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5.26.11: Bagley and Virginia "Jinny" Wright

Space Needle History: Thursday at the Needle

Knute Berger, Writer-in-Residence

Today was memorable because I had lunch at the Space Needle with Bagley and Virginia "Jinny" Wright. They are not only two of Seattle's greatest civic and arts patrons, but one the founding families of the Needle itself.

It was Bagley Wright, then a young real estate developer, who came across the designs for the Space Needle in the office of architect John Graham. The Needle project was stalled because public financing had fallen through and private investment would have to be raised if the fair was to have an iconic architectural symbol. Wright was taken with it, took the idea to his friend David "Ned" Skinner, and in a few months a small group of investors was found. Bagley was the Space Needle's first president.

Why did he decide to risk his money on such a speculative project? "Youthful optimism," he reflected.

Wright loved the Needle but says he had no idea it would become such an icon. But he and Jinny loved the view it offers of a city that has grown up so much in 50 years. At the time of the fair, few new office buildings had been built in Seattle since before World War II, and the view of downtown from the Needle was unobstructed all the way to the Smith Tower (built in 1914 and until 1962, the tallest building in the city).

The real innovation of the Needle, Bagley said, was the revolving restaurant that gives people a 360-degree view. "In 1960, it wasn't much of a city, but look at it now."

When the papers announced that four local investors, Bagley Wright, Ned Skinner, Norton Clapp and John Graham had been found to finance the Needle (a fifth, Howard S. Wright was named later), Bagley said that in fact they had not yet all agreed to fund the project. The premature announcement created a dilemma. Bagley said to Skinner "We can build the damned thing and look up and see what fools we've made of ourselves every day, or we can leave town."

They chose to risk being fools. If Bagley Wright feels any regrets today, it isn't having built the Needle, but in having bailed on it. When he stepped off the elevator into the restaurant waiting area today, he said "Man, I was stupid to have sold my interest."

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