The Fair that Launched the Future

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Some years ago, when working as a Seattle Times columnist, I was given an assignment in Portland. My task: Interview then Portland Mayor John E. (“Bud”) Clark on the difference between the Seattle and his city. Clark had a ready answer: “The difference between the two cities? You had a World’s Fair. And we didn’t.”

 The truth is that Seattle, pre-fair, had been on maps all right, landing there as an obscure footnote to the 19th Century Klondike Gold Rush. But people in the East and Midwest, if they thought about Seattle at all – and most didn’t – believed the city was subarctic, perhaps a suburb of Nome, Alaska. When I studied journalism in Chicago years ago, my colleagues weren’t too sure that we didn’t live in igloos and commute by dog sled.

Thus it was that the 1962 Fair – this year celebrating its 50th anniversary – did something surprising for a mostly forgotten city:  It branded Seattle in a way no advertising campaign could ever have done. The fair said that Seattle was a happening place, a place celebrating science and bent on opening the doorway to the future. Thanks to a couple of resident ad men (Gerald Hoeck and Marlowe Hartung), the Mad Men of their day, the fair discarded its original musty name (“Festival of the West”) and acquired a timely space-age identity: “Century 21 Exposition.”

The symbol of the fair was The Space Needle, an iconic tower envisioned by Western Hotel’s Eddie Carlson. When Carlson failed to persuade King County to fund his dream, he set up a private corporation. Thus the structure that he was first to visualize and to call “the Space Needle” was born. The design, fleshed out by University of Washington architect Victor Steinbrueck, resembled a saucer-shaped spacecraft about to spin out into the heavens, balanced atop a tripod-like sheaf of wheat. What an apt and remarkable metaphor.

The fair had an uninspiring start in the late 1950s when Seattle Mayor Allan Pomeroy appointed a group of businessmen, headed by Bob Block, to a committee charged with studying sites for city sports and cultural facilities. Despite the failure of a recent bond measure, the committee pushed ahead with a bold $8.5 million bond issue with half earmarked for an Opera House on Capitol Hill and half to develop a sports center on the site of the Civic Auditorium.

Mayor Pomeroy took the plan to the City Council, which definitely was not impressed. It took an initiative campaign and 15,000 signatures to finally get councilmembers’ attention. The Council then appointed its own Civic Center Committee, a group that wisely joined forces with the already operating World’s Fair Commission.

Members of the combined group set out to pick a venue for a fair. They studied a number of potential sites, among them Fort Lawton, First Hill, Sand Point Naval Air Station and Union Bay. Eventually they got around to looking seriously at the Civic Auditorium site, desirable because the city already owned 28 acres there and could purchase more. Eventually, that site was selected and the deal was sealed after the voters passed a bond issue for $7.5 million and the state voted to match that amount.

From that point, there was no turning back. The committee revved into action, meeting almost daily at local hotels for 7 a.m. breakfast meetings. There were dozens of barriers to overcome, including the worry that remote Seattle might not win the coveted prize: official international approval. Other cities, New York City for one, were in competition for the designation that was given only once in a decade. But, miraculously, Seattle won the official nod and, along with it, assurance that nations from all over the world would mount official exhibits at Century 21.

No question that the project now had momentum. Competitions were held to select designs.  And what designs they were. Winner of the competition for the international fountain was a splendid sunflower-shaped motif, 117 water nozzles, music and colored lights, submitted by Shimizu and Kazuyuki Matsushita. The Science Pavilion with its graceful arches and pools was proposed by Seattle-born Minoru Yamasaki and the architectural firm of Naramore, Bain, Brady and Johanson. That these handsome enduring designs both won approval is but one of the enduring legacies of that decades-ago fair.

Primary architect for the fair was Seattle’s own Paul Thiry, who personally designed the Washington State Coliseum to house the state’s “World of Tomorrow” exhibit. Famed feature of the Coliseum was the 150-passenger Bubbleator.  The giant plastic bubble floated through exhibit of the imagined future, piloted by glamorous long-legged models who instructed fair-goers to “step to the rear of the sphere.”

I, alas, was not able to apply for a job piloting the Bubbleator nor for the job of taking passengers via elevator to the Space Needle’s observation deck. Operators needed to be 5 foot 6 and gorgeous. But I did get to leave a small mark on the World’s Fair. The fair designated two official coloring books and my late husband Robert (Bob) Godden, along with his ad-agency partner Ross Swift, was hired by Hayes Distributing Inc. to produce the books. As commercial artists often did, they drew from life and, as fate would have it, almost all adult women in both books could have been my twin sisters.

Aside from coloring books, Godden and Swift did scores of drawings for the fair. They designed a Paul Bunyan Cake, a giant pastry that was the centerpiece for one of the fair’s concluding events. They turned out dozens of ads that appeared in “The Official Guide Book.” They designed punch-out headgear for the Alaska exhibit and shamelessly produced flamboyant “Girls Girls Girls Girls” ads for the scandalous (for the times) adults-only show street extravaganza. Imagine topless beauties (“heavenly bodies”) on display at the “naughty but nice” presentation. It was a reversal for the Seattle City Council, which several years before had deliberated only 24 hours before banning all topless displays.

By contrast, the Seattle World’s Fair presented a tame, slightly naïve, vision of the future. Transported by the Bubbleator, visitors saw plastic domes covering climate-controlled farmlands, the imagined way to grow crops in future years. Visitors viewed off-shore floating sea-farms producing kelp and plankton for the dinner tables of the tomorrow. They saw a highway system, clear of traffic jams, and futuristic transport unburdened by crowds. The interior of “the home of the future” featured a one-unit utility core and a built-in vacuum system. Furnishings were light-weight plastic and the kitchen was seen as a wonder of cordless appliances. All dishes were disposable and the home’s color system could be altered with a switch.

These visions of the future were beyond utopian and unrealistic. But, nevertheless, the fair, rightly, deserves credit for having given the city a substantial foothold into the future, an amazing 74-acre park, devoted to history, to science, to the arts and culture and to the Space Age. It gave Seattle its much-needed “living room,” a place to meet to celebrate victories and personal triumphs and, when needed, to jointly mourn such events as the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King and the collapse of the Twin Towers.

The Seattle World’s Fair was the beginning of Seattle Opera, of the cultural fundraising organization Poncho, of the Horiuchi Mural, Seattle Children’s Theater, the Pacific Northwest Ballet and the Seattle Repertory Theatre. It gave us ethnic festivals, the Seattle Shakespeare Theatre, Experience Music Project, Bumbershoot, Folklife, the Kobe Bell, McCaw Hall, KeyArena (aka the Coliseum), the Playhouse, Exhibition Hall and, of course, the stately Space Needle, an icon that everywhere says Seattle.

Portland Mayor Bud Clark was right when he said that Seattle won its place on the world map, the right to dream big, with the 1962 World’s Fair.  All of us who make a home here are indebted to the small group of visionaries who brought us Century 21 and launched the future.