Seattle’s abiding icon continues to enchant

Space Needle key character in play based on Olympia author’s book

jdodge@theolympian.comMay 13, 2014 

The Space Needle is easy to take for granted, which is exactly what I’ve done for nearly 50 years. I set out to make amends last weekend during a 24-hour trip to Seattle.

I was on a slightly manic mission to get reacquainted with the gangly, saucer-topped emblem of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair.

Flash back 52 years and I was among the 2.3 million fairgoers who stood in line for hours for an elevator ride to the Space Needle observation deck 520 feet above ground.

Then I had a dinner date in the needle’s revolving restaurant as a University of Washington student in 1968. That ended my trips to the Space Needle until last weekend.

Seattle’s crown jewel had my almost-undivided attention on this dash north. I made note of every encounter, ranging from a distant view of the Seattle skyline as I was northbound on Interstate 5 to one shared with dozens of selfie-snapping tourists Saturday evening on the Space Needle observation deck.

Seattle’s iconic landmark was even on display in photographs in our hotel room and hotel lobby. It reappeared on the Monorail ride from the Westlake Mall to the Seattle Center and again as an iconograph on stage during the Book-It Repertory Theater adaptation of Olympia author Jim Lynch’s best-selling novel, “Truth Like the Sun.”

These days, the Seattle skyline includes a cluster of downtown high-rises, five of them taller than the 605-foot Space Needle. In 1962, the Space Needle was the tallest building west of the Mississippi River. It still has the tallest observation tower in the state; it has the third tallest in the United States.

At 1 p.m. we bought our one-way tickets to ride the Monorail to the Seattle Center. With a senior discount, my ticket cost $1, only 50 cents more than a Monorail ride in 1962. The trip ended a stone’s throw from the base of the Space Needle. I glanced up and it looked like the sun was sitting on the needle’s spindly shoulder.

We attended a 2 p.m. play based on Lynch’s book, which is a fictional account of the mastermind behind the Seattle World’s Fair. The book and play both take place in 1962 at the fair and 2001 when the aging, former fair manager, Roger Morgan, makes an ill-fated run for mayor.

The play and book open with a World’s Fair launch party in the Space Needle restaurant. Lynch, a masterful storyteller, paints the 1962 view from the needle: a frontier city looking for a new start.

“Where better to start afresh?” Lynch writes. “A whole new way of living in a city of things to come. That’s right. A city so short on history it’s mostly all future anyway.”

We left the Center Theater, which sits in the shadow of the Space Needle, and bought our tickets for a 5 p.m. visit to the observation deck. The 43-second ride to the top offers partial views of the cityscape shrinking below. There’s comfort in knowing that seven cables connect to each elevator, even though just one is enough to hold the weight of the elevator.

It’s also comforting to know that the Space Needle is built to withstand 200-mph winds and a 9.1-magnitude earthquake. The Space Needle was put to its first weather test Oct. 2, 1962, just days before the fair closed. The Columbus Day windstorm caused the needle to twist and sway, forcing an evacuation as the whistling wind turned the needle legs into gigantic tuning forks.

Longtime Seattle radio personality Jim French was in the Needle restaurant the night of the storm as pastry display cases flew open, sending pies crashing to the floor.

“We could feel the needle swaying, but I wasn’t too concerned,” he told me. “We were probably in the safest structure in town.”

At the peak of the storm, two Space Needle employees — Duff Andrews and Robert Harvey — were trapped in a stalled service elevator 200 feet above ground. They played gin rummy for an hour while they awaited rescue.

“You never know when a deck of cards will come in handy,” said Andrews, a retired dentist living in the San Juan Islands.

Designed to sway 1 inch with every 10 miles of wind velocity, the needle sat calmly Saturday. The selfie-mania was a bit distracting, but the views from the observation deck were jaw-dropping: manmade Harbor Island floating near the mouth of the Duwamish River, the Olympic Mountains cloaked in gauzy clouds. and an enormous cruise ship looking like an inverted hotel, plowing through Elliot Bay.

Later that night, the Space Needle was served up like a suspended dessert plate, smothered in the golden glow of the setting sun. I soaked in the sight and marveled at the fact that this Space Age emblem grew from a doodle on a napkin into Seattle’s most enduring landmark.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444

The Olympian is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service