Tomorrow turns 50: Century 21 Exposition, space-age celebration, reshaped region a half-century ago

February 21, 2012

By Warren Kagarise

In early Century 21 Exposition concept art, circa 1961, the monorail hangs from a rail rather than gliding along a track. MOHAI, Walter Straley Century 21 Exposition Photograph Collection

Opportunities seemed endless as Seattle prophesized a sleek future at the 1962 Century 21 Exposition.

In the years before the fair opened a half-century ago, local leaders imagined the fairgrounds along Lake Sammamish. Envision, as entrepreneurs dared to do in the late ’50s, Lake Sammamish State Park as a site for the still-embryonic exposition.

The fairgrounds showcase Cougar Mountain as a backdrop for the Space Needle. Or, rather than the bubbling International Fountain, placid Lake Sammamish defines the landscape. The monorail, all Swedish design and German engineering, connects suburban cities, not Seattle neighborhoods.

Organizers considered, if only for a moment, a fair situated amid farmland and forests, perhaps a Festival of the West set in Issaquah, a former frontier settlement.

“What if it had been in Issaquah?” asked Lorraine McConaghy, public historian for the Seattle-based Museum of History & Industry, or MOHAI. “What if 10 million people had come to Issaquah between May and October of 1962?”

Issaquah Chamber of Commerce leaders proposed the then-300-acre state park as a possible fair site in July 1958, as boosters from the Puget Sound region urged organizers to consider locations outside Seattle.

Paula Becker, co-author of “The Future Remembered: The 1962 Seattle World’s Fair and Its Legacy” and a HistoryLink.org historian, noted the endeavors in Auburn, Issaquah and elsewhere to land the fair.

“Even Tacoma was saying, ‘How about us?’” she said.

Instead, Issaquah opened a Century 21 information booth along U.S. Route 10, the precursor to Interstate 90.

Organizers scrapped the nascent Festival of the West concept for a futuristic Century 21 Exposition in Seattle instead.

“You almost wonder, why weren’t they just settling on the site that they chose, because the nucleus was already there,” Becker said. “No place else had anything like that.”

Even the Seattle location caused confusion, because foreign representatives could not differentiate Washington state from Washington, D.C. Century 21 Exposition President Joseph Gandy often encountered the problem.

Work continues on the U.S. Science Pavilion, circa 1961, as the Space Needle rises in the background. MOHAI, Milkie Studio Collection

“When Joe Gandy went out to sell space and to try to interest other nations in participating in the fair, a lot of people didn’t know how to pronounce it and they had no idea where it was,” Becker said. “They said, ‘Why would you want to build a Space Needle when the Washington Monument is right there?’”

Though local leaders proposed Lake Sammamish State Park early — and organizers stopped considering the site long before settling on the future Seattle Center — Century 21 exerted substantial influence in the suburbs.

“I don’t think this metropolitan region would look anything like it looks today without Century 21,” McConaghy said. “I think that that burst of optimism and energy that came out of that fair, it changed the face of the region.”

The fair fostered a respected arts scene in Seattle. The region, particularly the Eastside, matured into a hub for technology in the decades after the exposition.

Mary Scott, a longtime Issaquah-area resident and former Issaquah School Board member, said the fair offered a glimpse of the future that was difficult to imagine a half-century ago.

“People were really looking at this as, what’s the future going to look like?” she said. “There were a lot of answers to that.”

The future seemed boundless in 1962. Mankind could conquer the cosmos and — using some can-do spirit, a little Yankee ingenuity and a boost from technology — engineer a more leisurely life closer to the ground.

“There was a kind of freshness and optimism to the way that people came to the fair and left the fair — the sense that the 21st century was ours to shape,” McConaghy said.

The gadgets and dioramas depicted a carefree future, never mind the existential menace the Cold War posed in the present.

“The only cloud hanging over that —and it was a big one — was the threat of nuclear war,” McConaghy said.

The exposition did not include a U.S.S.R. pavilion and many nations sealed behind the Iron Curtain did not send representatives to Seattle.

“While all of this buoyant optimism is going on and everyone is holding hands and dancing in a circle at Century 21 out here, out on the Eastside there’s a ring of Nike missile sites and people were digging fallout shelters,” McConaghy added.

The skeletal Space Needle rises above Seattle and the Century 21 Exposition fairgrounds in 1961, months before the fair opened in April 1962. MOHAI, Milkie Studio Collection

Nike Ajax anti-aircraft missiles sat poised on Cougar Mountain, high above Issaquah, primed to shoot down Soviet bombers.

Concerns about nuclear conflict stopped at the fair gates, although a film included in the World of Century 21 exhibit depicted brief flashes of a family huddled in a fallout shelter.

The centerpiece Space Needle — painted Astronaut White, Orbital Olive, Re-entry Red and Galaxy Gold — beamed as “the icon of Seattle” and radiated optimism, McConaghy said.

“It’s so iconic that all you have to do is fling it up in the window in ‘Frasier’ and people will know where you’re supposed to be,” she added.

The exposition responsible for introducing Seattle to the globe as a 21st century city almost did the same for Issaquah.

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