In the 1950s, a group of city planners and developers in Seattle sought to make their city the site of a future world’s fair. As with many earlier expositions, these entrepreneurs hoped the event, though mostly regional in scope, would jumpstart the process of urban renewal in their city, drawing real estate investment, transportation improvements, and tourism. As plans got underway, skeptics doubted the ability of a regionally-focused exposition to make a significant impact on Seattle’s downtown development.
But events in 1957 changed the fair’s dynamics. The successful launch of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik I satellite ignited American fears of inferiority in science and technology in the midst of the Cold War. Seattle’s modest world’s fair quickly transformed into the Century 21 Exposition, intending to create an international symbol of American technological prowess. Congress appropriated millions towards showcasing a dramatic presentation of America as the embodiment of scientific advancement and idealism. Themes included “Man in Space,” and a vision of life in the year 2000.
The fair, which opened in April 1962 and lasted through October of that year, had a lasting impact on Seattle’s built environment. The site selected had originally been proposed for a civic center in the rejected Plan of Seattle (1911). Instead of a beaux-arts city hall, Seattle gained a model 21st century space-age plaza, boasting attractions such as a $10 million federally-funded science pavilion (designed by architect Minoru Yamasaki), a high-speed monorail, and its crowning feature: the Space Needle, towering 600 feet above ground as an ode to extraterrestrial exploration (designed by Victor Steinbrueck and John Graham, Jr.). The Space Needle remains an iconic structure as well as tourist attraction, and the science pavilion today houses a science museum.
This masterful marketing poster by Earle Duff beautifully captures and promotes the Space Age theme of the fair, creating an image that is typically optimistic, despite the specter of the Cold War.
John M. Findlay. “Seattle 1962,” In John E. Findling and Kimberly D. Pelle, eds., Encyclopedia of World’s Fairs and Expositions. Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2008, 323-330.
Paul Ashdown. “Seattle 1962: Seattle’s World’s Fair (Century 21 Exposition),” in John E. Findling, ed., Historical Dictionary of World’s Fairs and Expositions, 1851 – 1988. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990, 319-321.
“Century 21 World’s Fair,” Seattle.gov. http://www.seattle.gov/cityarchives/exhibits-and-education/digital-document-libraries/century-21-worlds-fair
“Century 21: the 1962 Seattle World's Fair,” HistoryLink.org. http://www.historylink.org/index.cfm?DisplayPage=output.cfm&File_Id=2290
Space Needle. http://www.spaceneedle.com/home/
“Century 21 Digital Collection,” The Seattle Public Library. http://cdm15015.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/landingpage/collection/p15015coll3
Earle Duff, Space Needle, Century 21 Exposition, 1962. University of Washington Special Libraries, Special Collections, UW10114