Seattle Now & Then: Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, 1909

(click once and twice to enlarge photos)

Count the flags, big and small, strewn throughout this glimmering 1909 “then.” We calculate at least 75. For detailed maps, engaging narrative and stunning photos on the A-Y-P, check out a centennial book by Alan J. Stein, Paula Becker and the staff of HistoryLink. (MOHAI Panorama Collection)
This vantage, slightly higher than the A-Y-P Ferris wheel, looks north from atop the Unversity of Washington Physics-Astronomy Building. Rising in the foreground is the new UW Population Health Facility, set to open in late 2020. Peeking to its right is a portion of the UW Architecture Building, formerly Fine Arts Building. It, along with the UW Cunningham Building – formerly the Washington Woman’s Building, which was moved north in 2009 to a spot just left of the construction crane in this view – are the only remaining public structures on the  A-Y-P fairgrounds. (Jean Sherrard)

(Published in Seattle Times online on June 20, 2019,
and in print on June 23, 2019)

A fairly wide view of the A-Y-P from 110 years ago
By Clay Eals

Back in 1962, the glitz of the Seattle World’s Fair filled my 11-year-old eyes with wonder. I still treasure its curios, including a souvenir tabloid with a custom banner headline, printed on the spot, employing the six-month show’s crowning landmark to convey whimsy: “Clay Eals Jumps Off Space Needle.”

I’m grateful it was fake news.

At no time, in visits that summer, did my child’s mind grasp that this was the city’s second world’s fair. But a nod to its precursor lay in the final word of its alternate name: the Century 21 Exposition.

Fifty-three years before, in 1909, Seattle’s – indeed, Washington state’s – first world’s fair embraced the sprawling title of Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition to salute the 1897 Gold Rush and what today we call the Pacific Rim. The A-Y-P opened 110 years ago this month at the University of Washington, which had relocated from downtown 14 years prior, in 1895.

The fair transformed the campus. With attractions from fine art to lowbrow amusements, it also instigated neoclassical (if largely temporary) architecture, Olmsted Brothers gardens, a new statue of the UW’s namesake and a stately promenade and fountain pointing to Mount Rainier.

The sweep was as wide as our “then,” taken atop the A-Y-P Ferris wheel by official photographer F.H. Nowell. It looks north and east, the western border of 15th Avenue slicing by at far left. But this panorama holds irony. While it conveys the fair’s grandeur, it covers only a fraction of its grounds.

Visible are the main entrance at 40th Street, off 15th. A short walk east reveals the George Washington statue (today one block north) and an array of gleaming structures: the Fine Arts Building (center-left), the domed U.S. Government Building, the Alaska Building (center), the smaller Washington Woman’s Building, the Klondike Circle, the Agriculture Building (behind a foreground spire of the Swedish Building) and an unintended presage of World War I, the Battle of Gettysburg cyclorama (“War! War! War! Replete with the Rush, Roar and Rumble of Battle”).

“It’s the greatest cultural event that has ever taken place in the city’s history,” asserts Magnolia’s Dan Kerlee, A-Y-P researcher and collector who runs, an educational website. He says the 3,740,551 people who attended over 138 days enjoyed a uniquely inspiring, even elegant experience. “If people could walk the A-Y-P today, they would be beside themselves.”

World’s fairs, a prolific phenomenon of the late 19th and early-to-mid 20th centuries, have fallen out of fashion here, the most recent U.S. fairs being 45 years ago in Spokane (Expo ’74) and in Knoxville and New Orleans in the early 1980s. A few hours north, Vancouver, B.C., put on Expo ’86, the last world’s fair in North America. Still, we can smile that Seattle hosted a spectacular pair.


To see Jean Sherrard’s 360-degree video of the “now” prospect and compare it with the “then,” and to hear this column read aloud by Clay Eals, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column!

Below, in chronological order, are clippings from The Seattle Times online archive (available via Seattle Public Library) that among many others were helpful in the preparation of this column.

These are just five of the 54 stories in the Seattle Times that mentioned the A-Y-P during the six-month 1962 fair. Of course, I wish I had paid more attention to these stories back then! Click on any clipping to enlarge it. –Clay

April 21, 1962, Seattle Times, page 1
April 22, 1962, Seattle Times, page 105
June 22, 1962, Seattle Times, page 2
Sept. 14, 1962, Seattle Times, page 52
Oct. 19, 1962, Seattle Times, page 24
AYPE souvenir spoon. (Couresy Margaret McNeill-Law)


2 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, 1909”

  1. Regarding AYP Exposition: Isn’t Denny Hall also in both pictures? Clearly visible on left sky line of Then and cupola visible above Meany Hall on Now.

    1. Thanks for your question, Mark. The phrase in the column that prompts your question is at the end of the “now” caption: “the only remaining public structures from A-Y-P,” and your implication is that Denny Hall should have been included or noted. Of course, Denny Hall was built 15 years before the A-Y-P, but it was on a part of the UW campus that was not part of the A-Y-P fairgrounds. So to make the caption crystal clear, I’ve amended the phrase to read “the only remaining public structures on the A-Y-P fairgrounds.” I appreciate the opportunity to provide more clarity! –Clay

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