15 Things You Might Not Know About the Space Needle
The Space Needle may not be as tall as American landmarks like the Empire State Building or Chicago’s Willis Tower, but the 605-foot structure has a towering spirit of its own. Washington’s most recognizable building wowed visitors at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair and quickly became a global icon. Although the Space Needle is recognizable the world over, there might be a few things you don’t know about the awe-inspiring structure.
1. THE ORIGINAL DESIGNS FOR THE TOWER USED A DIFFERENT SHAPE.
While the head of the Space Needle is now an indispensable part of the Seattle skyline, citizens almost had a very different view. The Emerald City owes the creation of its most popular landmark to Edward E. Carlson, the businessman who set plans for the tower in motion in 1959. However, Carlson’s early designs for the structure resembled a colossal balloon tethered to the ground. John Graham, the architect enlisted to bring the project to life, first introduced the flying saucer image that would inform the finished Space Needle.
2. FINDING LAND TO BUILD THE SPACE NEEDLE PROVED DIFFICULT.
Even after the project found a financer in the Pentagram Corporation—an organization composed of Graham, contractor Howard S. Wright, timber magnate Norton Clapp, and moneymen Ned Skinner and Bagley Wright—a number of early hurdles prevented construction. Chief among them was the acquisition of land on which to build the tower, as Seattle’s fairgrounds didn’t seem to have a suitable lot that could be purchased for private use. During the last legs of the quest for space, the team happened upon the 120-foot by 120-foot plot they would ultimately build on, forking over $75,000 for the find.
3. THE FOUNDATION OF THE TOWER IS BURIED DEEP BENEATH THE SURFACE.
The Space Needle stands at an impressive height of 605 feet. More surprising is that the structure’s foundation stretches down 30 feet beneath the streets of Seattle. The needle itself is connected to the foundation with 72 30-foot-long bolts. This design places the tower’s center of gravity a mere five feet above ground.
4. IN THE SPACE NEEDLE’S EARLY DAYS, IT INCLUDED AN ENVIRONMENTALLY UNFRIENDLY TORCH.
To help make the Space Needle’s public reveal all the more dazzling, a massive flame burned bright at the head of the tower throughout the run of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. Called the needle of flame, the natural gas torch producing the flame was between 40 and 50 feet tall, and it’s said to have burned enough fuel to heat 125 homes. The purpose of this was to show how we’d all be using natural gas, as well as to act as a giant "clock" for the Fair, turning on every quarter hour. The apparatus was removed following the conclusion of the World’s Fair, allowing this energy to be diverted toward better use.
5. IT ALSO BOASTED THE LARGEST ELECTRONIC CARILLON IN THE WORLD.
Accompanying the Space Needle’s unveiling at the World’s Fair was the inclusion of a 538-bell imitation carillon—an instrument whose numerous bronze bells are operated by way of manual and pedal keyboards—which would play multiple times daily and, thanks to speakers installed at the 200-foot mark of the tower, was audible over a 10-mile radius. Nicknamed Carillon Americana, the instrument was the largest of its kind until it was outdone by a 732-bell version at the 1964 New York World’s Fair.
6. THE CARILLON RELEASED ITS OWN LP.
Carillon Americana’s record-breaking size was not its only claim to fame. The music of the Needle resident was featured on the 1962 album Bells on High-Fi.
7. SIX PEOPLE HAVE PARACHUTED FROM THE TOWER—ONLY FOUR OF THEM LEGALLY.
In lieu of the many safe and legitimate amusements offered by Seattle’s Space Needle, a pair of thrill-seekers opted to use the tower for an illegal BASE jump in 1975 (fortunately, both landed safely). It wasn’t until 1996 that the city authorized a planned parachute jump from the 520-foot mark of the observation deck. This jump resulted in the fracture of one participant’s vertebra.
8. THE NEEDLE WENT WITHOUT A CLEANING FOR 46 YEARS.
The Space Needle’s first professional cleaning took place in May of 2008, under the supervision of Alfred Kärcher GmbH & Co. KG. The heavy-duty scrubbing required water pressure of 2900 pounds per square inch and a water temperature of 194 degrees Fahrenheit.
9. EVERY SO OFTEN, THE TOWER GETS A MAKEOVER.
Though most dignified in its standard undress, the Space Needle isn’t above the occasional wardrobe change. Most of the tower’s superficial redesigns have been sports-related. In 1992, it donned the University of Washington's Huskies logo to celebrate the team’s recent Rose Bowl win. It followed suit three years later for the Major League Baseball playoff debut of the Seattle Mariners, and then again in 2005 following Washington State University’s victory in the Apple Cup. In recognition of Memorial Day in 2003, the Space Needle undertook a red, white and blue paint job. Perhaps most bizarre, however, was the landmark’s Wheel of Fortune-themed makeover in the mid ’90s, which included a visit from series star Vanna White. The entire top of the Space Needle was made to look like the game show’s famous wheel.
10. ANOTHER CITY ATTEMPTED TO BUY THE SPACE NEEDLE FROM SEATTLE.
In 1978, businessmen in the city of Fife, Wash.—which sits about 30 miles south of Seattle and just over five miles from Tacoma—grew tired of living in the shadow of the state’s more prominent localities and took a stab at bolstering its image. Fife made a bid for the Space Needle, offering the Space Needle's owners a million dollars (less than a quarter of the cost of building the tower) for the transaction. Of course, the owners declined.
11. THE TOWER’S DESIGNER WAS ALSO RESPONSIBLE FOR ANOTHER IMPORTANT BUILDING.
A decade before starting work on the Space Needle, John Graham oversaw the design and construction of an even more influential structure: Northgate Center, presently known as Northgate Mall. Although the establishment might not carry quite as much name recognition as its fellow Seattle resident, Northgate can certainly boast a greater influence on American architecture and commerce. It was the very first place to boast the name mall built in the United States.
12. IT CAN GET A LITTLE BIGGER ON HOT DAYS.
As the Space Needle’s website notes, on warm days the structure expands about one inch.
13. AN APRIL FOOLS' DAY PRANK CONVINCED THE CITY THAT THE TOWER HAD FALLEN.
On April 1, 1989, the locally-broadcast sketch comedy show Almost Live! took advantage of the holiday tradition to foist a seemingly obvious gag on the viewing public of Seattle: A report that the Space Needle had fallen, accompanied by false photographs of the tower lying in a mess of rubble and debris. Despite numerous signs that the story was a hoax, the city took the news to heart. More than 700 concerned phone calls reached the tower that day, with numerous additional calls placed to 911. The following day, a representative of the NBC syndicate that aired the episode apologized for the debacle.
14. AN ARCHITECT CLAIMED HE WASN’T PROPERLY CREDITED FOR THE PROJECT.
Although Graham and his team are dealt the lion’s share of credit for bringing the landmark to life, a separate architect claims he played a key role in the development of the project, despite not receiving any credit. Victor Steinbrueck, who was hired by Graham’s architectural firm as an independent contractor for the Space Needle endeavor, was omitted from public acclaim when the tower was unveiled. Although official documents do acknowledge Steinbrueck’s involvement, they fail to detail the significance of his contribution. Fearing his inevitable exclusion from the tower’s story, Steinbrueck penned a 20-page memoir titled My Space Needle Story in December of 1961, hoping to secure his place in history.
15. THE LANDMARK INSPIRED THE LIVING QUARTERS OF A FAMOUS CARTOON FAMILY.
Hanna-Barbera Productions’ Jetson family made its debut in the same year as the Space Needle, and the two cultural icons share more than a birth year. George, Jane, Judy, and Elroy owe their cozy living arrangements to the Space Needle—animator Iwao Takamoto told The New York Times in 2005 that the Needle inspired the aesthetic for the Jetsons’ condominium.