The early 1960s were a very exciting time, especially as it pertains to exploration beyond the planet. Sputnik had launched in 1957, and with it launched the space race. So when Seattle was chosen to host the 1962 World’s Fair, it only made sense to have it with a theme of the space age. The site chosen was a hill to the north of downtown Seattle, home to a national guard armory. Construction would begin a year or so before the fair around a host of venues, some of which exist today in the form of Climate Pledge Arena and the Cornish Playhouse. (The armory now houses a theatre and food court.) But the highlight of the fair was a space-themed tower, one Seattle Times columnist Eddie Carlson said would “be to Seattle what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris.” That iconic tower is, of course, the Space Needle.
Construction on the Space Needle began on April 17, 1961 and was completed by December. The tower was made to look like a UFO suspended over the city, and was painted “galactic gold” at the top, a paint job that has returned this year for the 60th anniversary. The main deck of the observation area was to rotate slowly, making a full revolution once per hour, powered by a single horsepower engine. And atop the tower, a gas column set aflame. (That feature has since been removed.)
Shockingly, no workers died building the 605 foot Space Needle. The construction utilized some cool techniques, like a crane built on top of the tower to lift pieces in place, and a single-pour concrete foundation that would withstand earthquakes up to a 9.0. Three elevators were installed to zip visitors to the top, the slowest of which currently takes 87 seconds.
Both the Space Needle and the fair were hits. Visitors delighted in riding a monorail to the fairgrounds, and indeed the monorail remains the most efficient way to reach what is now called Seattle Center. (Note that it is a separate admission from a normal Seattle transit pass, called an ORCA pass.) And today, tourists and locals alike visit the area in droves, for the Space Needle and the other attractions that have sprung up around. Today, I am one of those tourists and, armed with a Seattle CityPass provided to me graciously by Visit Seattle, I am able to visit three of the most popular things here at Seattle Center: the Space Needle itself, Chihuly Garden and Glass, and the Museum of Pop Culture (MoPop). Each of these attractions is expensive, so the CityPass might be worthwhile if you intend to see all of them, plus the two sites downtown along the Seattle waterfront. (Click here to read about the Seattle waterfront.) If not, you might be best picking and choosing, so I’ll do my very best to give you the pluses and minuses of each.
Let’s start with MoPop. If you don’t have a soft spot for music and movies, this is not a place you’ll be likely to enjoy. If, however, these are things you love, this is a must-see. I don’t know how often exhibits rotate, but in my visit I saw rooms filled with artifacts, props, and memorabilia dedicated to bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, movie genres like SciFi and Horror, and even a large exhibit to independent video games, complete with consoles for playing, although those were all occupied when I arrived. The highlight is a huge sculpture made of guitars from famous artists. (There is also a room with concerts playing on a huge screen, and I made sure to stop there to watch for a few minutes.)
Chihuly Garden and Glass is, in my opinion, easily the highlight of Seattle Center. It features the incredible blown glass art of Dale Chihuly. Chihuly was born in Tacoma, so it only made sense for him to choose the region for one of only a few permanent large exhibits; most of his exhibitions are limited-duration, having taken place in Venice, Jerusalem, and more. The glasswork is truly awe-inspiring, and rather than take more words here to tell you why you need to visit, I am going to give you some photos. This place alone is worth a trip to Seattle.
Finally, let’s talk about the Space Needle. As I mentioned, I was given a CityPass that got me in free of charge. I still don’t think it was worthwhile. Visitors book ahead for a timed entry. Arriving for mine, I then waited in line for the elevators for nearly an hour, and while the line has an interesting exhibit about the building of the tower, that’s a long time to wait when it was booked for a specific time. (I don’t know that admission is even restricted for each time slot; it certainly seemed it wasn’t.) The view from the top is great, and looking down the glass floor is fun, but as an observation deck it lacks sorely from a dearth of signage telling visitors what they are looking at. Another line for the elevator back down, and this was an experience I am sure to never have again. The building is iconic and beautiful, but as one can’t see the building from inside it, it’s just not worth doing, especially at the price point. Skip it, though be sure to marvel from below.
Beyond these sights, Seattle Center hosts the Pacific Science Center, Seattle Children’s Museum, and some lovely sculpted grounds. Swing by the International Fountain, another feature from the 1962 World’s Fair, to watch children splashing merrily, and then hop back on the monorail for the quick trip back downtown, connecting to the light rail at Westlake Center.
Eddie Carlson got it right. The Space Needle is to Seattle what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris, the most iconic building in the Pacific Northwest, and a symbol of the amazing 1960s space race. And Seattle Center today is a place worth visiting to enjoy that spirit of ingenuity in its more modern form with stunning glass art, movie and music memorabilia, and of course, the Space Needle itself. Just don’t bother going to the top.
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