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This Century's Top Ten Construction Projects


This Century's Top Ten Construction Projects
December 9, 1999

The Space Needle: In a galaxy of its own

Dates: 1959-1962
Costs: $4 million
Contractor: Howard S. Wright
Amazing Fact: The foundation, which required 467 cement trucks to fill, is heavier than the Needle's base.

When Seattle businessman Edward E. Carlson became chair of the 1962 World's Fair, he wanted to dazzle the world with a Space-Age... something.

The fair's "Century 21" theme led him through a slew of ideas for a dominant, futuristic structure to crown the event. Doodling on a place mat in a Seattle coffeehouse, Carlson sketched his idea for a city viewpoint in the sky -- a crude image of what eventually became the Space Needle.

DJC readers who picked the structure as one of the century's top projects remarked that in addition to an awesome display of innovative engineering, the Space Needle represents the city itself, a landmark recognized around the world.

Evolution of the icon didn't progress smoothly. Designs ranged from a tethered-balloon structure to a flying saucer as both engineers and architects brainstormed ways to create a spectacular yet sound project.

To tackle design challenges, architect John Graham Sr. sought the expertise of architect and University of Washington associate professor Victor Steinbrueck.

Although Graham proposed the idea for a revolving restaurant and patented it, Steinbrueck largely guided preliminary and final designs.

Space Needle construction
The legs of the Needle stretch toward the sky as its base was erected on a scant 120-by-120-foot parcel. Steel construction required 2,600 tons of reinforced steel.
Figuring out how to pay for the $4 million endeavor -- and finding a place to put it -- proved just as difficult as design. Although King County hired Graham to design the facility, the county didn't have enough money to see the project through.

Ned Skinner, who lead the financial drive for the World's Fair, formed a partnership between Howard H. Wright (father of Howard S. Wright), Ned Skinner, Norton Clapp, Jack Graham, Bagley Wright and himself to develop the project.

After a major effort coaxing banks to back the project, the ambitious team convinced the Bank of California to sign on. One by one, other banks followed suit.

But money couldn't help find land for the structure.

Since the 70-acre World's Fair site had been acquired through condemnation, land use codes prohibited the property from being sold to private owners. That meant the Space Needle builders may have had to look elsewhere for a suitable site; but instead, they got creative.

The developers discovered that a 120 by 120-foot parcel on the fairground was still owned by the city. It was just large enough to accommodate the Space Needle.

Thus, with just a little over a year left before the fair's opening day, construction began.

Work moved quickly. The 300-foot-deep and 120-foot-wide underground foundation re-quired 467 cement trucks to fill the hole the largest continuous concrete pour attempted on the West Coast at the time. When it was complete, the foundation weighed as much as the actual structure. Steel construction required 2,600 tons of reinforced steel.

Balancing the observation deck and revolving restaurant atop the Needle's slender legs was especially tricky, although engineers discovered the rotating restaurant needed only a one horsepower electric motor.

Painting the Needle was the last big job. In celebration of the fair's Century 21 theme, the legs were painted "Astronaut White," "Orbital Olive" was chosen for the core, "Re-entry Red" was used for the halo, and the sunburst and pagoda roof were painted "Galaxy Gold."

Work on the Space Needle finished four months before the fair's opening day, April 21, 1962.


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