Americana: Experiencing the iconic Space Needle

October 29, 2017

I grew up watching reruns of “The Jetsons,” and eventually became aware that their flying saucer home was patterned after a real-life structure. I hoped I would someday visit it.

New York has the Empire State Building, Paris has the Eiffel Tower. San Francisco has the Golden Gate Bridge but perhaps the most easily identifiable structure in the U.S.A. is Seattle’s Space Needle. Built in 1962 for the World’s Fair, it was the tallest structure west of the Mississippi at the time.

Recently, armed with our Seattle CityPASS, Jeff and I eagerly boarded the monorail downtown. The Space Needle was the only stop, so it was impossible to get lost.

I love unique architecture and I felt a little giddy at the foot of such an iconic, soaring structure. Everywhere around the giant base, people were aiming their cameras heavenward. We exchanged our CityPASS coupons at a kiosk for timed tickets and joined the line for the ride up. We entertained ourselves with the photographic displays while we waited 15 minutes to board the high-speed elevators.

The Space Needle was built to be a symbol as well as a tourist attraction. Guides give a necessarily short overview on the 520-feet ride up to the observation deck and then let you explore the views and displays on your own.

The original idea by businessman Edward E. Carlson was conceived as he dined in a rotating restaurant in Germany. The Seattle fair needed just such an attraction, he thought.

His first concept resembled a lollipop or tethered balloon more than the graceful Needle.

The design was quickly altered when architect, John Graham, tasked with the actual production of the Needle, got involved. He changed the bulb-on-a-stick idea to a flying saucer. The Needle would have a restaurant with a 14-foot ring near the windows that was so perfectly balanced that its rotation, powered by a tiny one and a half horsepower motor, takes less than an hour.

The pedestal was the next design question. A single tower lacked grace as well as necessary stability so Victor Steinbrueck created the hourglass-shaped tripod pedestal.

Nearby, a futuristic monorail was under construction connecting downtown Seattle with a station directly adjacent to the Needle site. The project was nearly scrapped when builders failed to find a suitable site inside the fair grounds. But at the last minute, they noticed a defunct fire and police dispatch station site, just 120 square feet, which financiers bought for $75,000.

By the time the land was purchased, the opening of the fair was just about 15 months away. The 120-foot foundation was poured all in a day, 30 feet in the ground. The structure that soon began to rise from the concrete anchor was bolted down with 72 bolts, each 30 feet long. The foundation contains 250 tons of steel reinforcements and 5,600 tons of concrete.

The Needle itself weighs just 3,700 tons. The halo’s diameter is broader than its foundation by 18 feet but the entire structure’s center of gravity is just 5 feet above ground level.

The Space Needle is built to withstand a category-5 hurricane or over a 9.1 magnitude earthquake without significant damage.

The Needle was finished just two days before the 1962 World’s Fair opened. Almost 20,000 people visited the observation deck each day of the fair.

During the Fair, the Needle also boasted a gigantic torch. It burned natural gas and was a “futuristic” prediction that natural gas would become a normal part of life. But the flame became unpopular for its wastefulness and was replaced by a powerful beam that is still lit on special occasions each year.

The Seattle skyline has changed in the last 55 years. Now, skyscrapers are common and many of the futuristic dreams embodied by the Needle are indeed part of everyday life.

As Jeff and I explored the colossal structure I felt the optimism and imagination that had produced it and so many other American achievements. It seemed like physical proof that if someone can imagine it, someone can also create it.

Only in America, God bless it.