In 1959, an unlikely artist was inspired by the Stuttgart Tower in Germany and sketched a vision of a dominant central structure for the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair on a napkin in a coffee house.
The artist was Edward E. Carlson, then president of Western International Hotels. His space-age image was to be the focus of the futuristic World’s Fair in Seattle, whose theme would be the 21st Century. Carlson penciled a shape that became Seattle’s internationally renown landmark, the Space Needle.
However, Carlson and his supporters soon found moving the symbol from the napkin to the drawing board to the construction phase was far from easy. The first obstacle was the structure’s design. Carlson’s initial sketch underwent many transformations. One drawing resembled a tethered balloon, another was a balloon-shaped top house on a central column anchored by cables. Architect John Graham, fresh from his success in designing the world’s first shopping mall (Seattle’s Northgate), turned the balloon design into a flying saucer. A dozen architects on Graham’s team worked on sketches and ideas before a final design was reached just a year and a half before the World’s Fair
The next hurdles were location and financing. Since the Space Needle was to be privately financed, it had to be situated on land which could be acquired for public use but built within the fairgrounds. Early investigations indicated such a plot of land did not exist. However, just before the search was abandoned, a suitable 120-foot-by-120-foot piece of land was found and sold to investors for $75,000 in 1961, just 13 months before the World’s Fair opening.
Construction, managed by the Howard S. Wright Construction Company, progressed quickly. An underground foundation was poured into a hole 30 feet deep and 120 feet across. It took 467 cement trucks an entire day to fill the hole, and was the largest continuous concrete pour ever attempted in the West. Once completed, the foundation weighed as much as the Space Needle itself, establishing the center of gravity just five feet above ground.
The five level top house dome was completed with special attention paid to the revolving restaurant level and Observation Deck. The top house was balanced so perfectly that the restaurant rotated with just a one horsepower electric motor. In keeping with the 21st Century theme, the final coats of paint were dubbed Astronaut White for the legs, Orbital Olive for the core, Re-entry Red for the halo and Galaxy Gold for the sunburst and pagoda roof. The 605-foot tall Space Needle was completed in December 1961 and officially opened a mere four months later on the first day of the World’s Fair, April 21, 1962.
The Weather Needle
Storms occasionally force closure of the Space Needle, as they did for the Columbus Day storm of 1962 and the “Inauguration Day” storm of 1993 when winds reached 90 miles per hour. The Needle is built to withstand a wind velocity of 200 miles per hour. The Space Needle has withstood several tremors, too, including a 2001 earthquake measuring 6.8 on the Richter scale. Seattle has a bad rap for being rainy, mostly because of its continually cloudy skies between October and May. Seattle actually gets less rain than Boston, New York, and Atlanta. Between May and September, downtown Seattle enjoys 71 sunny days on average.