Document 50: Excerpt from "The Off-Center Seattle Center"
John M. Findlay, "The Off-Center Seattle Center: Downtown Seattle and the 1962 World's Fair" Pacific Northwest Quarterly (1989).
During the last half of the 1950s, downtown businessmen spearheaded the effort to bring a world's fair to the Puget Sound region. They undertook the project for several different reasons. The fair was initially conceived as a celebration of recent economic growth and urban expansion. . . . However, from the start of planning, promoters also intended that the fair would work to the special benefit of downtown Seattle. During the mid-20th century, leaders from the central business district believed that a variety of problems beset downtown, and they saw the fair as a source of solutions to those problems.
The causes for much of the weakness perceived in the downtown district could be summarized in one word—Boeing. The Boeing Airplane Company was, of course, the primary source of the postwar growth that Seattleites wished to celebrate with a fair. But it also presented problems to the city, especially in the opinion of downtown leaders. Many regarded the airplane manufacturer as improperly aloof from the community, "a minimal patron of the arts and civic organizations." More important, it played too large and unsteady a role in the local economy. When production slowed at Boeing, often because of the completion or loss of a federal contract, business suffered throughout the region. Consequently, local leaders saw a world's fair as a chance to bolster an economy that depended too heavily on one employer. They expected that the exposition would invigorate local commerce, increase the tourist trade, and generate higher tax revenues. But they especially emphasized that the fair, by establishing Seattle's reputation in national and international business communities, would attract new manufacturing and thereby make Seattle less vulnerable to Boeing's recurrent downswings. A main reason for holding the fair, officials explained during the later 1950s, was to "build a more diversified industrial economy" that would reduce the region's "heavy reliance . . . on defense spending by the Federal Government."
If Boeing presented an economic challenge to leaders from the city center, it also concerned them by accelerating the suburbanization of Seattle, a process that seemed to undermine the downtown district. The airplane company was hardly the sole reason for the growth of the suburbs, but needing ample space for new plants as well as training and testing sites, it had located virtually all of its operations outside the city limits. As these facilities expanded rapidly during the 1950s, so did the suburban portion of the metropolis. Between 1950 and 1960, the population of the outlying parts of Seattle increased by 46 percent. Inside the 1950 city limits, it increased by 0.7 percent. . . .
The success of suburban [shopping] malls . . . spurred downtown businessmen to make improvements in their own district that would "offset the centrifugal tendencies" of Seattle's growth. They criticized signs of deterioration and resolved to revitalize the central business district, lest the outlying shopping centers get "a disproportionate share of business." They also hoped that their improvements would attract new assets, such as regional offices of national corporations, that might make up for some losses in downtown retail sales. . . .
While organizing a world's fair in pursuit of a prosperous and well-ordered city center, civic leaders added a veneer of culture designed to elevate the status of Seattle. The fair . . . created a centrally located focus for the fine arts, performing arts, sporting events, and conventions. . . . Arts activists . . . backed the world's fair as a means of developing a civic center that would be turned over to the [city] after the fair. [The fairgrounds were indeed turned over to the city; they became the Seattle Center when the fair closed.] . . .
When spokesmen from downtown first envisioned an exposition, they talked in rather limited terms about a "Festival of the West," an event that would perhaps have been smaller and more manageable than the world's fair that actually occurred. But in the middle of preparations for an essentially regional [fair], the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I in October 1957. . . . American scientists and statesmen hastened to embrace the [Seattle World's Fair] as one vehicle for responding to the challenge of Sputnik. And once the federal government had begun to invest heavily in the fair, other participants were drawn to Seattle's exposition. By heightening cold war tensions, then, Sputnik ensured the transformation from a "Festival of the West" to "America's Space Age World's Fair."
To a significant extent, the . . . space-age priorities gave the exposition a substantially different look from what had been envisioned. For one thing, the fairgrounds became a virtual advertisement of everything for which Boeing stood. The Space Needle, the U.S. Science Pavilion, and the numerous [carnival] rides into outer space all paid [tribute] to the aerospace manufacturer rather than to downtown business or the tourist trade. . . .
Leading scientists spearheaded America's reaction to Sputnik. They shared the nation's concern about ranking behind the Soviet Union in an important respect, and they wanted to ensure that the fame of Sputnik did not eclipse their own achievements. . . . . The nation's scientists and Seattle's[businessmen] proved to be a powerful team. Together they secured . . . [federal money to build] a NASA display and a $10 million United States Science Exhibit. [The U.S. Science Exhibit became the Pacific Science Center when the fair ended.]
The theme of science sold the federal government on Seattle's exposition, and the fair in turn sold science to the American people. The many arguments in favor of federal participation portrayed government [spending on Seattle's fair as a] timely investment in national security. In hearings before the House Committee on Science and Astronautics and in publicity about the exposition, congressmen, scientists, and promoters explained how Sputnik had demonstrated that America's "very survival during the next century depends upon how well we develop our scientific resources." Youth constituted one resource that needed particular attention, as an official from the Atomic Energy Commission told local backers of the fair: "If out of this Exposition, a few thousand young people are stimulated into taking up science careers, you have provided this government with a priceless gift." Adults apparently needed an education as well. To sustain political support for the military and civilian science that would ensure "international supremacy" in coming decades, the country required "a giant showcase where the American taxpayer can see graphically and at first hand where his money is going and why it is being spent." . . .
The [fair] offered [many] opportunities to condemn communism. George Meany, president of the AFL-CIO, attacked the Soviets in a Labor Day speech by contrasting the fair's Space Needle, "a towering monument to the aspirations of humanity for a better life," to the Berlin Wall, which stood for "the basic cruelty of the Communist conspiracy and its utter disregard for human life and human values."
The Space Needle became the most famous survivor of the Seattle World's Fair. The Space Needle adhered to the space-age theme of the fair in almost all details. High speed elevators, supposedly similar to "space capsules with large vision ports," zoomed guests up to a revolving restaurant that resembled a flying saucer and was lighted to look as if it were hovering in the sky. The Needle's dining hostesses wore "skin-tight gold coveralls," and the color scheme on the outside of the building consisted of "astronaut white, galaxy gold, re-entry red and orbital olive.