Space Needle Celebrates Its 60th Birthday

A view of the Space Needle from when it first debuted in 1962.

The Space Needle was conceived to be the Eiffel Tower of America. | Photo courtesy of Donald G. Moss

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Time for more birthday cake, Seattle history buffs. The Space Needle celebrates its 60th birthday this week, paying homage to its April 21, 1962 debut at the opening of the World’s Fair. And, ya gotta admit, the 605-ft tall beauty looks pretty spry for its age (even though it’s had a little work done over the years).

Just as we honored the Monorail’s big 6-0 last month, we’ll have more stories soon about the enduring impact of the Century 21 Exposition. But for now, let’s crane our necks in admiration of the Emerald City’s distinguished landmark — and we’ll dish some tidbits you may not have known about its wilder youth.

Workers sit on top of the Space Needle structure in this vintage photo

The space needle was built on the site of an old fire station. | Photo courtesy of the George Gulacsik Collection

Woosh, it was built fast 🏗️

Dubbed the “400-day wonder,” the Space Needle was constructed from top to bottom in a little over a year. The World’s Fair organizers wanted a signature building, but finding a plot of land + private financing for it was a challenge. “They started building it before they had the permits,” said Crosscut editor-at-large Knute Berger.

That time crunch didn’t take away from the slick look, though. The $4.5 million project — which began as a sketch on a cocktail napkin — was conceived as America’s answer to the Eiffel Tower. It included famed architect Victor Steinbreuk’s artistic, slender design, inspired by a sculpture called “The Feminine One,” a replica of which currently sits outside the Space Needle.

A black & white photo shows construction workers at the base of the Space Needle when it was first constructed

About 5,600 tons of concrete were poured into the foundation. | Photo courtesy of the George Gulacsik Collection

Some alien inspiration 👽

Oh, yeah — that UFO-like top is no accident. Berger said the concept originated in part from a reported UFO sighting in 1947 (one that actually coined the term “flying saucer”). Since the Century 21 Expo was essentially a science fair, a nod to space-age aspirations seemed only appropriate. In fact, during the 60s, there was a group called the “Skywatchers” that hosted nightly lookouts at the observation deck to spot potential alien life.

Not everyone was a fan of that Cold War vibe, though. Berger said some people felt it looked “too much like a mushroom cloud.” And there have been some conspiratorial whispers that the building was constructed to secretly transmit signals to intelligent life in other solar systems.

The dining room of the rotating restaurant at the top of the Space Needle in the 1960s.

The Space Needle had a revolving fine-dining restaurant for decades. | Photo courtesy of the George Gulacsik Collection

They put a what up there? 🐄

Besides an observation deck, the Needle has been used as everything from an upscale, rotating restaurant to a radio tower. For a brief time, a country music station built a penthouse at the Needle with a waterbed + shag carpets where one of the DJs and his wife crashed. They even brought a cow up to the top as a publicity stunt.

As moo-ving as that was, probably the least practical use for the tower was a flaming, tiki-like torch, installed in the early 60s. “You could hardly justify it environmentally because of the amount of natural gas it burned up,” said Berger. “It was a maintenance nightmare.”

A black & white photo of the Space Needle's observation deck.

The attraction has welcomed more than 60 million visitors since it opened. | Photo courtesy of the George Gulacsik Collection

Looking to the future 🔮

What might the next 60 years look like for the Space Needle? Well, in addition to the relatively new Loupe Lounge (a rotating cocktail bar), expect new elevators — possibly of the double-deck variety. It’s unclear if a full-fledged restaurant will ever make a comeback, but building out more space for special occasions could be in the works.

A winding staircase inside the Space Needle under construction

Many improvements have been made to the interior over the years, including the Oculus stairs. | Photo courtesy of the Space Needle

“The people that go to the top are mostly tourists,” said Berger. “And that will continue to be a part of it, But the other part is the way the Needle integrates with Seattle as the people here live it [...] They’ve made changes that will make the Space Needle more flexible and accessible for different kinds of activities.”

A painter spraying the roof of the Space Needle in a vintage photograph

That Galaxy Gold paint ended up tangerine because of waterproof chemicals. | Photo courtesy of the George Gulacsik Collection

Colorful celebration 🎨

To mark the 60th anniversary, the roof of the Space Needle will be painted its original “Galaxy Gold” color this week (although it turned out more tangerine because of the waterproof chemical used back in the day). Five local contest winners will get to pitch in on the paint job.

Not among them? Late night host Stephen Colbert, whom the contest organizers, er, needled a bit in a press release yesterday in response to one of his jokes about the contest. “Stephen, we’re sorry you didn’t win, but we have a harness with your name on it if you happen to be in Seattle,” said Ron Sevart, Space Needle President + CEO.

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