Century 21 -- The 1962 Seattle World's Fair, Part 1

  • By Alan J. Stein
  • Posted 4/18/2000
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 2290
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The 1962 Seattle World's Fair, otherwise known as Century 21, gave visitors a glimpse of the future and left Seattle with a lasting legacy. The exposition gave Seattle world-wide recognition, effectively "putting it on the map." Years of planning went into the fair through the hard work of visionaries, go-getters, civic boosters, and dreamers. Many of the concepts and icons of Century 21 remain ingrained in Seattle culture, even as the "real" 21st Century begins.

Seattle's First World's Fair

The 1962 Seattle World's Fair had its beginnings in an earlier fair that was held on the University of Washington campus. In 1909, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (A-Y-P) commemorated the first shipment of Klondike gold through Seattle in 1897. The A-Y-P, with its exhibits, rides, food, and fun attracted more than 3.5 million visitors from around the world, giving Seattle much-needed prominence and attention as a leader in Pacific trade.

One of the attendees at the fair was 14-year-old Al Rochester, whose family lived near Volunteer Park on Capitol Hill. Young Rochester operated a bread-slicer at a tearoom run by his Sunday School teacher. The concession stand went broke within a week, but this left Al with an employee's pass that got him into the Expo for free. Every day of the fair, he showed up at the gates, flashed his pass, and had free rein to roam the fairgrounds. The wonders of the exposition left a lasting memory in his mind.

Al Remembers

By 1955, Al Rochester (1895-1989) had come of age and was now a Seattle City councilman. Remembering the successes and joys of the A-Y-P, he began bandying about the idea of a second World's Fair to commemorate the first, but was met with mixed response. One day, at an informal luncheon at the Washington Athletic Club, Don Follett, executive vice-president of the Chamber of Commerce, took an interest in Al's idea. Also at the luncheon were Denny Givens, the chamber's director of public affairs, and Ross Cunningham, an editor of The Seattle Times. They too expressed an interest.

Buoyed by this support, Rochester began to follow through in earnest. Within a short time, a memorial was drafted that asked the state legislature to consider supporting a new world's fair that would celebrate the 50th anniversary of the A-Y-P. Before Al knew it, a bill was drafted in Olympia calling for $5,000 to form a World's Fair Commission. From there, things steamrolled.

Enter Eddie Carlson

The original World's Fair Commission empanelled in 1955 with State Senators Willam Goodloe and Andrew Winberg, State Representatives Ray Olsen and Donald McDermott, and community leaders Eddie Carlson, Paul Sceva, and Alfred Williams. The commission was expanded to 15 members in 1961 and included Lt. Governor John Cherberg; former U.S. Senator Clarence C. Dill (1884-1978; State Senators Howard Bargreen, Herbert H. Freise, Michael J. Gallagher, and Reuben A. Knoblauch; State Representatives Audley F. Mahaffey, Ray Olsen, Leonard A. Sawyer, and Jeanette Testu; Seattle City Councilman (and future mayor) Dorm Braman (1901-1980), and business and community leaders Paul S. Friedlander, H. Dewayne Kraeger, and Victor Rosellini (1915-2003). Al Rochester served as executive director and Western Hotels vice president Eddie Carlson (1911-1990) served as chairman. Carlson, well known for 7 a.m. "businessman's working breakfasts," could best be described as a go-getter, a doer, a mover, and a shaker. He would bring these traits and more to the table (Duncan, pp. 21 and 40).

With 1959 (the 50th anniversary of the A-Y-P) too near, the commission pushed the fair date out a few years. The 1909 A-Y-P itself had been delayed for two years (the 10th anniversary of the Klondike Gold Rush was actually in 1907), giving the commission a bit of historical precedent. Besides, a few more years would allow them to plan the event better. To begin with, they needed to choose a site for the fairgrounds.

Early choices included Fort Lawton (800 acres), Duwamish Head (150 acres), First Hill (80 acres, but with rail connections), Sand Point Naval Air Station (350 acres), Union Bay near the University of Washington (250 acres), and the Civic Auditorium site north of downtown Seattle at the foot of Queen Anne Hill (28 acres already owned by the city). Although the other sites were larger, the commission leaned toward the Civic Auditorium site, knowing that buildings left over from the fair could be used for a civic center. Once commissioners found out that London's highly successful Festival of Britain (1951) was also held on a 28-acre site, their decision was made.

In 1956, a $7.5 million Civic Center bond was presented to voters. It passed with a 3-to-1 margin. In 1957, the commission submitted a recommendation to the state legislature that a fair be held, combined with Seattle's upgrade/creation of the Civic Center. The legislature passed its own $7.5 million bond, and voted to expand the commission. With $15 million to work with, Eddie Carlson and the commission picked up the tempo and made preparations for the tentatively titled "Festival of the West," soon to be renamed the "Century 21 Exposition."

Better Living Through Modern Science

As planning commenced, the commission looked for a theme to build the fair upon, beyond a simple anniversary of the A-Y-P. Out of the blue, they received impetus from, of all places, the Soviet Union. On October 4, 1957, Sputnik was launched, giving the Soviets an edge in the "space race." Fear gripped America, as families worried about their future and their children's future. How could we compete, unless the coming generations of American children received an adequate science education?

Suddenly science was a hot topic, and the commission picked up on this. On March 15, 1958, Eddie Carlson, Fair publicist Jim Faber, and Century 21 general manager Ewen "Ding" Dingwall (1913-1996) met in Washington, D.C., with many of the nation's top scientists. All agreed that the Seattle exhibits should show "true" science, and should be portrayed appealingly to eggheads and lay visitors alike. Some in attendance at the meeting felt that the 1958 Brussels World's Fair portrayed science as too complicated for the average visitor, and that Century 21 should avoid this.

Back home, an advisory committee of local scientists was formed, including UW biochemist Hans Neurath, and later, marine biologist Dixy Lee Ray (1914-1994). The scientific aspect of the fair also received help from the U.S. Congress. Senators Warren G. Magnuson (1905-1989) and Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson (1912-1983) asked the Senate for funds to create a major science pavilion and exhibit at the fair. Eventually, the U.S. government allocated $10 million for such an exhibit.

The Eyes of the World Are On "See-tul"

Science provided a theme, but the Century 21 Exhibition needed exhibits. In order to have a successful "world's" fair, the rest of the world had to participate. This required an accreditation from the Bureau of International Expositions (BIE) in Paris. Complicating matters was the fact that New York was also hoping to stage a fair at about the same time. Seattle was now competing with the best-known city in the United States, vying for the world's attention.

By this time, Joe Gandy (1904-1971) had taken over Eddie Carlson's job. Carlson had risen to the top position back at Western International Hotels, and chose Gandy as his successor on the commission. Carlson still took an active interest, though, and provided much help in many aspects of the fair's planning and promotion.

Gandy, co-owner of local automobile agency Smith-Gandy Ford, was a tireless civic booster and a promoter of local tourism and development. A warm, charming fellow, he soon found himself making many trips to France, desperate to convince skeptical BIE officials that Seattle was the right choice for a world's fair. This proved to be an uphill battle.

Some BIE officials thought that "See-tul" was a suburb of Washington, D. C., and that the inclement weather sometimes "obscured the Washington Monument." Without being flustered, Gandy laid on the sweet talk. He played up Seattle's charms. He stressed the amount of local money that had already been raised or loaned and pointed out that local labor groups had signed a no-strike agreement.

Meanwhile, New York promoters acted as cocks-of-the-walk in the BIE offices, coming across as pushy and brash. It took some time, but eventually Gandy got the BIE sanction. This blessing didn't guarantee foreign exhibitors, but it gave fair promoters a nice calling card to use as they traveled the world looking for exhibits. In the end it paid off: 35 foreign governments lined up to become part of Century 21.

The New York's World Fair was pushed off until 1964. In a visit to Seattle during the fair's construction, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller (1908-1979) groused to Joe Gandy, "You left us all the undeveloped countries." Seattle's response? Boo-hoo.

The Promise of a New Age

For Century 21 to live up to its name, the fair needed corporate exhibits that gave visitors a glimpse of what the future might hold. One of the first U.S. exhibitors to sign on was the Ford Motor Company, thanks to Joe Gandy. Initially, Ford had no interest in the fair, but Gandy was able to meet with a top executive in the company. Using his best "I'm-an-old-Ford-salesman" charm, he made the deal. Ford's "An Adventure in Outer Space" would become one of the hits of the fair.

Back in Seattle, Boeing proved to be a harder sell. Boeing president Bill Allen (1900-1985) despised fairs. He predicted that Century 21 would be a financial disaster. It looked as if Boeing would have nothing to do with Century 21, but Gandy's friend and right-hand man, William Street, patiently worked on Allen. In due time, he convinced the Boeing exec that it would be a shame if his company weren't represented at a science exposition. Boeing came on board with their Spacearium, which also became a hit with visitors.

Fair planners were pleased with the support they were getting. Many fine exhibits were now in the works. Knowing that the fair needed some eye-catching icons for the world's press, the next order of business was the construction of the two most futuristic and lasting legacies of Century 21 -- the Monorail and the Space Needle.

One Thin Rail and a Spire to the Sky

Being that the fairgrounds were more than a mile from downtown Seattle, promoters realized that transportation was needed to shuttle visitors back and forth to their hotels. Buses and taxis would be inadequate, and Seattle's trolley system was long since gone. The thought of a modern streamlined "train" wrapped around a single elevated rail seemed futuristic and fun, and it perfectly fit the motif of the fair.

Less than a year before the fair opened, a contract was signed with Alweg Rapid Transit Systems in Sweden to construct the Monorail. Support columns were built along 5th Avenue, between the fairgrounds and the downtown terminal. The rail was only 1.3 miles long, and some visionaries predicted that after the fair, the Monorail could be extended and integrated throughout the region's transportation grid. This never occurred, although monorail discussions remained part of Seattle culture for decades to come.

The Monorail provided zip and verve for the upcoming exposition, but it was the Space Needle that would capture hearts and minds. A year earlier, while in Stuttgart, Germany, Eddie Carlson and his wife were dining with friends in a restaurant atop a 400-foot TV tower. The view was spectacular, but Carlson couldn't get over the fact that people would actually pay for an elevator ride to get to a restaurant, where they were then willing to pay high prices for a meal.

Carlson, doodling on a napkin, became smitten with the thought of a towering spire with a "flying saucer" restaurant on the top. Back in Seattle, he met with Jim Douglas (1909-2005), Century 21 vice president in charge of construction, and pitched his idea. Douglas liked the concept, and shared it with architect John Graham, who proposed a revolving restaurant that provided patrons with an ever-changing view while they ate.

Various proposals and sketches were made of what this restaurant in the sky might look like, mostly drawn up by Victor Steinbrueck (1911-1985), professor of architecture at the University of Washington, and architect John Ridley. They finally decided on a tripod with a disc at the top. Construction commenced just one year before the fair opened.

Architectural innovation was not limited to the Needle. Paul Thiry (1904-1993) guided the fairground's overall planning and designed the futuristic Coliseum (now Key Arena) to house the Washington State Pavilion beneath a radical suspended roof. In one of his first major commissions, Minoru Yamasaki (1912-1986) blended Japanese and Gothic aesthetics to create the elegant U.S. Science Pavilion, today's Pacific Science Center. (Seattle born and trained, Yamasaki went on to design his hometown's IBM Building and Rainier Tower and New York's ill-fated World Trade Center.)

If You Build It, They Will Come

Throughout 1961, Seattle residents couldn't keep their eyes off the fairgrounds. Construction of the Space Needle caught everyone's attention, as did the raising of the Coliseum, the Science Pavilion, and other architectural wonders.

It wasn't just the locals who were anxious to visit Century 21. Civic boosters, promoters, and marketers had scoured the country to get as much early press coverage as possible in order to entice visitors to Seattle. Images and stories appeared everywhere, from the cover of Life to the pages of The New York Times. From coast to coast and around the world, many people began planning vacations to Seattle to see the wonders of the future.

Meanwhile, minor changes and additions were being made to the exhibits. Some state legislators felt that more than science was needed to attract crowds, and that other successful fairs had hoochy-koochy dancers and the like. So, an expanded Show Street gave space to the kind of "exhibits" that Dad might like, while Mom took the kids someplace else, out of sight.

The 21st Century Arrives

A week before the fair, finishing touches were still being put on exhibits. The Monorail was tested, as was the elevator to the top of the Needle and the Bubbleator inside the Coliseum. Seattle businesses readied for the 10 million people expected to visit the fair over the next six months.

The night before the gates opened, a gala celebration for nearly a thousand dignitaries was held in the Grand Ballroom at the Olympic Hotel. Afterwards many of them rode the Monorail to the fairgrounds, and watched the premier of the Boeing Spacearium film. At midnight, the Space Needle was christened.

Fair president Joe Gandy, reflecting on the past century of Seattle history, had this to say:

"[The Fair] has rekindled civic spirit ... the spirit that built a community out of ashes, that moved hills and spanned lakes and waterways and sent its commerce around the world."

The next day, on April 21, 1962, the fair opened. Thirty-eight years ahead of schedule, Seattle entered the 21st Century.

To go to Part 2, click "Next Feature"


Don Duncan, Meet Me At The Center (Seattle: Seattle Center Foundation, 1992), 15, 20, 21, 23-25, 33-37, 40-51.
Note: This essay was updated on September 16, 2003, and corrected on January 21, 2010.

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