The Lasting Impact of Seattle's World's Fair Architects

Design at the 1962 World's Fair brought its architects acclaim well beyond the Seattle Center ground

Most Seattleites walk or drive past the Space Needle and the other major buildings at Seattle Center without giving much thought to who designed them. But these structures, including KeyArena and the Pacific Science Center, are the lasting architectural legacy of the Century 21 Exposition, better known as the Seattle World’s Fair. In 1962, some of the Northwest’s most important architects—Paul Thiry, Paul Kirk, John Graham Jr. and others—came together, along with University of Washington alum Minoru Yamasaki, to present what Thiry called “a world within a world.”

With the exception of architecture groupies and history geeks, however, most Seattleites know very little about the people who made the World’s Fair spaces, what they were hoping to achieve and the other structures they went on to design. As we mark the 50th anniversary of the World’s Fair, we shine the spotlight on its space-age architectural legacy.

Victor Steinbrueck

Of all the contributors to World’s Fair architecture, Victor Steinbrueck probably has the most name recognition, if only because a park next to Pike Place Market bears his name. But Steinbrueck made a crucial contribution to something most of us see every day: the Space Needle’s arced legs. The design for the Needle started out like a Tootsie Pop, a quick sketch doodled by Seattle hotelier Eddie Carlson, the chair of the commission planning the fair, who thought the event needed an over-the-top symbol to match the grandiose “Century 21” name and its “man in space” theme. Engineers, however, worried that a ball on a stick would topple over in an earthquake. A 1935 graduate of the UW’s architecture program, Steinbrueck solved the stability problem with three columns pinched about halfway up, a shape local historian Walt Crowley labeled “wasp-waisted.” But Steinbrueck didn’t earn his place in Seattle’s pantheon until almost a decade later, when he fought to preserve Pike Place Market from demolition. In many ways, it was Steinbrueck who begat the Seattle icons recognizable to people from outside city: the charming, European-style Market and the graceful upward sweep of the Space Needle.

Space Needle designer John Graham Jr. also designed the towers of the Washington Plaza (now Westin) Hotel. The first went up in 1969, the second in 1982.
Credit: UW Libraries, Special Collections, MPH222

John Graham Jr.

Seattle residential architect John Ridley had a hand in the Space Needle’s final look (primarily the “double decker” effect of the crown), but top billing for the Space Needle design goes to local architect John Graham Jr., who was also the first American to design and patent a rotating restaurant. (He filed U.S. patent number 3125189 in 1961—using drawings for the Space Needle’s Eye of the Needle restaurant to illustrate the design—and was awarded the patent in 1964.) This wasn’t his first revolving restaurant. Graham had previously built one—the first in America—atop the Ala Moana shopping center in Honolulu. After the success of the Space Needle, Graham’s buildings tended to soar skyward, including several high-rises now integral to downtown Seattle. His firm designed the funky “hair curler” tower for 1969’s Washington Plaza Hotel (now the Westin Hotel), adding its twin tower in 1982; the 37-story Henry M. Jackson Federal Building (1974); the Bank of California Building (1974); and the Sheraton Seattle Hotel and Towers (1982).

Graham is also remembered (for better or worse) for inventing the suburban shopping mall. He designed Northgate—which opened in 1950 and is notable for being the first American shopping center called a “mall”—as two long rows of stores with entrances facing each other, connected by a covered pedestrian walkway. The World’s Fair’s principal architect, Paul Thiry, incorporated the inward focus of Graham’s shopping mall concept when designing the grounds.


Paul Thiry's penchant for remarkable roofs is evident in the Colieum, 1962, and other local icons such as the Mercer Island Presbyterian Church, 1961 (below right).
Credit: MOHAI, 1986.5.8131 (top); Daniel Spils (right)

Paul Thiry
Paul Thiry’s vision for the fair drew from more than 30 years of experience. A 1928 graduate of the University of Washington, Thiry visited the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair and was inspired by the new architectural ideas he saw there (primarily: form should follow function). In 1934, he traveled extensively in Japan and Europe, where he met globally influential architects Antonin Raymond and Le Corbusier. He merged ideas from abroad with what he had seen in Chicago and started building homes in the “International style,” which emphasized simple, cube-like forms, a lack of ornamentation, flat roofs and long banks of windows.

Thiry’s embrace of this style in the late 1930s—well before midcentury modern became all the rage—earned him his colloquial title as the “father of Northwest modernism.” But the World’s Fair planners likely hired Thiry for his experience designing campuses; he had managed projects at the UW, Washington State University, and the Capitol campus in Olympia. He had also designed museums and public buildings: the Frye Art Museum and the Museum of History & Industry in Seattle (both of which have been heavily remodeled since), and the Washington State Library on the Capitol campus.

Many of the futuristic-looking buildings Thiry designed for the fair were destroyed immediately afterward, including the egg-shaped Nalley’s Fine Food Pavilion and the golf-ball-roofed Ford Motor Company Pavilion. The architect seems to have had a thing for unusual roofs, which can still be seen today in local buildings such as the St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church (1962) in the Montlake neighborhood, the Mercer Island Presbyterian Church (1961) and the Agnes Flanagan Chapel at Lewis & Clark College in Portland (1972). One of Thiry’s early World’s Fair ideas, in fact, was to suspend a roof over all 74 acres of the grounds. But his most famous roof was also one of his most controversial—the Washington State Coliseum (now remodeled and known as KeyArena), which he designed as a centerpiece of the World’s Fair. His use of huge concrete buttresses upholding a roof with no interior supports were extremely radical for the day. A critic at the time, James T. Burns Jr., called it “quite disturbing—even annoying,” although he said the coliseum’s interior was “breathtaking.”

Thiry’s love of soaring concrete was also evident in a Normandy Park house he built in 1962. The home featured enormous cantilevered concrete supports suspending it out over Puget Sound, and gained media attention in 2010 when it was put up for sale for $1 (the buyer would’ve had to pay to move it elsewhere). With no takers, it was torn down.


Paul Hayden Kirk's love o clean lines is seen in his Playhoue, 1962 (now Intiman Theatre), and University Unitarian Chruch, 1959 (below right)
Credit: UW Libraries, Special Collections, SEA0429 & DM2599

Paul Hayden Kirk

Also integral to the World’s Fair team was Paul Hayden Kirk—a UW architecture grad and master of regional modernism—who, in the 1950s, earned national press for designing many impressive local homes in the International style. For the World’s Fair, Kirk conceived the Playhouse (now Intiman Theatre) and the sawtooth-roofed Fine Arts Pavilion (which now houses Exhibition Hall downstairs, and the Pacific Northwest Ballet offices and studios upstairs). Kirk’s penchant for long rows of bold parallel lines can be seen in his other local work from the same time period, including the University Unitarian Church in the U District (1959) and Seattle Public Library’s Magnolia branch (1964).


Minoru Yamasaki
Minoru Yamasaki, a Seattle native based in Detroit at the time, was one of only two architects from outside of Seattle brought on to the World’s Fair team. (The other was San Francisco-based landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, who designed the fair’s master landscaping plan and later, Seattle’s Freeway Park.) Yamasaki designed the United States Science Pavilion, now the Pacific Science Center. No one created an insulated space better than Yamasaki, who took inspiration from the serene homes and inns of Japan. Writing in his 1979 autobiography, he remembers “the combined feeling of peace and pleasure, [which] seemed to envelop us at once” as he entered a Japanese restaurant. Jeffrey Ochsner, a professor at the UW school of architecture, says Yamasaki was also influenced by a trip to Venice in the late 1950s and the Gothic tracery in the city’s medieval buildings.

These forces coalesced in Yamasaki’s Science Pavilion. Six exhibit halls, painted white and adorned with simplified tracery in parallel lines close together, enclose large pools of flowing water crowned with five arches that resemble the vaults of cathedrals. People called the pavilion a temple to science and technology. “It created a wonderful, contemplative space,” remembers local architect Bill Bain, who worked with Yamasaki. Observers labeled the style “space Gothic,” a term Yamasaki rejected. (After all, the arches are rounded, rather than pointed.) “The narrow, strongly vertical look becomes a motif in his architecture after the late ‘50s,” Ochsner says of the look that is clear in Yamasaki’s other Seattle buildings, the Rainier Square Tower (with its “golf tee” base; 1977) and the IBM Building (1964), both downtown. But it was the Science Pavilion that brought Yamasaki to the attention of New York’s World Trade Center planners. The Twin Towers—whose structural system was derived from the IBM Building—were by far his most famous work, destroyed in the 9/11 tragedy.


The U.S. Science Pavilion, 1962 (now the Pacific Science Center), by Seattle Center architect Minoru Yamasaki
Credit: UW Libraries, Special Collections, SEA3221

The Future

By the time the fair closed
, nearly 10 million people had experienced the 21st century, as imagined by mid-20th-century Seattleites. Most cultural critics blessed the event (although commentator Alistair Cooke, the future host of PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre, called the expo “a trade fair overlaid with Coney Island”). The fair made money—a rare accomplishment in the history of world’s fairs—and the planners left behind public buildings still in daily use. Besides KeyArena and the Pacific Science Center, the Exhibition Hall and the Food Circus (long known as the Center House) have survived largely intact. The International Fountain (designed by Hideki Shimizu and Kazuyuki Matsushita, winners of an international contest held by the City of Seattle) still draws thousands.

Thanks to the fair’s insular design, however, city planners are still figuring out how to make the grounds more inviting to the general public (beyond once-a-year events such as the Folklife Festival and Bumbershoot). In the original World’s Fair design, the grounds were enclosed (by walls in some places, buildings in others). Ochsner says many alterations have opened up the site (including the Denny Way entrance to the Pacific Science Center, and McCaw Hall’s Mercer Street entrance and large plaza). But a few original design features (such as the back side of the Northwest Rooms) remain as imposing walls. “We’re still faced with how to take a site that’s inwardly focused and turn it into a place that looks outward,” says Ochsner.

Fifty years later, the space continues to evolve. Frank Gehry drastically changed the landscape with his shining and lumpy Experience Music Project in 2000. The previously awkward corridor between the Seattle Repertory Theatre and Exhibition Hall has been opened up into a pleasant plaza. The Center House is undergoing a massive makeover—adding local food purveyors and outdoor seating, and a new name, The Armory. The Thiry-designed buildings that once held the Canada, Denmark and United Arab Republic pavilions, until recently known as the Northwest Rooms, now house (respectively) all-ages music venue The Vera Project, a new screening venue for the Seattle International Film Festival and in the next year or two, will welcome independent radio station KEXP and a proposed accompanying concert space. Not to mention the gigantic new addition to the grounds: Chihuly Garden and Glass, in the space formerly known as the Fun Forest (previously the fair’s Gayway), set to open this spring. And the Seattle branch of the American Institute of Architects is currently holding a design competition, “Urban Intervention,” to determine what to do with the 9-acre space currently occupied by the soon to be demolished Memorial Stadium (the winning design will be announced in May).

Given all the changes afoot, by the time the fair’s 75th anniversary comes around, the grounds may very well be once again bustling—and Seattle Center will be looking toward a whole new future.


Additional reporting by Brangien Davis.

2016 Crosscut Courage Award Winners

2016 Crosscut Courage Award Winners

The 2016 Crosscut Courage Award winners don't walk away from difficult conversations and challenges
Back row: Honorees Richard Romero, Courage in Business, and Stephen Tan and Joey Cohn, Courage in Culture. Front row: Colleen Echohawk, Courage in Public Service, and Martha Choe, The David Brewster Lifetime Achievement Award

A trailblazing public servant who has spent decades in government and philanthropy. A banker who has given immigrants a foot in the door toward citizenship. A nonprofit leader who works to better the lot of Native Americans. And a thousands-strong community group that came together to save a beloved public radio station.

What do they all have in common? When faced with the choice between dialogue and rhetoric, between engagement and flight, they chose to stay and to talk—to struggle through difficult conversations in order to make things better for all. That’s why they’ve been selected as the winners of Crosscut’s 2016 Courage Awards.

Seattle magazine is proud to partner with online news journal Crosscut ( in recognizing these local leaders whose personal and professional dedication is making our region more vital, equitable and inclusive.

Courage in Culture Honoree
Friends of 88.5 

Last November, Pacific Lutheran University announced it was selling local National Public Radio (NPR) affiliate KPLU-FM to the University of Washington (UW). KPLU’s newsroom would be disbanded and its jazz programming absorbed into KUOW-FM. For the leaders of the 50-year-old KPLU, it would have been easy to just fold up the microphones and send the staff to look for work elsewhere: The $7 million deal was all but done, pending approval by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

But that didn’t happen. Instead, bowing under immense community pressure, the UW granted the station’s members a moonshot chance of matching the university’s offer and buying the station themselves. They had six months to do it.

Working under the banner of Friends of 88.5, a nonprofit created in a matter of weeks out of the vestiges of KPLU’s community advisory board, supporters and station leaders—including Joey Cohn and Stephen Tan—organized rallies across the region, including a KPLU day in Tacoma. They took to the airwaves, conscripting Audie Cornish, Quincy Jones and others to make their pitch. And they organized groups of longtime donors to provide matches of as much as $500,000.

Today, KPLU is KNKX, an independent nonprofit. The station is not totally out of the woods yet: It now needs to rebuild its reserves and find enough money just to operate. But amid a sea of dismal news about the decline of journalism, the Friends of 88.5 are a life raft.

Courage in Public Service Honoree
Colleen Echohawk

Soon after accepting the post of executive director of the Chief Seattle Club two and a half years ago, Colleen Echohawk realized that the organization had to do much more to address the multiple traumas faced by American Indian and Alaska Native people in Seattle. 

These populations suffer from a whole range of ills, from poverty to addiction to homelessness. Last year, 16 native people died while living on the streets or facing housing instability. Echohawk needed resources, but she had no experience with fundraising and found the idea of approaching groups like United Way frightening.

Today, United Way is the club’s biggest funder, and the Chief Seattle Club, a presence in the city since 1970, has become a larger force in promoting public safety and solving the crisis of homelessness. The club has added weekend hours, and the staff has grown from seven to 15, including a case manager to help with housing for the 100 members it sees daily, most of whom experience chronic homelessness. 

“She has got this way of being very positive and constructive,” says Mark Putnam at All Home Seattle, the organization coordinating homeless efforts in King County. He praises Echohawk’s ability to build strong relationships while also pushing issues, including awareness of the extreme racial disparity in homeless rates.

While Echohawk loves the many ways she has seen Seattle respond to her club members’ needs, she thinks it’s particularly hard for them to face isolation and homelessness in a city whose name honors a native leader. “This city,” she says, “is losing out on incredible people.” If Echohawk has her way, that will change.

Courage in Business Honoree
Richard Romero

For many immigrants, the path to U.S. citizenship is a difficult one. To get there, they must wait in a long line in which their nationality can determine their priority. They must learn about our system of government, memorizing more than many natural-born citizens actually know. And at the end of it all, they must hand over a hefty amount of cash.

To go from holding a green card to becoming a naturalized citizen, an individual immigrant must pay a $680 filing fee. For families, the fees can add up to thousands of dollars. That’s a tall order: As many as half of King County’s 100,000 immigrants eligible for citizenship may be impoverished, according to Seattle’s Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs. 

Under the leadership of CEO Richard Romero, the Seattle Metropolitan Credit Union has begun helping with this final hoop via a novel partnership with the City of Seattle that provides loans to immigrants. The city’s main role is to communicate with immigrant populations about the availability of the loans. The credit union takes care of the rest.

While there’s been lots of bluster this year about building walls and turning immigrants away at our borders, Romero’s initiative honors one of our country’s core values and lends a helping hand to those seeking a better life.

Lifetime Achievement Honoree
Martha Choe

If you spotted her on the bus in the morning, with her low-key, unassuming manner and neatly parted hair, you might not guess that Martha Choe is one of the most influential people in Washington’s recent history. But Choe has been a trailblazer for both women and people of color in Washington. 

From her terms on the Seattle City Council and work in state government to her leadership in the banking sector and global influence as the chief administrative officer of the Gates Foundation, Choe has embraced a leadership style that prioritizes compromise and getting things done over popularity and easy point scoring. 

Leadership requires both “vision and reality,” Choe said in a recent talk at the Henry M. Jackson Foundation. “Leadership involves people, not just org charts and boxes. Learn, listen and understand different perspectives.”

Choe used this approach to get Asian at-risk youth off the streets by investing in community centers. She helped revive Seattle’s downtown by reopening Pine Street to cars and bringing more than 1 million square feet of retail space to downtown Seattle between 1996 and 1998. And she spent a decade overseeing the operations of large portions of the Gates Foundation—including human resources and the hiring of staff—building the philanthropic powerhouse into its present form. 

As someone who has dedicated her lifetime to public service and steady leadership, Choe exemplifies what it means to be an involved, courageous citizen of the Pacific Northwest.