Seattle’s Space Needle turns 50

A popular way for visitors to get an overview of a city is from the observation deck of an iconic structure such as New York’s Empire State Building, Chicago’s Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) or Seattle’s Space Needle, which joined the Seattle World’s Fair in kicking off its anniversary celebration on April 21.

Created as the centerpiece of the 1962 space-themed exposition, the 605-foot-tall Space Needle has been described as looking like “a UFO on stilts” and was for many years the tallest building west of the Mississippi River.

Today, the still futuristic-looking Needle is an iconic landmark in the Emerald City, its most visited attraction and home to one of the few remaining rotating restaurants in the world.

To learn more about the Space Needle – and some of its secrets – I spoke with Seattle writer Knute Berger, who attended the World’s Fair when he was 8 years old and is the author of a new book titled “Space Needle: The Spirit of Seattle.”

Q: Landmark buildings in many cities are straight-ahead tall towers. How did Seattle’s most famous structure end up looking as if a UFO just landed?

A: Architect John Graham Jr. wanted a top that looked like a flying saucer and exhorted his staff designers to make the top “more disc-y.” It made sense because it was a Space Age form; the flying saucer phenomenon got its start with a sighting at [Washington State’s] Mt. Rainier in 1947, and that mountain is the biggest landmark you can see from the Needle. Plus, a saucer-shaped restaurant made sense for one that rotates.

Q: You wrote your book about the Space Needle during a six-month stint working at the Needle. Why did you do that?

A: The Space Needle commissioned me to write their history for the 50th anniversary. They named me writer-in-residence at the Space Needle and gave me a desk on the Observation Deck. I would conduct interviews over lunch in SkyCity [the Needle’s rotating restaurant], then go upstairs and write, blog and talk with visitors.

I met people from all over the world and sometimes ran into people with great stories, like police officer Roy Skagen who was on Elvis’ security detail during the filming of “It Happened at the World’s Fair” [filmed on-site during the Seattle World’s Fair]. He used to toss a football with Elvis during breaks in the filming.

Q: What are some secrets and cool facts you learned about the Space Needle?

A: The Needle was essentially built in a year. U.S. Steel called it the “400-day wonder.”

The motor that turns the restaurant is only one horsepower. It runs clockwise, but it can also run in reverse.

A group of UFO buffs, called The Skywatchers, used to meet on the Needle every night looking for flying saucers.

Q: We’ve learned that 1.3 million people visit the Space Needle’s observation deck each year. Do you have some insider tips on getting the most out of a trip up there?

A: If you want to join the crowds, go in the summer when the cruise ships are in town. It feels like a fair up there. If you want the place to yourself, maybe go first thing on a weekday morning when the weather is a bit gray.

The motor that turns the SkyCity restaurant atop the Space Needle is only one horsepower. It runs clockwise, but it can also run in reverse.

Make sure to get out on the deck and walk all the way around; it’s a spectacular view in all directions. You can see three national parks from up there [Olympic, Rainier and North Cascades].

On a few super, super clear days a year, you can see the cone of Mt. St. Helens. But contrary to some reports, you cannot see Canada.

Q: That glass elevator – and the elevator ride up the legs of the Space Needle – seems a bit scary. Any insider tips on that ride?

A: If you’re scared of heights, move to the back of the elevator. There are no windows and the crowd will block the view.

If you love a fun ride, turn immediately right or left when you enter and stand by the windows. You’ll get a great view of the rapid rise and parts of the structure zooming by.

[During the fair] N.Y. Gov. Nelson Rockefeller described the trip down as like going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. But it’s tamer than that.

Q: In addition to the Observation Deck, there’s that rotating restaurant on top of the Space Needle. Any menu tips you can share?

A: I ate up there once or twice a week during my residency, and my favorite was the huge Shrimp and Crab Louie. And I always recommend the local soup of the day. I had a nettle soup that was out of this world.

The special dessert is the Lunar Obiter: basically a sundae served with dry ice that is a huge crowd-pleaser with kids.

Q: Anything else visitors should know about the Space Needle as it celebrates its 50th anniversary?

A: The Needle has lived most of its life since the fair and is a local totem, a place of great meaning to people, a site of weddings, anniversaries, deaths, births, world firsts and celebrity visits.

It has symbolized everything from yuppie Seattle [on TV’s “Frasier”] to a super-villain’s headquarters [Dr. Evil’s pad in “Austin Powers”].

It’s been a magnet for magic moments and you feel some of that energy and buzz when you visit. I was surprised that, as someone who was Seattle born and raised, I always saw something new up there every time. The scenery, the weather and light, the dynamic city — it’s never the same view.

Thanks for visiting Stuck at the Airport. Subscribe to get daily travel tidbits. And follow me on Twitter at @hbaskas and Instagram.