to a world’s fair because, as someone put it, it contained “the electronic brain of the regional Nike missile operation.” We could have had a world’s fair on this big bluff in Magnolia overlooking the Olympics with a spectacular view, but it was too important to defend us against attack.

The Cold War and the possibility that we could get blown up was very real. It was fascinating that the Space Needle was being built at the same time the Berlin Wall was being built. That parallel to me was very dramatic, and you could even see it in the newspapers. On the front page of the Seattle Times you’d see an article on the Space Needle juxtaposed against an article on people building bomb shelters.

As I looked through [this material], it seemed clear that there was an effort on the part of America to say there’s two forms of government: capitalism and communism. There’s America and there’s the Soviet Union. One of those forms of government is about aspiration, increasing vistas, being global, democratizing the global view. And the other people are building walls and putting up barbed wire and they’re looking at the world through a machine gun sight.

The Cold War was woven through every thread of the Space Needle. It was imbued with the hopes and fears of that particular era, and that’s why it still has a resonance today.

It’s interesting that President Kennedy never actually visited the fair. He planned to appear at the close in October 1962, but it was later learned that he was embroiled then in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Exactly. He was in Chicago and he had promised to close the fair. He was part of the opening ceremony from a distance. He opened the fair with the press of a telegraph key and gave a little talk over a phone. He promised to close the fair and the people at the fair really put themselves out for that. Then he claimed he came down with a head cold, and didn’t make it. The day after the fair closed, it was announced publically that the Cuban Missile Crisis was under way, and he had returned to D.C. to manage it. You couldn’t complain when you knew what was on his plate, but at the time, people had hurt feelings about it.

You tell the story of how fair commission director Eddie Carlson came up with the idea for the Space Needle and the name. He did a little sketch of a circle atop a tower.

Yes. Carlson was head of the state commission looking into a world’s fair and he was involved in the planning of the fair and working tirelessly. He was also a major hotel executive in Seattle for the chain that became Westin.

Carlson was very conscious that the fair needed a symbol. He went on a trip with his wife and another couple to Stuttgart, Germany. He was supposed to be getting away from fair business, but if you’re in the international hotel business, you’re working when you travel. They got stuck in Stuttgart because the couple they were with was picking up a new Mercedes Benz but it wasn’t ready. A local suggested that they have lunch on the Stuttgart Tower -- a television tower built in the 1950s with a crow’s nest that had an observation deck and a restaurant. It looked like a needle -- a pointed tower with a basket. It had a dramatic view of a not particularly inspiring city. The place was full. Carlson thought this was the kind of thing that could be built in Seattle. They wanted something permanent and a restaurant offered a financial model for how he would pay for something as time went on.

On that same trip, he visited the Eiffel Tower and the Tower of Pisa, and he began seeking out every tower he could visit. When he returned to Seattle, he sketched out this idea. He wasn’t sure who to go to with it. He was afraid he’d be laughed out of the room with this goofy doodle.

He went to a good friend of his, Jim Douglas, who was vice-president of the fair and also vice-president of the Northgate Shopping Center. He said, “I went to Jim Douglas because I knew he wouldn’t laugh at me, and that he listen to my idea and not make fun of it.” And Jim Douglas said they had to see John Graham, Jr., a well-known architect who had built Northgate and had offices in Seattle and New York. And Graham was looking for a major world’s fair project and hadn’t landed one. When he met with Carlson, it turned out he was building a rotating restaurant in Hawaii, and [Graham] said he could make a rotating restaurant, and that’s where it all started.

I was surprised that legendary Seattle architect Victor Steinbrueck also had a role in the design process.

Yes. You had two very important architects in Seattle history involved in the project: Victor Steinbrueck and John Graham, Jr.

John Graham did big commercial projects and he was famous for shopping centers. The Northgate Shopping Center became the model for the suburban auto mall. He was thought of as a businessman’s architect.

Victor Steinbrueck was very different. He was an academic and interested in urban landscape and in a different scale of people-oriented architecture.

Graham had his staff working on the design of the Space Needle and they’d been working on it for about a year, and Graham still wasn’t satisfied with the designs they came up with. Graham hired Steinbrueck for a summer at five dollars an hour and he asked Steinbrueck to come up with a design that was really exciting. And Victor did.

There was controversy between the two of them. The project wouldn’t have happened except for John Graham, [who] coordinated the whole project and insisted on a rotating restaurant and the flying saucer look. So John Graham gets the credit, but the Space Needle wouldn’t be the beautiful, wasp-wasted, delicate structure except that Victor came up with that.

The earlier versions of the Space Needle were clunky and didn’t have that artistic quality. Steinbrueck’s inspiration was a sculpture he had at home -- a beautiful wooden abstract of the female figure called the feminine one by artist David Lemon. Steinbrueck later said that the shape of the Space Needle mimicked the hourglass figure of Seattle itself. The isthmus of Seattle crests between Lake Washington and Puget Sound and it fans out at the top, narrows at the middle and fans out at the bottom. He added a beautiful artistic dimension and that is a reason the Space Needle has succeeded because it’s a beautiful structure to look at.

Steinbrueck and Graham were an odd couple but turned out to be the perfect team -- even if they didn’t like each other very well.

What was the opinion of the Space Needle when it was built? Hasn’t there been more criticism in recent years?

Of course there were people who loved it immediately. There were other people that it grew on over time.

There were several criticisms when it was built. One criticism was that it was just a gimmick. At an architectural forum held at the world’s fair, a speaker called it “gimmicktecture.” It was a revolving restaurant in the air like a flying saucer and it was seen as silly. That was one response. And a critic for the Saturday Review saw it as a monstrosity that desecrated the skyline. The public didn’t feel that way. At worst, it was fun. Many people found it quite graceful and quite beautiful.

The late PBS host Alistair Cooke covered the world’s fair for The Guardian and he wrote two articles about it. He loved architecturally the Minoru Yamasaki Science Center and praised that highly. He was more critical of the Space Needle, which he said was a kind of gimmick and what he really didn’t like was you get up there and have a godlike view but you’re looking at a second-rate city. You look down and see the freight yard, the industrial area, the port. Nature aside, he didn’t find the view of the city itself particularly inspiring. It was a way to say that they may have some pretty mountains, but there’s not much here to interest a cosmopolitan person.

The 1970s was probably the era when the Space Needle was considered the most out of date. And there were people, like [Seattle writer] Jonathan Raban, who famously said that “living with the Space Needle is like having to live with a velvet portrait of Jesus.”

But many architects and the general public think of it as quite beautiful. It went through a stage early on when it was considered kitschy, but people who see it every day against the backdrop of scenery and see the way light plays on it and see it as a literal landmark in the city that tells you where you are -- the vast majority of people see it as something quite special.

As you mention, celebrities have been drawn to the Space Needle, like and scientists Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking. And many celebrities were eager to see it at the time of the world’s fair like Walt Disney, John Wayne -- and famously Elvis Presley.

During the fair, every VIP wanted to go up in it, and a lot of those people came to the fair. You had people like Roy Rogers and Dale Evans and John Wayne, but you also had people like Dick Gregory and Liberace. Of course, Elvis is the big celebrity that people remember.

It’s interesting that in 1962, Elvis was at the beginning of the end for him, and Elvis’s music wasn’t the music of the world’s fair. It was “Louie, Louie” and “The Twist.” Elvis is associated with the Space Needle, but the Space Needle was ahead of Elvis even with his visit there and the movie they made that helped make the Space Needle famous.

An amazing young guy, Albert Fisher, was only 21 then and was in charge of film and TV for the world’s fair. He hung out with Elvis and tells a great story about how, when they had to film the view going up and down the elevators for the movie, they took doors off the outside of the elevators -- and riding those elevators without doors is a risky thing. At the top of the Needle, they filmed the view, but they shot the restaurant scenes at the MGM studio. They had a drum with a painted skyline of Seattle, so the skyline moved and not the actors. In the movie, it looks as if Elvis and his date are in the rotating restaurant. They built an exact replica of a wedge of the Space Needle restaurant and they had the uniforms, menus and silverware. Everything is completely accurate, but it was filmed in Hollywood with a fake backdrop.

The construction of the Space Needle is fascinating and, being acrophobic, I appreciated how unharnessed ironworkers built it.

I’ve been on the roof, but even with a harness, I wouldn’t go out any farther. One ironworker, Jack Edwards, gave me a lot of information on what it was like to work on the Space Needle. These guys were going up there with no harnesses, no nets, no safety straps, yet that job was completed without the loss of a man, and they had an exemplary safety record.

In that era, harnesses were not used in a standard way, and they preferred working without those things because, as they were raising these enormously heavy, multi-ton beams on cables in the wind and the beams were moving, they had to get out of the way or they’d be crushed. The only major injury was a man whose leg was snapped by a large beam that they were trying to move into position.

Two guys quit on the first day because it was just too nerve wracking.

The ironworkers considered themselves an elite and they took tremendous pride in building it. Their boss, an egalitarian blue-collar guy, insisted that the ironworkers would have the first meal on the Space Needle so he had a catered meal shipped up in the middle of winter, and the ironworkers had a Thanksgiving-style buffet on top of the Needle. Before it was finished, the food was blowing off their plates.

I love the bravery and union pride of these men. They weren’t going to let a bunch of businessmen have the first meal up there. It was going to be the workers who had the first meal.

What was the total cost of the construction of the Space Needle at that time?

It turned out to be about four and a half million dollars with the total initial cost of putting up the Space Needle and running it through the fair. During the fair, about two and a half million people went up in the Space Needle and they paid a buck apiece and that’s before any meals or souvenirs. By the end of the fair, the Space Needle itself had made a profit. The four and a half million-dollar cost was about a million more than expected originally, but they invested more in the engineering to assure it was built to last.

Wasn’t it built to withstand high winds and a 9.0 Richter level earthquake?

Yes. It was built to double the earthquake standard at the time. One of the reasons is that they hired an amazing chief structural engineer, John Minasian. He was Armenian and raised in Egypt. He came to the United States, wound up in southern California, and became a structural engineer. He was at Cal Tech when Richter was there. He became a tower expert and a big part of his business was building TV and radio towers throughout the west. He also built gantries for NASA and the military, including the big Saturn rocket gantries at Cape Canaveral.

He actually had experience in the space age. When insurance companies and the banks here put up money for the Space Needle they wanted to be sure this thing was going to stand up, and it wasn’t the kind of structure people had built before. John Minasian knew that the biggest danger to a tower was wind and earthquakes. They did wind tunnel tests and made some changes to the Needle to make sure it could withstand the kinds of lateral forces of an earthquake or a windstorm.

And during the fair, there was an actual hurricane -- one of the rarest events in the Pacific Northwest and the only one in modern history -- the so-called “Columbus Day Storm,” which was a non-tropical cyclone. The Space Needle withstood this tremendous windstorm. Then, in 1965, there was a major quake in Seattle, and the Space Needle did fine. People up there got thrown around a little bit. They broke a bottle of booze or something, and that was about it.

The extra money to make it safe proved [worthwhile because] it was tested by the windstorm and the quake and passed those tests with flying colors.

It seems that the Space Needle was a main attraction for many fairgoers and helped make the fair profitable.

I don’t think there’s any question that the fair needed something like the Space Needle to get people excited about it. In talking to some of the people who were selling tickets and doing publicity at the time, they all said that when people saw the Space Needle rising up, that was when the reality of the fair hit. It acted as a thermometer of enthusiasm, and as the Space Needle went up so did public temperature.

And the Space Needle became the de facto logo of the fair, and everybody wanted it on souvenir items: every button, every postcard. The Space Needle became the image of the fair itself. It’s the thing that got on the cover of Life magazine and it catalyzed the excitement of the fair.

I think the fair would not have been nearly as successful if the Needle had not been built. If you had the Seattle Center site without the Space Needle in 1962, there would have been no identifiable physical object except the gothic arches at the science center. But nothing else took its place.

The Space Needle was built as a sort of aspirational symbol. What does the Space Needle now symbolize?

It has a totem pole quality. It’s not that we carve stories into a cedar tree like the Northwest Indians, but it has a quality where we project things onto it. I was struck by how we talk about the other forty-nine years of its history; the Space Needle has gone through everything we’ve gone through. It went through a kind of hippie phase. It was drawn in a Peter Max style with the text “Come Get High with Us.” Can you imagine the Space Needle saying something like that today? They wouldn’t do that. But in the 1960s or 1970s, you could say something like that. It had a grunge period where Nirvana was hanging out there. In the '70s, they put up a penthouse with white shag carpeting, the kind of place Austin Powers would have hung out in.

Also, through the years, the Space Needle is where people go for birthdays, anniversaries, bar mitzvahs, weddings. It’s become a part of our lives. It’s a stable thing in the sense that you can look at the Space Needle and you know where you are, what city you’re in, that this is our place here.

Yet over time it has become a place imbued with personal experiences, with cultural trends, whether flying the gay pride flag or the Seahawks Twelfth Man flag. It’s become a part of the life of this city in a way that’s profound. People feel it’s their Space Needle and feel protective of it. It plays an ongoing, significant role, and it hasn’t become yet a derelict white elephant. On the contrary, it continues to draw many people. Even if you never go there -- most people who go there are from out of town -- it’s part of your landscape.

And the Space Needle provides a way to see the city in a new way. You see references to the voyeuristic and Big Brother nature of the Space Needle. You could go up there and look in apartment windows and maybe see someone get undressed. Cops were up there trying to catch jaywalkers, using walkie-talkies to report if anything was happening below. They would station a cop with binoculars on the Space Needle to help with traffic control, and he could tell which parking lots were full and which were not, and he could report illegal parking or jaywalking, and the cops on the ground could take care of it.

Right after the world’s fair KING radio built a studio on the observation deck. Frosty Fowler, the number one deejay in Seattle, was up there and he had binoculars and would look in the Edgewater Hotel parking lot and read the local license plate numbers in the lot, the implication being that someone was there for an assignation. And he got in trouble for that because of the invasion of privacy.

The Space Needle caused the city to re-define and explore itself. As the city grew, the Space Needle became the place where people were doing traffic reports. KIRO put a live camera up there in the '60s. It created a way to go up there and peer into bedrooms of people around the city, but at the same time, we put cameras and technology up there so we could actually watch the city from our bedrooms.

Thank you for these illuminating insights. Do you have anything you’d like to add about this Seattle icon?

When you live here, the Needle is here and just part of the landscape, but what I took away from the forces and personalities who came together to create it, it was such an unlikely thing to pull off. They wanted to create a symbol for the fair. Lots of fairs do that, and they don’t succeed. They wanted to create something that would still be a viable business fifty years later, and they did that. They wanted to create something that would be a symbol of Seattle and of America’s Cold War philosophy. They did that. And it transcended that and continues to be a symbol of a utopian, technological future.

It was built in a year, and it was huge success. From the minute it opened, there was never a question about whether people would like it or pay a buck to go to the top. There were extraordinary people who were giving forth extraordinary effort to do something that should never have succeeded, yet it did beyond their wildest dreams. I think that’s fascinating, and I’m glad these people took the risks that they did.

There’s nothing inevitable about the Space Needle. It could easily have been an ugly concrete tower with an empty restaurant, and it could have been something that made people feel let down as opposed to feeling inspired and uplifted. The fact that art, politics and commerce came together and worked so well is an amazing feat.