Back to the Future: Why Seattle's World's Fair Mattered

Our own Knute Berger—who is the official writer of the Space Needle—looks back on the 1962 Seattle W
Knute Berger  |   February 2012   |  FROM THE PRINT EDITION
: a model of the fairgrounds that was used to promote the fair

In the winter of 1962, my Cub Scout den had taken a field trip to the top of the Smith Tower, then one of the tallest buildings west of the Mississippi. We went to the observation deck, where we had an unobstructed view across downtown to a strange spire that was rising near Queen Anne Hill. It was the Space Needle, and the now-familiar tripod tower was up, but the top house was still under construction. I can still see the partial disk in my mind’s eye.

As a group of 8-year-olds, we found it terribly exciting. The Needle was being built for the upcoming Seattle world’s fair, called Century 21. It was as if a spaceship from a friendly future had landed in our own backyard. A vote was taken, and we quickly adopted the Needle as our favorite Seattle structure. We were hyped up in anticipation of what the Needle represented: The Space Age had arrived.

Today, it’s nearly impossible to get an unobstructed view across the downtown forest of skyscrapers. From the Space Needle looking south, you can see a tiny sliver of Smith Tower amid the trunks of high-rises. But that metropolitan bloom is exactly what the fair was designed to accomplish: put Seattle on the map, prove to investors the city was worth betting their chips on and boost the growth of “Greater Seattle.” In short, the goal was to turn a provincial port city on the edge of the continent into a contender, the long-promised “New York Alki” that some of the city’s first settlers had envisioned (“Alki” is a Chinook Indian word meaning “by and by.”). New York by and by, they dreamed. Looking back, the astonishing thing is that the plan worked out as well as it did.

Now we’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of something that is usually short-lived. World’s fairs are here today, gone tomorrow. They are fantasy towns that inform and entertain, then disappear. One of the seminal works on fairs is a book titled Ephemeral Vistas by Paul Greenhalgh. So why is our city still so captivated by our fair, half a century on? The coming celebration, called The Next 50 (thenextfifty.org), will last until October and feature books, documentaries, forward-looking symposia, exhibits and all kinds of public events. But is the occasion worthy? Did it really make a difference? Was the future all it was cracked up to be?

An Early Conceptual Rendering of the Monorail; Credit: MOHAI

Staying Power

That a modern world’s fair would be held in Seattle in 1962 was, in many ways, absurd. It could have been very different. In 1959, the state of Oregon held the Oregon Centennial Exposition to celebrate its 100 years of statehood. It featured a Gayway amusement zone, like our fair, and pavilions and exhibits from the government and around the state. It was almost as big as Seattle’s Century 21 Exposition in terms of physical size: 65 acres to Seattle’s 74. But it was strictly a local festival. About 1.5 million people attended, but the world didn’t come to Portland in ’59, and the fair didn’t do much to boost the city’s prospects. The Oregon Centennial Exposition’s main legacy structure: a 31-foot-high statue of Paul Bunyan.

In contrast, Seattle’s fair left the city with a permanent cultural nexus and major infrastructure. It gave us a refurbished waterfront, streetside trees and new facilities at the University of Washington. It helped boost major projects, such as the completion of Interstate 5 through downtown and the SR 520 bridge. It bequeathed to us Seattle Center, a permanent complex of theaters, pavilions, the Pacific Science Center, Coliseum (now KeyArena), Center House, Opera House, the Monorail and open urban space. It gave us an international civic symbol, the Space Needle, second only to the Eiffel Tower as a world’s fair souvenir and a tourist attraction known around the world.

The 1947 High School Memorial Stadium played host to special events and big crowds day and night during the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair; Credit: MOHAI

Instead of whittling down their ambitions, Seattle boosters amped them up. They decided to put on a fair of international importance, to channel millions of dollars in public and private investment into the city and make permanent improvements, and in so doing, make a statement. They decided to claim a national mission to demonstrate America’s determination to win the future. Local boosters weren’t responsible for the space race with the Soviet Union that gave Century 21 its theme, but they did respond to the challenge. What could have been a small, forgotten regional festival took on the mantle of making the nation’s response to communism. We would demonstrate America’s commitment and know-how in science and technology. Think of it as a bigger version of the Richard Nixon–Nikita Khrushchev Kitchen Debate in Moscow in 1959, in which the two political leaders argued politics in a mock-up of an American kitchen. In Seattle, we would take that debate, and propaganda, to the next level. And also fill some hotel rooms.

 

Getting It Done

If Cold War debates could happen in kitchens, Seattle’s own fair planning took place in back rooms, bars and restaurants. The short version of the genesis of the fair is that locals had been talking about creating a civic center in Seattle since our first fair, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (AYP) of 1909. And in 1950, talk of a world’s fair was murmured in local chamber of commerce circles. One of the spark plugs was Seattle City Council member Al Rochester, who had attended the AYP in his youth and thought that a new fair marking its anniversary in ’59 would be terrific. The decision to do that was hatched over lunches at Dooley’s downtown and the Washington Athletic Club. In 1955, the City Council backed the idea, and shortly thereafter the state Legislature in Olympia set up an exploratory commission. A year later, Seattle voters passed a bond issue to fund a civic center, and the city appointed a committee to look at whether or not the civic center could be a catalyst for having the fair here.

The Space Needle begins to take shape during the summer of 1961; Credit: MOHAI

It took time, but all the lines eventually converged. Seattle became the site of the proposed fair, the federal government agreed to fund a pavilion committed to science, and property was acquired and cleared on the downtown side of Queen Anne Hill, where a cluster of already existing urban amenities, including the old armory, Memorial Stadium and Civic Auditorium, made it easy to conceive of a permanent civic cluster located there. Unfortunately, most of a working-class, turn-of-the-century neighborhood had to be bulldozed, but there was little opposition to the “slum clearance.”

The arches and buildings of the Minoru Yamasaki-designed Science Pavillion under construction in 1961; Credit: MOHAI

It’s worth remembering that there was only one member of the board of trustees of the AYP Exposition still around, and that was Seattle real estate man Henry Broderick. Broderick had the honor of launching the demolitions to prepare the Century 21 site, and he also served as a Century 21 trustee. But for the most part, there was virtually no institutional memory in town about how to put on and run a modern world’s fair. International expositions had occurred with regularity from the early 1850s through 1940. But World War II had broken the chain. The last major fairs in the United States had been held in 1939–40 in San Francisco and New York, more than 20 years previously. And the postwar world was changed: television, atomic energy, jet airplanes, Disneyland. Were fairs still relevant?

The Pavillion of Electric Power was a working dam replica with six spillways; Credit: MOHAI

Seattle thought they were, and other cities were stirring from their postwar stupor. New York and Chicago were talking about hosting fairs. Overseas, the Belgians were putting one on in Brussels in ’58. Seattle fair organizers hired consultants to give them advice, got seed money from wealthy donors and recruited a set of civic dynamos who could inject energy into the process.

 

The Visionaries

Seattle’s own Mad Men: Senator Warren Magnuson gives a Century 21 poster the once over while fair officials look on. (L-R seated): James Douglas, Iver Cederwall, Magnuson, Eddie Carlson. (L-R standing) Fred Paulsell, Edward Tremper, Robert Colwell, Otto Brandt, Lee Moran); Credit: MOHAI

  There were many people who formed the great cast of characters that made the Seattle fair possible, and successful. They included a young up-and-coming hotel executive, Edward “Eddie” Carlson, who acted as a kind of CEO for the whole shebang. He worked for Western International Hotels (later Westin) and eventually headed United Airlines. This former hotel bellboy had worked his way up from the bottom and knew the hospitality business and international tastes. He hosted 7 a.m. breakfast meetings at the Olympic Hotel Grill (bacon and eggs $1.30, coffee 15 cents) that kept the enterprise on track. Carlson also played a major part in the conception of the Space Needle and the transformation of the Federal Science Pavilion into the permanent Science Center.

President of the fair was Joe Gandy, a lawyer and Ford dealer who had a knack for sales and diplomacy. Gandy was optimistic and energetic; a guy to whom you could not say no. He had to convince people that Seattle wasn’t too much of a hick town to host a fair, but he had an uphill battle. As Emmett Watson later wrote, a New York publicist, when told about the city’s plans, responded, “A world’s fair? In Seattle? Frankly, I’ve always thought of Seattle as a place where the town prostitute had a pull-down bed.”

Gandy traveled the world to recruit exhibitors and was responsible for obtaining the seal of approval for the fair from the Bureau of International Expositions (BIE) in Paris, which was essential to getting foreign governments to participate. Gandy had to teach BIE members how to pronounce “Seattle,” and he made them special maps to show them where it was. Without Gandy’s snagging the BIE’s OK, the fair likely would not have happened. It didn’t ensure success, but it gave Gandy credibility to go out and sell the thing.

Century 21 president Joe Gandy (L) shows blueprints to Palmer Hoyt, Al Rochester and Ewen Dingwall

Fair organizers were determined to have an architectural showcase, and for that they turned to Paul Thiry, who designed the site and the Coliseum. He was one of the greatest of the Northwest modern architects, well schooled in world’s fairs (he had attended at least five). Many other notable Northwest-trained architects helped, including John Graham Jr., Victor Steinbrueck and Minoru Yamasaki. Running the fair day to day was Ewen Dingwall, the kind of tough, good-humored field commander needed to keep things going in all conditions. He was assisted by an able public relations whiz, Jay Rockey, who managed to get the fair great ink and TV coverage all across the globe, including two covers of Life magazine in one year, the gold standard of PR in that era.

The fair also had the support of Washington’s dynamic senatorial duo of Warren G. “Maggie” Magnuson and Henry “Scoop” Jackson, who managed to get unprecedented federal funding for the fair, ultimately $10 million for the Science Pavilion. Maggie joked that he’d be paying it off for years by voting for other states’ pork-barrel projects. The government had never given money like that to any fair, but Sputnik and the push for more science motivated funders. That, and the fact that Maggie and Scoop could make a credible case that our state—which had helped usher in the Atomic Age with Hanford and the Jet Age with Boeing’s 707—was surely a great place to invest in a high-tech future.

Jay Rockey, the man who sold Seattle and Century 21 to the world, as public relations director for the 1962 World’s Fair. Photographed on December 2, 2011 by Hayley  Young

It’s easy to look back and see the fair as inevitable, but it wasn’t. “There were many points,” Dingwall recalls, “at which the fair almost never happened at all.” Gandy called it “the darnedest throw of the dice in Seattle’s lifetime.” Boosters pushed it, but many in the local establishment were skeptical, and sometimes Carlson and Dingwall felt the chill at the Rainier Club. The public’s embrace of the fair was slow, as well. People were rightly skeptical of a huge investment in a risky proposition. Even in their heyday, world’s fairs tended to lose money (both of the last two, in New York and San Francisco, had). A prominent lawyer and former dean of the University of Washington School of Law, Alfred Schweppe, filed a lawsuit to stop the fair in its tracks. He eventually lost, but it reflected the uneasy skepticism many people had about the whole scheme.

A turning point came when the Needle began to rise in the spring of 1961, a little less than a year before the fair’s opening. Then the reality and fun of it finally began to hit people, from us Cub Scouts to Boeing executives. When the Needle’s legs went up, “That did it,” said Dingwall. “Community morale just took off.” Rockey remembered that the rising of the Needle was like a thermometer of local enthusiasm and ticket sales. The privately funded Needle, which became the symbol of the fair and all of its aspirations, energized everyone. That was in part due to its fun, graceful and optimistic feel. This was the era when East Berlin was putting up its wall. Here, the Needle embodied the upward lift of looking to a new frontier, but also our expansive world view.

 

A Magnet for Culture

While seeking to create the Eiffel Tower of the modern age, the Needle builders also recognized that it could be a kind of global magnet for cosmopolitan culture by featuring fine cuisine fit for food sophisticates and wannabes. It was a conduit for Seattle’s aspirations to be a modern city of art, technology, architecture and refined fare. It’s little wonder that its first financial backer and president was Bagley Wright, then a young 30-something developer and investor who evolved into one of Seattle’s premier cultural patrons. Fair visitors from overseas, such as the shah and empress of Iran or Prince Philip of Great Britain, would find on the Needle’s menu dishes featuring fresh Dungeness crab, fillet of Puget Sound salmon, “western beef” and Alaskan shrimp, prepared by a European chef (a Swiss raised in France named Rene Schless) trained in five-star restaurants around the globe. Seattle-based chefs and local ingredients could compete in the global age. Tens of thousands of visitors endured lines several hours long, every day and all day, just to get a taste with their view.

 Along with serious internationalism, Century 21 served up plenty of places to play, including the Gayway, a carnival midway known in later years as the Fun Forest. Opposite, bottom right: Paul Horiuchi’s colorful Seattle Mural is 60 feet long, 17 feet high and made from Venetian glass tiles; Credit: MOHAI (5)

Down below, Seattleites could taste a wide variety of foods from around the world: China, Korea, Mexico, France, Denmark, Argentina, Japan. During the fair, the old armory—then called The Food Circus—was filled with delicious foods of all kinds. I remember my family visited a white-tablecloth establishment on the upper level called La Balcone for a sit-down meal. I tried frog’s legs for the first time. It gave me bragging rights at school: I had eaten a frog! For most visitors, the memorable edibles were the Belgian waffles, but for me this French dish was a memorable experience of gustatory exoticism.

Fairgoers boarding the Bubbleator inside the Coliseum were told to “Step to the rear of the sphere” for a low-speed thrill ride to the World of Tomorrow. It was later moved to the Food Circus (now the Center House Food Court) before being removed completely in 1980; Credit: MOHAI

The fair boosted the arts as well. Not only was there a show of world masterpieces at the fair, but there was a showcase of modern art that baffled and enraged spectators. A noisy mechanical sculpture by Jean Tinguely called “Narva” was a popular whipping boy for the “you call that art?” crowd. Erna Gunther’s Northwest Coast Indian art exhibit dazzled critics. There were local artists’ works, too, such as Paul Horiuchi’s mural, which is a landmark today. There was the new Opera House, a home for the symphony, gallery space for future exhibits and a branch of the Seattle Art Museum. On the fair’s opening night, Igor Stravinsky conducted the Seattle Symphony with pianist Van Cliburn as soloist. A previous symphony director had called Seattle an “aesthetic dustbin.” We were determined to be a dustbin no more.

Not everything about the fair was high-brow; the “naughty but nice” adult entertainment zone, “Show Street,” featured Las Vegas-type song-and-dance revues—some with nudity!—including Gracie Hansen’s Night in Paradise show, and even an adults-only puppet show by Sid and Marty Krofft called Les Poupées de Paris. Fair organizers were determined to see that there was truly something for everyone; Hansen said it was her personal mission to “save the fair from science.”

The Fair’s Legacy

It’s easy to look back at the fair today as a kind of collection of Space Age kitsch of the Elvis era. Famous Seattle-based British writer Jonathan Raban has dismissed the Needle as akin to living with a “black-velvet portrait of Jesus.” But for a generation, it really did shape expectations of the future. Microsoft billionaires Paul Allen and Bill Gates both were impressed by the fair, and today they have enterprises, such as the EMP Museum and the Gates Foundation headquarters, on or near the fairgrounds. We saw John Glenn’s space capsule and believed that not only would we get to the moon, but we’d be taking Pan Am flights to Mars within our lifetimes. We believed in atomic cars and video telephones, computers and rapid transit. Today, local entrepreneurs of that generation, such as Allen and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, are building their own spaceships.

The Swedish-designed, German-built Alweg Monorail speeds toward downtown Seattle, carrying passengers from Century 21 back to reality (and 1962) in 90 seconds; Credit: UW Special Collections (SEA3141)

In 1962, there were real innovations happening in the moment. The Space Needle installed some of the first cordless phones in the country. The fair was the site of some of the first satellite transmissions of telephone calls and television broadcasts. There was a good deal that never happened in the imagined 21st century—Seattle is still not under a climate-controlled dome, for example—but a lot did. If nothing else, many of us came away with the sense that the future was dynamic and Seattle was not on the provincial periphery, but right at the center of it.

The Seattle fair was a bottom-line success. It made a profit and even paid off its private investors only three months into the fair. It drew more than 9.5 million visitors, greater than the populations of Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Alaska combined. It gave the city confidence. Ewen Dingwall enthused at the fair’s end, “You cannot stop this city if it stays in the frame of mind it has now.”

Fireworks explode from the Space Needle, a New Year's Eve tradition since 1992; Credit: Courtesy of Seattle Center

Any of the fair boosters of ’62 would be amazed at the growth and progress Seattle has made—the town has been transformed. But, the reality of Century 21 so far has been more muted than joyous. Scoop and Maggie and the federal gravy train are gone. The space shuttles are in museums. We worry about the economy and terrorism. Our can-do civic spirit is often mired in process and pessimism. Our Century 21 boosters didn’t have to deal with public meetings or environmental impact statements. Within a decade of the fair, we were a different town.

On the other hand, we’ve seen South Lake Union transformed into a technology and research center, we’re planning a radically new waterfront, and we’re building a regional rail system. Seattle aspires to be on the cutting edge of green technology and values, exemplified by the new Bullitt Foundation headquarters, which promises to be the greenest building ever built in the city. Seattle Center has proven resilient. Despite the symphony and SAM, along with the convention center, going downtown and the professional sports stadiums to SoDo, Seattle Center still draws millions of locals and tourists, and is beloved for its parts, from the Needle to the fountain. Its future never seems settled, nor should it. There are always new plans (Chihuly Garden and Glass), new challenges (funding) and competing viewpoints (central park or civic center?); it’s been that way since day one. The center of Seattle is a white board on which we never tire of sketching out new futures for the city, a town of idealists, improvers and second-guessers.

The International Fountain, designed by Hideki Shimizu and Kazuyuki Matsushita, emitting water and colored light after dark at the Seattle World’s Fair; Credit: MOHAI

The organizers of Century 21 pulled off something that we’re still celebrating and analyzing. It’s in our collective memory as something we left behind that’s worth remembering; that could help us learn again how to get where we want to go. Will it soon be time for Century 22? Let’s bring back the three-martini lunch and talk it over.

Knute Berger is the official writer-in-residence at the Space Needle.

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