We locals all know about the fair’s stars: a focus on the Space Age, the Needle, the “Space Gothic” arches of the Pacific Science Center, the Bubbleator and the paraboloid-roofed Coliseum, now Climate Pledge Arena. They’re like old friends to Seattleites, part of the civic center that is a legacy of the midcentury exposition on Lower Queen Anne.

But the fair might have been radically different from the fair we remember, in theme, physical layout and legacy. Seattle could have had manmade islands, a waterfront boardwalk linked by monorail, an Elliott Bay freeway, a vast domed stadium years before the Kingdome was built. These are some of the legacies that didn’t happen.

The fair was under consideration from 1954 until it opened in April of 1962. The process was one of big dreams, pragmatism, politics, controversy and multiple agendas. There were many stumbling blocks along the way: lawsuits, budget alarms, arguments over sites — all the usual stuff that attends such big civic projects.

Consider for a minute the context. The last U.S. fairs before the one in Seattle had taken place before World War II. Many questioned whether the modern world had moved on from such extravaganzas. In 1954, Disneyland was breaking ground in Southern California, which Walt Disney described as “a combination of world fair, a playground, a community center, a museum of living facts, and a showplace of beauty and magic.” Some wondered if a permanent amusement park like Disney’s had rendered fairs obsolete.

Yet, at the same time, other cities were contemplating holding world’s fairs, including Portland, San Francisco, San Diego and New York. The news in 1954 that Portland was considering a fair lit a fire under Seattle planners who did not want to be bested by a regional rival. Portland’s fair turned into a local history-oriented festival, and New York’s took place two years after Seattle’s. The other fairs dropped by the wayside. Fair schemes have a high failure rate, turns out.

Operating out of a sense of opportunity and the perceived need to prove Seattle was a great West Coast Pacific port, the state voted to study a world’s fair in 1955. When Seattle voters soon after approved bonds for a long-desired civic center, the two ideas melded into one — a fair with a civic center legacy. That gave fuel to the effort. This fair would leave a permanent mark.

But what would it be? The first idea was that it would be a trade fair featuring local products and a Pacific rim focus. It would be held in 1959, a half-century after the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909 and would commemorate that event. That evolved into a “Festival of the West” concept featuring the burgeoning Western region. A foreign trade center would be built and have offices to house all the foreign consulates. The port would take center stage as a key international economic engine.

By the late 1950s, it had morphed again, and the date of the fair slid back into the early ’60s. In 1959, then-President Dwight Eisenhower issued a proclamation for the “World Science Pan-Pacific Exposition.” The federal government was willing to kick in major funding for a science-oriented fair, fueled by Cold War concerns about beating the Soviets. A major expo was held in Brussels in 1958 and convinced U.S. scientists that we needed better promotional efforts for public science to counter the Russians. A futuristic theme appeared: It would be called the Century 21 Exposition.

Visions of the fairs that didn’…….


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *