Built for the 1962 World’s Fair, the Seattle Space Needle has become an icon for the Pacific Northwest and remains a structural and architectural marvel. Standing over 600 feet tall and designed to harken a vision of the future, the Space Needle is ready to remain a popular attraction for years to come.
Edward Carlson, owner for the Carlson Hotel chain at the time of the World Fair, had recently been to Germany and visited the Stuttgart Tower. Appointed as the chairman of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, he wanted to include a tower with a restaurant as part of the fairgrounds. There wasn’t enough money in the budget, or land available for the construction, so it appeared his dream wouldn’t be made a reality.
I visited the Space Needle in late summer of 2011. The tower is located in Seattle Center, a complex of museums and attractions located in downtown. Parking was an issue, and most visitors use Seattle’s excellent public transit system to visit. I visited mid-week, and there were few others in the Center while I walked around the outside.
In 1961 a small parcel of land was found and purchased by private investors for the construction of the Space Needle. With time being short crews worked around the clock. The foundation is thirty feet deep, over 400 cement trucks took a day to fill it. This massive base almost matched the weight of the rest of the Space Needle, meaning the center of gravity was a mere five feet above ground – important along the earthquake-prone Pacific coast. Securing the Space Needle to the foundation are 72 bolts, each thirty feet long.
With the Foundation complete, construction of the rest of the building rushed ahead. The Top Dome and saucer, housing five levels at the top of the Space Needle, was so perfectly balanced the rotating restaurant inside only needed a 1.5 horsepower motor to power it. The outside was painted in colors to match the vision of Space held by the designers, Orbit Olive for the body, Re-Entry Red for the Saucer, and Galaxy Gold for the roof. The Needle was declared completed on April 4th, and the last Elevator installed on April 21st, one day before the start of the World’s Fair.
I rode the elevator to the Observation Deck. Sitting over 500 feet above ground, and with a 360 degree view of Seattle, the Observation Deck can provide amazing views of the surrounding countryside. On clear days, which are sadly few, Mt Rainier is visible in the distance. When I visited fog was rolling in off the coast, but the view cleared during the day. There are several snack stores, and one ice cream parlor, on this level, though they are all expensive. I still had a sundae.
During the fair its estimated 20,000 people a day rode the elevators to the observation deck. The central area, encased in glass, held a musician playing a carillon, which could be heard throughout the Space Needle. Two restaurants sat in the saucer atop of the spire, and the observation deck provided a view of the fairgrounds, as well as the city.
In 1974 a children’s book, called the Wheedle in the Needle, told of a small, furry creature that caused the red light at the top of the Space Needle to blink. The Wheedle was quickly adopted by Seattle culture, and small Wheedles are available for sale, or appear on merchandise. The Wheedle was even briefly the mascot of Seattle’s professional basketball team.
In 1999 the two smaller restaurants in the saucer were combined into the Skyline, a high end establishment which claimed to serve traditional pacific northwest cuisine. Even a lunch there is over $30, so packing food might be a good idea if you want to spend the day on the observation deck. The deck itself has several displays on the construction of the Space Needle, computers to request a free picture of yourself with a computer generated Space Needle in the background, and signs pointing out details of the view in different directions. An open walkway encircles the deck, allowing visitors to step outside. This walk is enshrouded in sire mesh, to prevent things from being thrown off. This safety grid also slows attempted suicides from the Space Needle. No one has actually jumped from the observation deck since 1978.
In 2000 plans to continue renovating the Space Needle were put on hold after a terrorist threat, and in 2001 it withstood a 6.8 magnitude earthquake, proving the soundness of it’s design. Since these incidents the Space Needle has remained open, and on the fourth of July serves as the centerpiece for Seattle’s fireworks celebration.
Exiting the Space Needle, the elevators deposit you in the Spacebase Gift shop, which contains a large selection of Space Needle and Seattle items for sale. Completely encompassing the base of the tower, visitors are treated to the chance to buy anything they might want to remember there journey to this national landmark.