The year was 1962. The Soviet Union had reached outer space the previous year, a clear ‘win’ for the United States’ primary foe in the Cold War. With the eyes of the world about to be on the city of Seattle and their upcoming World’s Fair, it was the perfect opportunity to show that the US was still a serious contender in the Space Race. The space-themed ‘Century 21 Exhibition’ was born.
Sixty years later, much that was built for the fair was repurposed and still stands in what the city now calls Seattle Center. Let’s take a walk down memory lane and visit what remains of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair.
What Was the Theme of the Seattle World’s Fair?
The Seattle World’s Fair – or the ‘Century 21 Exhibition’ as it was known at the time – was themed around technology optimism. We’ll explore many of the grounds below in more detail, but the fair was centered around the Worlds of Science, Tomorrow, Commerce, and Industry. In addition, a futuristic Monorail whisked attendees from downtown hotels to the fairgrounds.
At the time, the United States was locked in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, so the focus on advances in science and technology was driven by world events. In fact, the Cold War impacted the World’s Fair in ways that might surprise you. For example, President John F. Kennedy was supposed to preside over the closing ceremony of the Fair but had to decline at the last minute. Later it was revealed that he canceled because the Fair’s closure overlapped with the Cuban Missile Crisis!
How Many People Attended the Seattle World’s Fair?
Nearly ten million people descended on the city that year, including then Vice President Lyndon Johnson, Walt Disney and Prince Philip of Great Britain. Elvis Presley was also there, he filmed the movie ‘It Happened at the World’s Fair.’ There were exhibitions from 35 States and scores of foreign governments. Leaders of commerce, such as the Ford Motor Company, Boeing, and Bell Telephone sponsored exhibits too. With musicians, orchestras, dancers, singers, art exhibits and more, it was a giant party in Seattle!
Let’s dive into some of the worlds, structures, and exhibits created for it.
The Space Needle
With its rotating restaurant and panoramic views of the city, the Space Needle was built to be the visual centerpiece of the World’s Fair. The interior has been remodeled but the exterior looks nearly as it did sixty years ago. This Seattle icon still houses an observation deck and a rotating restaurant, although it is now a 21+ lounge with a revolving glass floor!
Originally created to bring the masses to the fair from downtown Seattle, the monorail still remains in use. Seattle’s core downtown area has since expanded and includes the Seattle Center area, which has many parking options, but the monorail is still a fun and inexpensive way to experience a piece of World’s Fair history. Ticket booths are located in Westlake Center mall and at Seattle Center, adjacent to the Space Needle and the Armory.
United States Science Pavilion/Pacific Science Center
The United States government contributed $9 million towards the Century 21 Exhibition to present this NASA-themed showcase of US knowledge and strength. The day after the fair closed, this space reopened as the Pacific Science Center, which remains open to this day. Housing two IMAX theaters, a planetarium, a tropical butterfly house, hands-on exhibits about tide pools, dinosaurs, outer space, and more, it’s a great way to spend a half or a whole day in Seattle, particularly if you have children in your party. A few original exhibits from the World’s Fair do remain, including a large model of the Moon and a lens and mirror machine.
World of Tomorrow/Climate Pledge Arena
The heart of the World of Commerce at the fair was a large arena built to house the World of Tomorrow. It held a presentation that was the first of its kind. Thousands of cubes suspended mid-air with different images projected on each as a matching soundtrack played. Fairgoers would travel around the upper level of the arena listening at multiple points after being raised by a large glass-sphere elevator known as the bubble eater. It refracted light producing a rainbow effect like a real bubble giving the effect that the fairgoer was being raised in a giant bubble off the lower level.
The arena is now known as Climate Pledge Arena. It is the former home of the Seattle Supersonics basketball team as well as the current home of the Seattle Storm Women’s basketball team and the Seattle Kraken hockey team. The arena is also used year-round for concerts and other events, such as Cirque du Soleil.
This art installation included a large half-sphere covered in nozzles that shot water off at varied lengths and intervals to represent “mankind’s efforts to explore the farthest reaches of outer space.” Surrounding the fountain was a ground cover of sharp white rocks that were supposed to look like the surface of the moon. While beautiful, it was not welcoming or interactive. In 1995, the fountain was rebuilt with the idea of making it a welcoming playspace. The jagged rocks were removed and the fountain was replaced with a slightly larger dome with nearly flush nozzles, inviting interaction and play.
At the base of the Space Needle sat the Gayway, a small amusement park with rides and games. After the fair closed, the amusement park remained as the ‘Fun Forest’ amusement park. I remember volunteering all school year as an elementary crossing guard just for the chance to attend the free crossing guard day at the Fun Forest! Unfortunately, the Fun Forest lost its lease in 2010 and the park was dismantled. However, you can still experience the rides of the 1962 World’s Fair, just not at Seattle Center. The Union 76 Skyride was an aerial tram that traveled from the Gayway across the fair to the International Mall providing overhead views of the fair. It’s now located at the Puyallup Fair, 35 miles South of Seattle. The ‘Wild River’ water flume ride is now located in Coney Island. Other rides travel to various fairs and events around the country.
Show Street/KCTS Building
The adult entertainment area of the fair was known as Show Street. It had bars, restaurants, nightclubs, topless shows, and even a topless puppet show. One of those topless shows was Gracie Hensen’s Paradise International strip club. Today, that building is still in use as the offices of KCTS 9, Seattle’s PBS member television station.
Food Circus/Center House/Armory
First built in 1939 as the Seattle Field Artillery Armory housing the 146th Field Artillery and its tanks, the basement of the building still holds evidence of a previous life as a firing range. For the World’s Fair, the building was reconfigured as a food court holding 44 food stands. The Food Circus introduced the city of Seattle to international cuisine with such success, it changed and shaped the city’s food scene permanently. It also lead to investments that turned the city’s waterfront into a tourist and restaurant destination. After the World’s Fair, the building became the Center House and later the name returned to the Armory as a nod to the building’s past. Currently, the building is still a large food court and it also houses the Seattle Children’s Museum on the first floor.
Century 21 Club/Seattle Children’s Theater
Prior to the World’s Fair, the Freemason’s Nile Temple sat at 201 Thomas St. Fair organizers worked out a leasing arrangement for the building and turned it into the members-only Century 21 Club during the fair. For $250, members had access to a lounge, dining room and more as well as gate passes for the duration of the fair. After the fair, the city continued leasing the building until purchasing it in 1977. It’s now the location of the Seattle Children’s Theater.
Opera House/McCaw Hall
In 1927 Seattle built up an area known as its civic center. Included in this space was the Civic Auditorium, a “6,000 seat, flat-floored, unpleasant” building which “held just about everything except bull fights” according to New York Times critic Harold C Schonberg. For the fair, it was remodeled into the 3,100 seat Opera House which showcased many of the performing arts talents scouted from 43 countries to entertain at the fair as well as live broadcasts of the Ed Sullivan Show. After renovations in 2002-2003, the building became known as McCaw Hall, and is now home of the Seattle Opera and the Pacific Northwest Ballet.
Originally opened in 1947, Memorial Stadium was dedicated to Seattle youth who died while serving in World War II. During the World’s Fair, it housed the opening ceremonies. The stadium is owned by the Seattle School District and is used primarily for high school football games although it also hosts other events, including concerts and the finish line of the Seattle Marathon.
Built in only 32 days, the Playhouse is one of the few fast-built structures remaining from the fair. It was remodeled in 1987 and has served as the home base of two theater companies. It’s now the Cornish Playhouse, owned and operated by the Cornish College of the Arts.
Boulevards of the World
This shopping area was hosted by a variety of foreign countries. Featuring restaurants and shops with foods and goods from the host countries. The building, surrounding the corner of Climate Pledge Arena at 1st Ave N and Republican St still remains and houses KEXP radio, offices of the Seattle International Film Festival as well as shops and cafes.
Seattle Mural/Mural Amphitheater
Designed by artist Paul Horiuchi, ‘Seattle Mural’ is a Venetian glass mosaic piece created in Italy for the Seattle World’s Fair. Measuring 17’x60’, it remains the backdrop for the stage at the current Mural Amphitheater, an outdoor music venue at the base of the Space Needle.
In addition to the buildings that remain from the fair, the renovations to the general area remain. In order to prepare for the fair, 3.5 miles overhead pole lines were removed and replaced with underground lighting facilities. Renovations to the city outside of the fair remain as well. The waterfront remains an important center of tourism and Blake Island continues to house Tillicum Village, a dinner show about Pacific Northwest Native American culture. There is no denying that the fair permanently changed the face of our city.