Jim Ellis on Eddie Carlson

  • By Jim Ellis
  • Posted 1/06/2024
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 22885
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Among his many achievements as a civic activist, Seattle attorney Jim Ellis (1921-2019) led the campaign to clean up Lake Washington, pushed for development of the Washington State Convention Center, and founded the Mountains to Sound Greeway Trust. In this excerpt from his memoirs, Ellis writes about Eddie Carlson (1911-1990), a legendary Seattle hotel executive who chaired the World's Fair Commission, which organized the 1962 World's Fair, and became CEO of United Airlines.

From Bellhop to Hotel President

Eddie’s rise from bellhop to CEO of a major international company was better than fiction. In 1965, it was a natural for us to ask this remarkable man to lead the business community into the visionary future of Forward Thrust. My primary source for Eddie’s personal history facts is the superb autobiography Recollections of a Lucky Fellow by Edward E. Carlson. For details of Century 21 and the city’s role in it, I am indebted to Murray Morgan and his delightful Century 21: The Story of the Seattle World’s Fair, 1962, published by Acme Press and distributed by University of Washington Press in 1963.

Edward "Eddie" Carlson was born in Tacoma on June 4, 1911. His mother, Lula M. Powers had been born in Canada in 1893. She was 17 years old when her son Edward was born. His father, Elmer Edward Carlson (1888–1966), was a Swedish immigrant who worked as a boilermaker and welder. The Powers-Carlson family settled in Seattle. Elmer and Lula’s marriage was an unhappy partnership and Eddie and his younger sister, Lois, were often sent to Tacoma to live with Lula’s parents for months at a time. The marriage ended in 1925. Lula took full time work as a bill collector and Eddie attended Lincoln High School, where he became the yell leader. He worked at a gas station after school and on weekends to help the family. The Lincoln High School yearbook called the 5-foot, 2-inch Carlson "a pint of dynamite."

Upon graduating from high school in June 1928, Eddie enrolled at the University of Washington and became a prospect for coxswain of the rowing crew. He explained to potential fraternity brothers that his acceptance would depend on getting help finding a summer job. Phi Kappa Sigma member Jim Douglas called his father and Eddie was hired to park cars at the Mount Baker Lodge north of Bellingham. In the fall of 1928 he began university classes, working nights as a page boy and bellhop at the Benjamin Franklin Hotel. In 1929, he got a job as a night bellman at the nearby Camlin Hotel. 

Eddie left college in 1930 to earn money as a seaman on the President Lincoln for six months. This adventure expanded his world by taking him to Yokohama, Kobe, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Manila, Honolulu, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Once back in Seattle, he again worked the summer parking cars at the Mount Baker Lodge.

Eddie decided to leave the University of Washington after two academic years and start a business with a friend. They crossed the U.S. in a three-quarter-ton Chevrolet truck trying to sell hat-blocking machines to dry cleaning establishments. This unsuccessful sales venture ended as the Great Depression took hold, leaving both young men broke and eager to return to Seattle.

Back in Seattle, Eddie found work first as a room clerk and then as an assistant manager at the Roosevelt Hotel. In 1936, after fibbing to owner S. W. Thurston about his age, Eddie was transferred north to Mount Vernon to work as the manager of the President Hotel. On June 26 of that year, he married Nell H. Cox in a small church in South Bellingham. The young couple had met six years earlier at Mount Baker Lodge when Eddie was parking cars and Nell, a Bellingham girl, was working in the Lodge bakery. On their first date, Eddie recalled that she gave him a firm "no" when he asked to walk her home. Two children were later born of this happy marriage, Edward (in 1940) and Jane (in 1942). 

In 1937, at the age of 25, Eddie’s warm personality, strong work habits, and experience in the hotel business got him a prized job as manager of Seattle’s prestigious Rainier Club. This was the place to meet business and community leaders and Eddie was well liked by all Club members. He was given a club military membership when he left the Rainer Club in 1942 to enter military service. During World War II, he served as a lieutenant commander in the Navy, working in the supply corps, first in Seattle, and then in Pennsylvania. He was discharged in 1946 and accepted a position in Seattle as assistant to S. W. Thurston, the president of Western Hotels. Eddie was named Vice President within a year. During the 1950s, Eddie worked with Thurston and Frank Dupar on the rapid expansion of Western Hotels and learned a great deal about the art of negotiating business deals. He became president of this growing hotel chain in 1960. 

A Call From the Governor

In February 1955, during a work day in Thurston’s office, a telephone call for Eddie came from Washington Governor Arthur B. Langlie. The governor was an older generation member of Eddie’s fraternity. Langlie said, "Eddie, the State Legislature has just authorized a seven-member commission to explore the feasibility of a World’s Fair in Seattle. As governor, I must appoint three members and I would like you to be chairman of this Commission." Eddie declined politely, citing his heavy obligations to Western and was surprised when the governor refused to let it go. "How do you expect those of us in government to do the job we are elected to do if we can’t turn to people like you in the private sector for help when we really need it?"

Eddie, the idealist, finally gave in and responded to the governor’s appeal, "Alright, I accept and will try and do a good job." When he hung up the phone, Thurston said, "Now, what did you agree to do?" When Eddie shared his agreement, Thurston just shook his head.

This was the beginning of a series of four two-year terms for Eddie as chairman of the State World’s Fair Commission. The initial appointment by Langlie was followed by three consecutive appointments by Governor Albert Rosellini. There was no per diem of any kind. The job was pure public service and there were more than a few public voices saying that this World’s Fair would never happen. 

A World's Fair! In Seattle?

Carlson found himself intrigued by the history of the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (AYP) and the role it had played in developing a permanent campus for the University of Washington with its beautiful Rainier Vista and Frosh Pond feature. The university’s original 10-acre downtown site had been donated by settlers Arthur Denny, Edward Lander, and Charles Terry. Carlson became absorbed by the challenge of making another fair happen with comparable permanent benefits for the City of Seattle. Eddie personally wrote the favorable report which his fellow commissioners then submitted to the 1957 legislature. Upon this recommendation, a $7.5 million state bond issue was approved to match Seattle’s voted Civic Center bond issue of a like amount. The Seattle World’s Fair had now become possible. What seemed like a pipe dream and started as a City of Seattle Civic Arts Center on First Hill eventually became the Century 21 International Exposition held in 1962 at what is now the location of the Seattle Center. Eddie and his colleagues soon found themselves charged with the daunting job of making it happen.

For much of Eddie’s tenure as chairman of the Exposition 21 Commission he worked closely with Harold Shefelman, a prominent Seattle attorney who chaired the City’s Civic Arts Advisory Committee. Over the years, selecting sites for public buildings had been difficult for the City. Initially, a site on First Hill had been recommended for a Civic Center by the Arts Advisory Committee and a $7.5 million construction bond issue was approved by Seattle voters in support of it. However, Eddie and his World’s Fair Commission came to believe the First Hill site was too small for a successful World’s Fair and instead selected a 70-acre site between Queen Anne Hill and the Denny Regrade. Carlson and Shefelman began meeting weekly for breakfast at the Olympic Hotel in an effort to settle on a single location that could serve both state and city purposes. I remember my admiration for this classic case of patient diplomacy which created a better result for both sides. The two men agreed that the larger Seattle Center site, with a remodeled Civic Auditorium, would better serve a World’s Fair and leave a lasting legacy of buildings for the city.  

Shefelman persuaded the Seattle City Council to change the location of its Civic Arts Center from a stand-alone new building on First Hill, to a remodeled Civic Auditorium on the state’s multi-building World’s Fair site. At this point, well-known Seattle attorney Alfred J. Schweppe brought a lawsuit challenging the city council’s authority to change a voter-approved bond project. The case was tried and won by Schweppe, as he had done many times before. He had become a legendary "protector" of taxpayers from changes by elected officials in voter-approved public projects. The Washington state "40 Mill" act and related constitutional provision was a "holy grail" of taxpayer protection. Several times Schweppe successfully invoked the 60 percent majority and 40 percent turnout requirements for voter-approved general obligation bonds to invalidate council actions which attempted to change a voter-approved purpose without a new public vote approving the change.

Rather than lose precious time appealing the case, the City Council called a special election to approve using the proceeds of the voter-authorized $7.5 million Civic Center bonds to remodel the existing auditorium at the Seattle Center. The election carried with almost 70 percent of those voting approving the change. The validity of this election was then appealed to the Supreme Court, where the Court upheld the voter-approved change. Schweppe and Carlson had been old friends. Schweppe confided to Eddie that he didn’t care one way or another where the Civic Center was finally located. "I just wanted them to go to the people whose money they were using and ask their permission."

The final location was a major boost for the World’s Fair and turned out to bring huge long-term benefits to Seattle. When famous architect Minoru Yamasaki first walked through the empty Civic Auditorium building, he told Eddie he thought they could build a beautiful facility for stage productions inside the existing shell and do it at less cost than tearing the building down and constructing a new one. That is exactly what happened. This city-state collaboration was crucial to its success and was classic Carlson. I watched in awe from the outside. Later, looking for a symbol for the fair, Eddie again showed his visionary side and came up with the idea for the Space Needle.

Birth of the Space Needle

In the spring of 1959, Carlson and his wife Nell took a rare three-week European vacation with their good friends Webb and Virginia Moffett. They flew to Stuttgart so the Moffetts could pick up a car. That evening they were all invited to dinner by Virginia’s friend Margot Colden, a resident of Stuttgart. With only one night to visit, she insisted they have dinner in a restaurant at the top of Stuttgart’s television tower. Eddie was fascinated and impressed by the large crowd in the restaurant willing to take an elevator ride to the top just to experience a panoramic view while dining. 

The next morning in the hotel coffee shop, Eddie sat alone mulling over his dinner view from the tower restaurant and thinking about the need for a striking Century 21 Exposition symbol. He scribbled a crude tripod on a coffee shop placemat, put a circle around the top and wrote "Space Needle" at the bottom. Their next stop was Paris and a visit to the Eiffel Tower. This visit reinforced Eddie’s hunch that a tall tower might be a perfect focal point for the Century 21 Exposition at the foot of Queen Anne Hill. 

The idea of building a Space Needle for Century 21 had become an obsession by the time they returned to Seattle. Eddie called his friend Jim Douglas to test the concept on him. Jim responded by saying, "Let’s talk to Jack Graham." They met with architect Graham, and he was quickly intrigued. Graham offered to do some drawings on spec if Eddie would focus on securing private financing. Eddie persuaded Bagley Wright, Ned Skinner, and Norton Clapp to be initial investors, and Carlson’s Western Hotel Corporation agreed to lease and operate the tower restaurant for 20 years. Howard S. Wright became the contractor and agreed to build Graham’s graceful 500-foot-high tower restaurant on a tight time schedule. A small, privately owned parcel of land was acquired inside the south edge of the proposed Exposition campus. Then machines began digging a deep hole for the concrete and steel base for a tower with a saucer-shaped restaurant and public viewing platform on top. 

I remember the excitement of watching The Needle rise. Pictures of the graceful new tower appeared twice on the cover of Life magazine and became a familiar icon for the fair and the city.

Another exciting event during the months before the Century 21 Exposition was the construction and operation of the Monorail from downtown to the Seattle Center. The Monorail was privately financed by the Alweg Monorail Company and paid for itself during the six months of the Fair. 

A Team Effort

After seven years of effectively leading the fair effort, Eddie could no longer handle the fair’s consuming tasks and fully meet his responsibilities as chief executive of the fast-growing Western Hotel chain. He persuaded his friend Joe Gandy to take the presidency of the Century 21 Exposition Corporation. They joined in urging Ewan Dingwall to become the chief operating officer of the corporation. Gandy’s considerable charm helped gain official approval from the ruling body of the International Exposition Association. He continued to excel in his role as the public face of Century 21, while Dingwall brought order to the execution of this complex event and did a superb job of managing the cost of the fair.

The five horsemen of private leadership for Expo 21 at the Seattle Center were Eddie Carlson, Harold Shefelman, Joe Gandy, Ned Skinner, and Bill Street. But Carlson was the linchpin. His credibility persuaded Senators Magnuson and Jackson to become principal advocates for federal participation. Other key participants in the success of the fair were Carlson’s friends Henry Broderick, a legendary real estate entrepreneur who had been an AYP board of directors member in 1909; Bill Street, CEO of Frederick & Nelson, then Seattle’s premier department store; and Ben Ehrlichman, chairman of United Pacific Corporation. Each was a leader in providing early funding to sustain the infant enterprise.

The timely success of Russia’s Sputnik in space orbit in October 1959 gave urgency to a science-themed U.S. exposition. While it is possible that the fair might have succeeded without Carlson, a hard look says that was unlikely. Eddie and Harold quietly made the fair into a strong and vibrant contribution to the cultural development of the city. Just about every Seattle area resident was impressed when the fair outperformed public expectations and left a beautiful, lasting legacy at Seattle Center.

In the pattern of fictional hero Horatio Alger, Eddie Carlson became one of Seattle’s most influential and nationally respected business leaders. Eventually he served as chairman of the board and chief executive officer of UAL Inc. (the holding company for United Airlines and Western International Hotels). He held the position of chairman until his retirement from the board in April 1983. In 1982, Governor John Spellman appointed him to the University of Washington Board of Regents and the University later gave Eddie its highest honor, Alumnus Suma Laude Dignatus. Eddie was quoted after his retirement as saying, "Early on, I was hungry and wanted to get ahead and have financial security. But as time went on, it became more important to do something for the town that has been so good to me. I have the constitution of an ox and, what is very important, an understanding wife ... I pay very close attention to what is going on, but if I suggest something and it’s rejected, I don’t get upset."

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