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Seattle Neighborhoods: Seattle Center -- Thumbnail History

HistoryLink.org Essay 1321 : Printer-Friendly Format

The Seattle Center, located north of downtown at the foot of Queen Anne Hill, is a cultural and entertainment campus built in 1962 for the Seattle World's Fair. The World's Fair helped to transform Seattle from a rather provincial backwater into a genuinely cosmopolitan port city, and it created a lasting legacy of important civic buildings for the arts, professional sports, and major community events, such as the annual Bumbershoot arts festival that takes place over Labor Day weekend.

The early settlers dubbed the site of the present-day Seattle Center "Potlatch Meadows" in the mistaken belief that the natives held their tribal festivals on the land. More likely the Indians cleared the area in order to snare low-flying ducks commuting between Lake Union to the east and Elliott Bay to the west.

Roses and a Few Mules

The area's first non-Indian settlers, David and Louisa Denny, simply called it "the prairie." Until 1928, little grew there other than Louisa's sweetbriar roses and forage for cattle, horses, and mules. That year the city opened a new Civic Auditorium (now Opera House), funded with a bequest from the estate of Pioneer Square saloonkeeper James Osburne. An ice arena and a 35,000-seat athletic field were added soon after. In 1939 the army built a large armory (now the Center House) and in 1948 the Seattle Public Schools completed Memorial Stadium for high school football games.

When planning got under way in the late 1950s for the "Century 21 Exposition," as the Seattle World's Fair was known officially, the Civic Center offered a natural location for the event. Millions in public and private funds were raised under the leadership of Eddie Carlson, Joseph Gandy, and Ewen Dingwall (1913-1996) to expand the site and build both temporary pavilions and permanent facilities.

Paul Thiry served as supervising architect for the fair, and Lawrence Halprin (1916-2009) directed the original landscaping. The old Civic Auditorium was remodeled and sheathed in brick to create the Opera House, and the playhouse was built in hopes of attracting a permanent drama company. The armory was drafted into K-P duty as the "Food Circus."

"It Happened at the World's Fair"

The state built the Coliseum (Key Arena) to house its "World of Tomorrow" exhibit. The federal government financed construction of what is now the Pacific Science Center (designed by Minoru Yamasaki). Sweden's Alweg Systems subsidized a double-tracked Monorail line from the fair to Westlake Mall in downtown Seattle, and local investors underwrote erection of Seattle's civic totem, the Space Needle. The fair opened on April 21, 1962 and closed 10 million visitors later on October 21, 1962.

The Seattle World's Fair was widely publicized and most of the nation was aware of its quaintly futuristic attractions. For example, Elvis Presley starred in a popular film, "It Happened at the World's Fair," which was filmed on location in Seattle and released in 1963.

A Lasting Legacy

The World's Fair helped to transform Seattle from a rather provincial backwater into a genuinely cosmopolitan port city, and it created a lasting legacy of important civic buildings for the arts, professional sports (the Seattle SuperSonics played at Key Arena before the team was moved to Oklahoma in 2008, and the Seattle Storm has played there since 2000), and major community events, such as the annual Bumbershoot arts festival that takes place over Labor Day weekend.

Bumbershoot attracts an estimated 125,000 people annually to listen to pop and rock performers and to attend literary readings by more than a hundred authors from the Pacific Northwest and around the country. The annual Northwest Folklife Festival is a free event featuring music and crafts that draws an estimated 200,000 to the Center grounds. In addition, the Seattle Repertory Theatre presents a full season of performances in theaters at the northwest corner of the Center.

Between 1962 and the 1990s, Seattle Center has gone through periods of neglect and revitalization. In the 1990s, the Coliseum has been substantially renovated as Key Arena. Paul Allen's Experience Music Project, a paean to Jimi Hendrix and other music icons, is under construction. On April 19, 1999, the Space Needle officially became a city historic landmark, perpetuating the legacy of the Seattle Center as a distinctive local institution.

Walt Crowley, National Trust Guide Seattle (New York: Preservation Press, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1998); (http://www.nwfolklife.org/folklife/P_F/FestGeneral.html); (http://www.bumbershoot.org/B_about.html).
Note: This essay was updated on April 19, 2012.

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Related Topics: Seattle Neighborhoods | Cities & Towns | Landmarks | Fairs & Festivals |

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Space Needle, Century 21 World's Fair, Seattle, 1962

David Denny's Potlatch Meadows, future site of Seattle Center

Map showing location of Seattle Center, in Seattle
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Gayway, Seattle World's Fair, 1962

Celebrating the Space Needle's 25th birthday in 1987

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