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Things You Didn't Know About Seattle's Space Needle

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Built for the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, the Space Needle is perhaps the single landmark that defines Seattle. Its futuristic flying saucer design and towering 605-foot height has made a lasting impact on the city’s skyline. Since it opened in 1962, more than 60 million people have visited the Space Needle to take in the 360-degree views from the top. But how much do you really know about this famous landmark? Here are seven things you probably didn’t know about the Space Needle.

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The Original Design Looked Nothing Like the Structure Today

The Space Needle as the center focus of the Seattle skyline at night.
Credit: Andrea Leopardi/ Unsplash

The original design was nothing more than a crude sketch on a napkin. In 1959, hotelier Eddie Carlson, who was a chief organizer of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, traveled to Germany seeking inspiration for a new structure to become the centerpiece of the space age-themed fair, also known as the Century 21 Exposition. After Carlson set eyes on the Stuttgart TV Tower, he drew a quick doodle and took it back to Seattle.

That original idea underwent several revisions, including one that resembled a tethered balloon, before architect John Graham came up with a flying saucer instead. Another architect on the team, Victor Steinbrueck, refined the tower’s shape and graced it with an hourglass figure. The futuristic emphasis even extended to the paint colors, which included Astronaut White for the legs, Re-entry Red for the halo, and Galaxy Gold for the roof.

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It Has the World’s Only Revolving Glass Floor

The curved glass and floor in the Space Needle with a view of the business district.
Credit: james anderson/ Alamy Stock Photo

After a 2018 renovation, the Space Needle unveiled the Loupe, the world’s only revolving glass floor, located 500 feet above the ground (and just below the observation deck). It replaced the floor of the original 1962 Space Needle restaurant, which wasn’t glass but did revolve — in fact, it was one of the first restaurants in the world to do so. Aside from the jaw-dropping views of the city streets below, visitors to the Loupe can get a look at the inner workings of the Space Needle, including the motors and rollers that allow the floor to revolve, the elevators, and their counterweights. The rotation of the new glass floor can also be customized — from as quick as 20 minutes for a full rotation to as long as 90 minutes.

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The Freight Elevator Has the Best Views

Low angle view of the space needle on a bright blue skied day.
Credit: Frantzou Fleurine/ Unsplash

The Space Needle has three elevators. Two carry passengers, while one is reserved for freight. The passenger elevators can reach speeds of 10 mph (roughly the same speed at which a raindrop falls to the ground), carrying up to 25 people to the top level (520 feet above ground) in just 43 seconds. But because of a mistake at the design stage, it’s the freight elevator that enjoys the best views of downtown and Mount Rainier. No matter: The views from the top are worth the short wait.

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It’s Designed to Cope With Weather and Earthquakes

Overcast Seattle skyline with the Space Needle to the right.
Credit: Richard Wellenberger/ iStock

The Space Needle, like most tall structures, was built with Mother Nature in mind. Those elevators, for instance, travel at a reduced speed of 5 mph (for safety reasons) when wind speeds exceed 35 mph. But the building itself can withstand gales that are far more severe. Engineers say that it would cope admirably with winds up to 200 mph, thanks to its low center of gravity and the materials used in its construction. And there’s no need to worry if you ascend the elevator in a thunderstorm: There are 24 lightning rods atop the Space Needle, plus the tower itself also acts as a conductor, to protect the building in the rare event of a lightning strike.

Since Seattle is located in the Cascadia region, a tectonically-active zone within the Ring of Fire, there have been two significant earthquakes in the lifetime of the Space Needle, and it has coped exceptionally well with both of them. The first was the 1965 Puget Sound earthquake (6.7 magnitude), and the second was the 2001 Nisqually earthquake (6.8 magnitude). The flexible structure is designed to sway, and the Space Needle was retrofitted with additional quake-proofing measures costing around $1.6 million in 2017.

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A Local Town Once Tried to Buy It

The Seattle skyline seen from the viewing deck of the Space Needle.
Credit: Jeffrey M. Frank/ Shutterstock

The view from the Space Needle could have been very different if a group of businessmen from Fife, Washington, had been successful in their bid to buy it. City officials at the time did not permit construction of a second restaurant at the Space Needle, to the dismay of the building’s owners. On October 27, 1978, the Spokane Chronicle reported that the group of businessmen, led by local radio station manager Jim Baine, offered $1 million to move the 605-foot-tall structure to their city 25 miles to the south. Clearly, the bid failed, not least because the structure had cost $4.5 million to construct at its current site.

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A downtown view of Seattle's business district with the Space Needle as the main focus.
Credit: Vara I/ Shutterstock

The Space Needle will be familiar to fans of popular TV shows such as Grey’s Anatomy and Station 19, both set in Seattle. But its appearances on those shows were preceded by a long list of other movies and television series. In the long-running comedy Frasier, for instance, several animations in the opening credits focus on the Space Needle. The Space Needle is also said to have been the inspiration for the Skypad apartments on The Jetsons. Similarly, movie location scouts have long seen the big-screen potential of the Space Needle. It had a starring role in the 1963 Elvis Presley film It Happened at the World’s Fair, and it doubled as Doctor Evil’s headquarters in Austin Powers 2: The Spy Who Shagged Me.

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