(Published in the Seattle Times online on April 15, 2021
and in PacificNW Magazine of the print Times on April 18, 2021)
One Space Needle, coming right up! A 60th anniversary tale
By Clay Eals
It was an era of courageous quests: Nationally, landing on the moon within the decade. Locally, building a bold, enduring beacon.
Sixty years ago, ground was broken for our city’s 605-foot Space Needle — on April 17, 1961, to be exact. A year later, on April 21, 1962, the Seattle World’s Fair opened, and so did the Needle.
Today’s warp-speed endeavors have little on this one. It’s hard to fathom how fast the fair’s signature symbol went up, but Gary Curtis has a grasp.
The 24-year-old was two years out of Walla Walla University’s engineering program in March 1961 while working in the five-person Pasadena office of structural engineer John Minasian, an expert in the wind and seismic loads of towers. There, Curtis began pumping out detailed drawings that guided the Needle’s assembly.
From the get-go, adrenaline fueled the overtime pace. “Thirteen months later, the structure’s going to be done,” Curtis says. “They hadn’t even rolled the steel yet in Chicago.”
Daily, Curtis and others produced and overnighted tubes of oversized documents to Seattle at 11 p.m. for use by 8 a.m. “We would look at where they were, the actual construction, the guys putting steel together, and we’d be detailing stuff 150 feet above where they were working,” he says. “You didn’t mess around.”
Instead of cutting corners, however, the engineers strengthened them.
“We just threw the steel at it,” he says. “What we did was brutal. It was a beautiful design, but we didn’t have time to do a refined analysis. If you found out that a quarter-inch plate was going to probably be about right, use three-eighths, use five-sixteenths. You didn’t skimp on anything. If 50 bolts made a connection, 75 went in. There was no time to try to figure out how to save money. Saving money wasn’t the point. Getting it done on time was the point.”
Through the Needle’s decades of wear and renovation, the work has held up — and so has Curtis. Now 84 and living 80 miles and a ferry ride north of Seattle, Curtis lovingly preserves copies of his drawings and the tools he used to create them: a slide rule, triangle, drafting pencils, a pencil sharpener, erasers and an erasing shield. Eyeing his 1961 lettering and “GNC” initials on the plans, he breaks into a grin.
“It was really exciting,” he says. “You’re 24? Come on! Good grief, that’s just what you do.”
Though he’s worked on high bridges and geodesic domes and consulted at the South Pole, for him the Needle stands supreme: “It’s the most dramatic project that people know most about.”
To see Jean Sherrard‘s 360-degree video of the “Now” prospect and compare it with the “Then” photo, and to hear this column read aloud by Clay Eals, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column!
Special thanks to Gary Curtis, Denise and Brad Chrisman and Bruce and Emily Howard for their assistance with this installment.
Below are a link to an in-depth video interview of Gary, two additional “Now” photos by Jean, five additional photos by Gary, two additional photos by Fora Meredith and a book cover.
Also, to vividly illustrate the intense interest and excitement over the speedy construction of the Space Needle, we present, in chronological order, 102 historical photo clippings from The Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer online archives (available via Seattle Public Library) and other online newspaper sources that were helpful in the preparation of this column.
A full year of newspaper clippings, documenting the Space Needle under construction, April 22, 1961, to April 22, 1962: