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12.29.11: There Wouldn't be a Space Needle If....

Space Needle History: Thursday at the Needle

Knute Berger, Writer-in-Residence

The story of the Space Needle is amazing in part because it was so unlikely that it actually was built. The Seattle World's Fair was a high-risk proposition, so too was the conception, funding, and construction of the Needle, a project many people thought could never succeed. The series of unlikely events began even before the very beginning.

For example, there would not have been a Needle if Webb Moffett had not had a 50th birthday. That's how his son, David R. Moffett, remembers it. Webb Moffett, the founder of Snoqualmie Summit, was turning 50. He and his wife Virginia had a party at their home in Seattle's Denny-Blaine neighborhood. They invited some of their very close friends, including Eddie and Nell Carlson. Eddie was an executive at Western Hotels and president of the World's Fair effort. He'd been working hard, and rarely traveled for pleasure. But when Virginia Moffett invited Eddie and Nell to come with them on a tour of Europe, Eddie surprised his own wife by saying yes. The Moffetts and the Carlson's flew off to Europe in the spring of 1959. It was off- season in the ski business.

There would not have been a Needle if the Moffetts hadn't decided to buy a new car from Germany. They had pre-ordered a white, 1959 Mercedes 190SL, a sporty classic convertible. They had to travel to Stuttgart to pick it up. After touring Europe, they shipped the car home to Seattle and David Moffett, then in high school, remembers getting to drive it. He says his parents bought it for around $4,500, a bargain even at the time.

There might not have been a Needle if the car had been ready on time. When the Moffetts arrived, they were informed it would be another day before they could pick up their new Mercedes. So, they had a night to spend in Stuttgart. Margot Colden, a friend of a Seattle friend, recommended they have dinner at the Stuttgart Tower, a 700-foot TV broadcast mast with a restaurant and observation deck near the top.

The Moffetts and Carlson were impressed, and it was there that Eddie got the idea that such a structure was just what the Seattle World's Fair needed. He gathered information on the tower, sketched it and came up with the name "Space Needle," and sent his ideas back to Seattle. It was in Stuttgart, Carlson remembered, that he became obsessed with the idea of the Needle. He came back home from his European vacation and went to work, and the rest is history.

As the Needle prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary in April 2012, it's good to be reminded of the importance--and potential--of 50th birthdays.

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