THE SPACE NEEDLE: SEATTLE’S MUST-VISIT ICONIC LANDMARK
While the Space Needle may not reach the towering heights of American landmarks such as the Empire State Building or Chicago’s Willis Tower, standing at 605 feet, it possesses a towering spirit all its own.
This iconic structure in Washington made a profound impression on visitors during the Seattle 1962 World’s Fair, swiftly transforming into a global symbol. Despite its global recognition, there are intriguing aspects of this awe-inspiring monument that you might not be familiar with.
The original designs for the tower had a different shape
Edward E. Carlson, the visionary behind the Space Needle, initiated the project in 1959. However, his initial designs for the structure bore little resemblance to the iconic landmark it would become.
In these early plans, the Space Needle looked more like a massive balloon tethered to the ground. It was architect John Graham who introduced the concept of a flying saucer, which ultimately shaped the final design.
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Finding suitable land for the Space Needle proved challenging
Even after securing financing from the Pentagram Corporation, a consortium that included John Graham, contractor Howard S. Wright, timber magnate Norton Clapp, and investors Ned Skinner and Bagley Wright, several obstacles hindered the construction process.
The most significant hurdle was acquiring the necessary land for the tower. Seattle’s fairgrounds initially lacked a suitable plot for private use. Eventually, the team discovered a 120-foot by 120-foot parcel of land, which they purchased for $75,000, and this became the site for the Space Needle’s construction.
The tower has a deeply buried foundation
Despite its soaring height of 605 feet (0.18 km), the Space Needle’s foundation extends a remarkable 30 feet below the surface of Seattle Center. The connection between the needle and its foundation relies on 72 bolts, each measuring 30 feet (ca. 9 m) in length. This unique design positions the tower’s center of gravity a mere five feet above ground level.
The early days of the Space Needle featured an environmentally unfriendly torch
To enhance the spectacle of the Space Needle’s grand unveiling during the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, a colossal flame blazed at the apex of the tower throughout the fair’s duration. Known as the “needle of flame”, this torch ran on natural gas and stood between 40 and 50 feet (15.24 meters) in height.
Remarkably, it consumed enough fuel to heat 125 homes. Its purpose extended beyond mere visual appeal, as it served as a colossal “clock” for the fair, igniting every quarter-hour.
However, they took down this energy-intensive display after the World’s Fair ended to put the resources into more practical stuff.
It also featured the world’s largest electronic carillon
As part of the Space Needle’s presentation at the World’s Fair, they showed off a 538-bell imitation carillon. This instrument had many bronze bells and someone played it using both manual and pedal keyboards. They made it play multiple times a day, and with speakers up at the 200-foot level of the tower, you could hear its tunes for up to 10 miles (16.09 km) around.
The carillon, called Carillon Americana, was the biggest of its kind until a 732-bell version at the 1964 New York World’s Fair topped it.
The carillon had its LP
The remarkable size of Carillon Americana wasn’t its sole claim to fame. The Space Needle’s resident Carillon made the music that they put on the 1962 album called “Bells on High-Fi”.
Six people parachuted from the tower, but only four of them did so legally
Rather than partaking in the numerous safe and sanctioned attractions offered by Seattle’s Space Needle, two daredevils chose to perform an illegal BASE jump from the tower in 1975. Fortunately, both of them landed safely. It wasn’t until 1996 that the city officially authorized a planned parachute jump from the 520-foot mark of the observation deck, although one participant did suffer a fractured vertebra in the process.
The Space Needle went without cleaning for 46 years
The Space Needle received its first professional cleaning in May 2008, overseen by Alfred Kärcher GmbH & Co. KG. The cleaning operation required a high-pressure water system delivering 2900 pounds per square inch and water heated to 194 degrees Fahrenheit.
The tower occasionally undergoes makeovers
Even though the Space Needle is known for how it looks, they’ve actually changed its appearance a few times, especially for sports events. These changes included sporting the University of Washington’s Huskies logo in 1992 to celebrate the team’s Rose Bowl victory, featuring the Seattle Mariners’ logo during the Major League Baseball playoffs in 1995, and displaying Washington State University’s colors following their Apple Cup victory in 2005.
In a more unusual transformation, the Space Needle adopted a Wheel of Fortune theme in the mid-’90s, complete with a visit from the show’s star, Vanna White, making the top of the tower resemble the famous game show’s wheel.
Another city attempted to buy the Space Needle from Seattle
In 1978, business leaders in Fife, Washington, located about 30 miles south of Seattle and just over five miles from Tacoma, sought to enhance their city’s image. Fife made an audacious bid to purchase the Space Needle, offering its owners one million dollars (which was less than a quarter of the tower’s construction cost) for the transaction. Unsurprisingly, the declined the offer.
The tower’s designer also played a crucial role in another significant building
A decade before commencing work on the Space Needle, John Graham was responsible for the design and construction of a highly influential structure: Northgate Center, now known as Northgate Mall. Even though Northgate Mall might not be as famous as the Space Needle, it’s got a bigger spot in American architecture and business history. It was the first place in the United States to be called a mall.
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It can slightly expand on hot days
According to the Space Needle’s website, on warm days, the structure experiences a slight expansion of about one inch.
An April Fool’s Day prank fooled the city into thinking the tower had collapsed
On April 1, 1989, the local sketch comedy show “Almost Live!” took advantage of the April Fools’ Day tradition to play a seemingly obvious prank on Seattle’s viewing audience. They reported that the Space Needle had collapsed and even shared false photographs of the tower lying in ruins.
Despite clear indications that it was a hoax, many residents took the news seriously. Over 700 concerned phone calls flooded the tower that day, with additional calls to 911. The following day, an NBC syndicate representative issued an apology for the confusion.
An architect said they didn’t give him the credit he deserved for the project.
Even though we mostly give credit to John Graham and his team for making the Space Needle happen, there’s another architect who says he was a big part of it but didn’t get any recognition.
Victor Steinbrueck was hired as an independent contractor by Graham’s architectural firm for the Space Needle, but when they showed off the tower, they left his name out. While official papers do say Steinbrueck was involved, they don’t really say what he did. To secure his place in the tower’s history, Steinbrueck penned a 20-page memoir titled “My Space Needle Story” in December 1961.
The landmark served as inspiration for the living quarters of a famous cartoon family
The Jetson family, created by Hanna-Barbera Productions, made their debut in the same year as the Space Needle, and the two cultural icons share more than just a birth year. Animator Iwao Takamoto revealed in 2005 that the Space Needle inspired the design of the Jetsons’ condominium, which became an integral part of the popular animated series.
What do you think? Are you planning to visit the Space Needle and enjoy the Seattle skyline? You should!