Alien Architecture: The Space Needle

May 13, 2013 — Every major city has a Signature Tall Thing. For most of them, it’s usually just a relatively boring office building. In Seattle, Washington, it’s a tribute to extraterrestrials built by Satanists.

I realize that the Space Needle seems more mainstream than the oddities I usually focus on, but, truthfully, the White Tower of Seattle is an absolutely bizarre sky piercer.

For while I’m outright lying about the Satanist part (the company that designed and built the Space Needle was called the Pentagram Corporation), I’m not even exaggerating about its UFO connection.

It was built as part of the 1962 World’s Fair, also called the Century 21 Exposition. The fair was space-themed and future-themed, so they wanted the top to look like a flying saucer. After all, it was going on all the posters.

And remember, this isn’t just a random building erected on the side of a highway to attract parched and swollen-bladdered travelers to buy gewgaws. It’s the official symbol of Seattle. Its brand, to phrase it in a soul-shrinking way. And making a UFO the center point of your reputation is fine for small towns that need to grasp at anything to stand out in the town-eat-town world of tourism, but one of the largest cities in the country?

The saucer is 138 feet wide, and it rises to a point 605 feet from the ground. That’s high for a building, low for a UFO. At least for one not in abduction maneuvers. Actually, it’s not that high, either. Not these days. It was the tallest thing west of the Mississippi back then. Today, it’s short compared to most of the Signature Tall Things elsewhere in the world. Heck, it’s not even the tallest structure in Seattle, despite the Frazier logo.

At the top is an observation deck, a restaurant that rotates thanks to a tiny single-horsepower engine, and a gift shop full of gewgaws.

The view is spectacular and varied. Walking around the outside deck on a bright, but slightly hazy day, we saw the entire city, Puget Sound, and a couple of mountain ranges. Unfortunately, and if I remember correctly it was because of the time of day, we couldn’t make out Mount Rainer, that large, startling, and city-overshadowing rock that in other people’s pictures seems for all the world like a white-topped petrified god awaiting a group of horny teenagers to accidentally awake it from slumber to consume the planet. I’ve read that if the weather is clear enough to suffocate a small child, you can even make out Mount St. Helen’s.

The saucer of the Space Needle was originally painted gold, and they’ve painted it different colors over the years for events and anniversaries. The default is white. It took only a year to build, at a cost of $4.5 million. I don’t know how much it would cost to build an actual flying saucer for comparison.

But let’s stop with the stats. Back to the science fiction. Calling it the Space Needle was a completely descriptive and apt move, but to me the phrase makes me think of alien probes and other uncomfortable extraterrestrial abduction experiments. Still, it’s a better name than Decades-Old Amusement Park Ride. Which it also kind of looks like to me.

But the saucer-shape wasn’t just for show. It was for history. I’m not sure whether on purpose or not, though. Turns out, the first officially acknowledged UFO sighting of modern times was next door at Mount Rainer in 1947…two weeks before the Roswell Incident and nine years before Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (RIP, Ray).

A private pilot named Kenneth Arnold saw a formation of shiny disc shapes, which got translated in the media as “flying saucer,” bringing a phrase into the parlance that half a century later still hasn’t worn out its welcome.

Today, the Needle even shades the Science Fiction Museum (or, more accurately, the EMP Museum since it covers more than SF), an amazing collection in a crazy looking building that’s one of my favorite sites and one of my greatest sins for never writing about it on OTIS.

The only outstanding question to me about the whole Space Needle is why it hasn’t been featured in some giant monster movie yet. I would love to see it beheaded and floating in the Pacific, the survivors trying to keep it afloat while fighting off a 900-foot-tall alien lizard treating it like a food dish (RIP, Ray).

I don’t have any real story of my time at the Space Needle. We went up, we looked around, we came down. We mentally crossed it off a checklist.

But it’ll always be about the aliens for me.

Reflected in the hull of the Science Fiction Museum.