April 21, 1962: Seattle World’s Fair opens, showcasing ‘city of the future’

·Christy Karras

With both the space race and Seattle’s rise to aerospace hub in full swing, the Seattle World’s Fair of 1962 celebrated the emerging jet age. Its design showcased the city and capitalized on America’s enthusiasm for all things modern (not coincidentally, “The Jetsons” first aired that same year). The structures that remain feel quaint now, but many have become beloved landmarks.

The world’s fair — and the look of Seattle’s skyline — might have been very different if the Seattle World’s Fair had happened in 1955, when organizers originally hoped. Realizing they would never have the site ready by then, they switched themes from the American West to the future.

Much of the result is preserved in what is now Seattle Center, a park and performance space just north of downtown. The most iconic: the Space Needle, a 605-foot-tall concrete tower that crews raced to build in less than a year and that was finished the day before the fair opened.

A monorail train (still in use) carried passengers the mile between downtown and the fair. Arched sculptures in front of the Science Pavilion, now Pacific Science Center, were visual reminders that this was “a virtual cathedral of science.”

"Welcome to the future!" the fair's TV ads proclaimed. Although it was firmly planted in 1962 ideology, the world's fair (also called the Century 21 Exposition) got some things about the future right. Among its exhibits: a Univac computer, models of electronically controlled cars, and exhibitions about space flight and increasing interactions between humans and their technology.

Along with the themes of science, industry and progress, the fair showcased popular art and entertainment. Entertainers ranged from Ella Fitzgerald to Elvis Presley, who spent his time surrounded by screaming teens as he filmed “It Happened at the World’s Fair.”

The exposition ended on Oct. 21 (President Kennedy was supposed to attend the closing ceremony but bowed out at the last minute due to a “cold” that turned out to be the then-secret Cuban Missile Crisis). During its 6-month run, nearly 10 million people would attend — and unlike most world’s fairs, this one would ultimately make a profit. It helped put Seattle on the map as a “city of the future” long before the advent of companies like Microsoft and Amazon.

It also gave the city an indoor-outdoor, multi-building venue that today can host tens of thousands at festivals like Northwest Folklife and Bumbershoot each Memorial Day and Labor Day weekend, respectively.