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10.20.11: A Space Needle is in the Details

Space Needle History: Thursday at the Needle

Knute Berger, Writer-in-Residence


With me today at the Needle was Gary N. Curtis, who as a young engineer worked for John K. Minasian, the chief consulting structural engineer on the Needle. Gary is a Northwest boy, raised in Portland, schooled in Walla Walla. When the call came from the John Graham Company for engineering experts to help get the Needle built in 1961, the call went to Minasian's office. Curtis is the young engineer who answered the phone that day, and he did much of the grunt work on the Needle project.

We went up to the Observation Deck and looked over a set of the final engineering drawings for the Needle, many of which Curtis had drawn by hand 50 years ago. If you see a Needle technical drawing with the initials "GNC" on it, that's Curtis' work.

They had to work fast, and be accurate. The drawings we looked at were dated April 17, 1961, which was when the shovels first began digging what would be the Needle's massive foundation.

One of the amazing things about the drawings is the level of detail:
They show every weld, every bolt, every seam of the Needle and its parts. Every one of the thousands of bolts that hold the Needle together? Each was individually drawn by an engineer so that no mistake would be made. It's just one example of the kind of craft that went into building the tower.

Curtis also told the story of how one major Needle blooper was discovered thanks to meticulous drawings.

Curtis says he was assigned by Minasian to hand draw in detail the central core of the Needle, which includes two stairways. The elevators also run up and down this structural shaft. Curtis says at the time he thought this was unnecessary, repetitive work. But when he finished the drawing, the architects noticed that the stairs came out in a different place than they had intended, and the location of the stairs impacted the plan for the elevators.

The designers had wanted Needle visitors to get off the elevator and have a dramatic south-facing view of Mt. Rainier. But when the engineers calculated the actual configuration, it turned out that the main passenger elevators would have guests facing away. Because the core's base was already under construction, the plans couldn't be altered. So, the south facing elevator instead became a service elevator used primarily by Needle workers. Fortunately, with a rotating restaurant and a 360-degree Observation Deck, nobody misses Mt. Rainier. Except on some cloudy days, naturally.

But that experience, Curtis said, taught him the value of small details.


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