Century 21 Exposition (Seattle, 1962)

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Century 21 Exposition (Seattle, 1962)

The world's fair that opened in Seattle on April 21, 1962, better known as the Century 21 Exposition, was one of the most successful world's fairs in history. Originally intended to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition held in Seattle in 1909, Century 21, although opening three years late, was still a boon to the city itself and to the entire Northwest region of the United States.

Joseph Gandy and Ewen Dingwall started organizing the fair in 1955, but their efforts were thwarted by both potential investors and citizens of Seattle, who worried about the profitability of a fair held in such a far-away location and the effects it would have on the local area. Compared to other fairs, the Century 21 project seemed dubious at best. The 1958 Brussels Fair covered 550 acres, while the Century 21 was only 74 acres: boosters called it the "jewel box fair," while critics dubbed it the "postage stamp fair." Others worried that Seattle would not draw masses of tourists to its relatively remote region, especially since New York was hosting its own world's fair only a year later.

Ultimately, however, Century 21 proved to be financially and culturally successful. While the New York World's Fair of 1963-1964 lost $18 million, Century 21 actually turned a profit of $1 million after all expenses were paid—an almost unheard of feat when it came to such endeavors. During its six month run, the fair hosted over 10 million visitors from the United States and overseas. News of the fair appeared in the popular press, including newspapers like the New York Times and magazines like Newsweek, Time, Popular Mechanics, and Architectural Review. This mass of publicity and the increase in tourism transformed Seattle from a minor, provincial city into an energetic metropolis that garnered respect even among its east coast rivals.

In addition to improving its reputation, Century 21 also changed the physical space of Seattle. The fair was held just north of the center of the city, creating an entirely new complex, Seattle Center, that remained long after the fair had closed. The physical structures of the fair also changed Seattle's skyline with the addition of the Monorail and the Space Needle.

The theme of Century 21 was "life in the twenty-first century," which meant that the fair itself, at which 49 countries participated, celebrated scientific developments, technology, and visions of projected life in the next century. For example, the United States Science Pavilion, designed by Seattle-born architect Minoru Yamasaki, covered seven acres, consisted of six buildings which incorporated courtyards and pools, and featured five tall white slender aluminum gothic arches that signified the future more than recalling the past. This building became the Pacific Science Center after the fair.

The Monorail was an even more successful representation of the future, and was an important component of the fair both in presence and function. An elevated version of a subway employed to alleviate parking problems, the Monorail demonstrated a futuristic mode of urban transportation at work that took people from downtown Seattle into the middle of the fair. Designed by the Swedish firm Alweg and built in West Germany, the Monorail was capable of going 70 miles per hour, although it never reached this speed while in use at the fair.

The most visible symbol of the fair and of the future, however, was the Space Needle—a 600 feet high spire of steel topped with what resembled a flying saucer; during the fair, the Space Needle netted $15,000 a day from visitors who paid to ride its elevators up to the top to view the greater Seattle area and to eat in its revolving restaurant. Influenced by the design of a television tower in Stuttgart, but also incorporating the decade's aesthetic of the future—flattened disks juxtaposed with pointed shapes—the Space Needle became the Exposition's main icon, signifying "soaring and aspiration and progress" according to one of its proponents. It remained an integral part of Seattle's identity, permanently affixed to its skyline, and represented both the city itself and the subsequently outdated 1960s vision and version of the future.

—Wendy Woloson

Further Reading:

Allwood, John. The Great Exhibitions. London, Studio Vista, 1977.

Berklow, Gary M. "Seattle's Century 21, 1962." Pacific Northwest Forum. Vol. 7, No. 1, 1994, 68-80.

Morgan, Murray. The Story of the Seattle World's Fair, 1962. Seattle, Acme Press, 1963.

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