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Back To The Future: Seattle's Space Needle Turns 50

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Seattle's Space Needle turns 50 on Saturday. Originally built as a tourist attraction for the city's 1962 World's Fair, the structure was meant to evoke the future. Now the future is here, and the Needle has become the city's favorite antique.

Peter Steinbrueck traces the tower's lineage to an abstract sculpture that sits in his office. Steinbrueck is an architect and former City Council member, and the sculpture used to belong to his father, Victor, also an architect.

Back in 1960, his dad was working with a team of designers from John Graham and Co., trying to come up with a concept design for the Space Needle.

The head of the World's Fair wanted a signature tower — something lollipop-shaped, like a TV tower in Stuttgart, Germany. But Victor Steinbrueck wanted something more elegant — and then he noticed the sculpture. It resembled a narrow-waisted, three-legged dancer with upstretched arms.

"And he yelled to his wife, my mother Elaine, 'I've got it, I've got it!' And he did," Peter Steinbrueck says.

Changes With Time

Victor Steinbrueck later became known for saving Seattle's iconic Pike Place Market from urban renewal. But his son says he also deserves credit for the Needle. Victor was proud of how it looked, and his son says he thought the owners ruined the Needle's lines with an extra observation deck in the 1980s.

Of course, the Needle was never architecturally pure. Conceived as a rotating restaurant and tourist attraction, it was born a little garish. Jeff Wright, whose family now owns the Space Needle, recalls the giant gas flame that used to shoot out the top.

"You could see it from probably 50 miles away," Wright says. "It was a huge deal, but unfortunately it wasn't very environmentally sensitive. It could heat a small town, the amount of gas that went through it. And we shut it down."

Not Orange — It's 'Galaxy Gold'

Another thing people tend to forget is that the Space Needle wasn't always white. The flying saucer at the top used to be orange, though that's not the color's official name. Wright says it was "galaxy gold."

He walked on the saucer's roof Tuesday, more than 500 feet up, ceremonially brushing on the old color. The needle is being repainted for its birthday — it'll be galaxy gold for six months.

Knute Berger looks down approvingly at the emerging old paint job. Born and raised in Seattle, he's a columnist and now the Space Needle's writer-in-residence. He defends the old — now new — color.

"You can see how in the sunlight — it looks like tangerine here, but in some of the light, it'll actually look a little golder," he says.

Of course, counting on sunlight to make the color look right in Seattle might be considered a design flaw. Gold or orange, he says, it beats off-white.

"When you look at the day to day, it's like, why wouldn't you want to brighten things up a little bit?" Berger says.

What Will Be?

For him, the real charm of the Space Needle is the way it embodies what he considers Seattle's "futuristic utopianism."

"There was one architecture critic for The Washington Post who said, 'You know, it's almost kitsch, but not quite,' " Berger says. "It doesn't quite go over the line. There's some sincerity there. You still kind of believe in that future. You still have hope."

And yes, a rotating restaurant may be the very definition of kitsch — but that's not how he saw it as a kid.

"I actually thought we're all going to be living in these things. This is, you know, the thing of the future, and you'll be able to fly to your friend's house," Berger says. He says he's disappointed that hasn't happened.

Berger wasn't the only one who thought we'd all be living in Space Needles by now. A few months after the Seattle fair closed, The Jetsons premiered on TV, and an animator later said George Jetson's apartment house in the sky had been directly inspired by the Space Needle.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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