Space Needle History: The doodle that changed Seattle
9.22.11: Thursday at the Needle
Knute Berger, Writer-in-Residence
Earlier this week, the website Historylink.org had a Century 21- themed luncheon where they passed out cocktail napkins with the printed image of an early doodle of the Space Needle. The drawing was done for the late Walt Crowley during an interview with the man who was the catalyst for the Needle, Edward "Eddie" Carlson, on the 25th anniversary of the fair in 1987.
Carlson recreated the original sketch he made for the Needle idea back in 1959. For Crowley, he doodled on a cocktail napkin, but the original drawing was made on a place mat in the hotel in Stuttgart, Germany where Carlson was staying. It was during a stopover in that city that Carlson became determined to see a tower restaurant built for the Seattle fair, similar to one he'd visited there. The original sketch has never been located, so all we have is the recreation. You can see it on the wall on the Space Needle observation deck too.
It so happened that I had lunch with Gene Carlson, Eddie's son, at the Needle this week, and we discussed his father. Carlson was a Seattle hotel executive who headed the world's fair commission, got the Needle started, and landed the contract for Western Hotels to run the Needle for the first 20 years of its life. He was for decades a civic leader, a go-to guy for any project, and without him, Century 21 would never have happened.
Gene says his dad was well-suited to the role he played. He worked his way up from the bottom of the hotel business, starting as a page and a bellhop. He later was manager of the prestigious Rainier Club, where he impressed local movers and shakers--people he would later need when he had accepted the job of getting the fair off the ground.
Eddie Carlson was a "people person," and well-liked, says his son. He came from a Tacoma working class background and a broken home, he was a merchant seaman and served in the Navy. He had some feistiness that came in handy. Carlson later became a mover and shaker himself, having helped turn a local hotel business into the international Westin chain, and later becoming president and CEO of United Airlines. He was, says Gene, "the right guy at the right time for the fair." Jay Rockey, the fair's head of public relations, said Carlson was the perfect CEO. His style was once referred to as "gentle generalship."
The famed architect Sir Christopher Wren was buried in a cathedral of his design, St. Paul's in London. His epitaph read in part, "if you seek his memorial, look around you." That same inscription could be on the Needle and dedicated to Carlson, a man who was key to making Seattle what it is today, and who helped conceive the great perch from which to see it.