Seattle Municipal Archives

Fifty years after its debut, Seattle’s Jetsons-era World's Fair is still shaping the city, an example of how an ephemeral exposition can have a permanent impact.

Seattle is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Seattle World’s Fair. The 1962 Century 21 Exposition is remembered as a great space-age fair of the New Frontier-era that inspired The Jetsons, popularized monorail, and spread the idea of revolving restaurants to the world. The first U.S. world’s fair after 1940, it also now serves as an excellent reminder that expos can be powerful agents of urban transformation. Century 21 left a permanent legacy of infrastructure and attitude that continues to shape Seattle to this day.

World’s fairs are a bit of a misnomer: while they attract international visitors and exhibitors from around the world, they are largely driven by local development agendas. They are hosted by cities, sometimes regions, for specific purposes beyond publicity and tourism. They can be fun places to gobble Belgian waffles, but they can also lay down roadmaps for how and where urban development takes place. While largely ephemeral—designed to be showcases of limited duration—expos can help leverage improvements and permanent amenities. A sampling of these include legacy structures (the Space Needle, the Eiffel Tower), shaping parks (Balboa in San Diego, Corona in Queens), downtown make-overs (Spokane, Vancouver, BC), new neighborhoods (the Marina in San Francisco), man-made geographic features (the Bay Area’s Treasure Island), even sewer system upgrades (St. Louis).

World's Fair concept drawing, 1959. Courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives.

Seattle’s was the first U.S. fair to execute a component of an existing comprehensive city plan: a civic center. Joseph Gandy, the fair’s president and local Ford dealer, described Century 21 as the first "convertible fair," meaning it was planned to convert into something lasting. Fair organizers took Seattle $7 million in bond money voted in 1956 to fund a civic center, and fair planners leveraged it into tens of millions of dollars in state, local, federal, and private funding for the fair. An area of the city adjacent to downtown, lower Queen Anne, was chosen as the fair site because it was deemed not only ripe for development and "urban renewal," but also because it had a cluster of existing facilities that could be adapted for both fair and post-fair re-use. These included an ice arena, a sports stadium, an auditorium-opera house, and an old National Guard armory that became a food court.

Image courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives.

The fair added permanent new features, including the Needle, the Federal Science Pavilion, Paul Thiry’s pyramid-like events venue, the Coliseum, and a monorail line to demonstrate modern mass transit. Afterward, the fairgrounds morphed into Seattle Center, a home for arts, culture, and tourism. The Needle is a world icon with over one million visitors a year; Bumbershoot is the city’s premier cultural festival. New theaters have been added, including new attractions such as the Frank Gehry-designed Experience Music Project, and this spring saw the opening of the new museum Chihuly Garden and Glass, featuring the work of Seattle’s famed international glass artist, Dale Chihuly.

Expos are occasions to re-shape urban infrastructure off the fairgrounds, too. During the fair period, Seattle finished its downtown freeway and built a new floating bridge to link the city to what is now Microsoft’s suburban home in Redmond. The University of Washington expanded its facilities, including its medical center. The city’s old central waterfront was refurbished and its transformation from working port to restaurant-lined tourist attraction was accelerated. That work is being picked up today with the replacement of the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a highway tunnel and a plan to transform the new waterfront being shaped by james corner field operations, co-designers of New York’s High Line.

The Space Needle's top house as it nears completion in early 1962, courtesy the Space Needle Archives.

Bagley Wright, the late Seattle arts patron and businessman who was one of the Needle’s original backers, said that one purpose of the fair, beyond putting Seattle on the map, was to increase confidence in local investment by bankers, insurance companies and investors. When the Needle was constructed in 1961, it became the tallest building West of the Mississippi. The previous title holder was Seattle’s Smith Tower, built in 1914. After the fair, it took only 7 years, not 47, for the Needle to be surpassed. Today, Seattle’s skyline offers a typical forest of glass and steel skyscrapers.

The neighborhood next door to Seattle Center, South Lake Union, is undergoing a transformation into the kind of global high- and bio-tech hub that the creators of Century 21 dreamed of at their science-themed fair. Amazon has its new headquarters there and is expanding; the largest philanthropy in the world, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, lies at the Needle’s feet. A popular new streetcar line is being replicated in other neighborhoods, and a new park, museum, and expanded roadway are being finished. Neighborhood development is driven by Vulcan, Paul Allen’s real estate development company. Even the hobbies of the neighborhood’s movers and shakers reflect Space Age interests. Allen and Jeff Bezos are both building space ships. Allen admits to being deeply influenced by the ’62 fair’s science exhibits as a child.

A family arrives at the 1962 fair via the Monorail, which still runs between Seattle Center and downtown Seattle and was designed to be an urban mass transit demonstration. Courtesy the Space Needle Archives.

If expos were once seen as powerful engines for urban transformation, that lesson seems to have been largely lost in the United States. The last world’s fair in the U.S. was New Orleans in 1984; the last in North America in Vancouver, Canada, in 1986. Houston and Silicon Valley both recently expressed strong interest in hosting a fair in the future, but a U.S. city cannot bid for one unless it re-joins the Bureau of International Expositions, the Paris-based treaty organization that oversees expos. The U.S. withdrew during the George W. Bush years, and many in Congress seem to equate fairs with boondoggles. Still, unbeknownst to most Americans, they thrive overseas. The largest expo ever held was in Shanghai in 2010. There’s a small one this year in Yeosu, South Korea, a small port city in a coastal setting not unlike Seattle in ‘62. Cities in Thailand, Brazil, Turkey, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates are competing to host a fair in 2020.

Success with expos isn’t guaranteed, but the celebration of the 50th anniversary in Seattle (dubbed The Next50) might help refresh our national memory of what world’s fairs can do to break through barriers and process gridlock, to boost economies and shape cities for the future—all while showing people a good time.  

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