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.

Meet the YIMBYs, Seattleites in Support of Housing Density

Meet the YIMBYs, Seattleites in Support of Housing Density

A new movement is saying yes to urban density in all its forms
Ballard homeowner Sara Maxana (with daughter Nani) identifies as a YIMBY, and supports more housing density, including in single-family areas

Sara Maxana is exactly the sort of person you might expect to see getting involved in her neighborhood meetings. A single mom with two young kids, Maxana lives in a single-family 1931 Ballard bungalow of the type many neighborhood activists are fighting to preserve. Ballard, where the population grew 26 percent between 2010 and 2014, is ground zero in Seattle’s density wars, which pit pro-growth advocates, many of them young renters who moved to the city within the last decade, against the longtime homeowners sometimes disparagingly known as NIMBYs, for “not in my backyard.”

What you might find surprising is that Maxana isn’t a NIMBY. She’s one of a growing group of people who say “yes in my backyard,” coining a new acronym: YIMBY.

Maxana, who once worked at the sustainability nonprofit Futurewise, had more or less retired from politics. But she got re-engaged after Mayor Ed Murray proposed the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) in 2015. The plan (see sidebar, below), which proposes higher density across the city—including the addition of more backyard cottages and basement apartments in single-family areas—quickly became divisive.

Maxana started identifying as a YIMBY because she felt Seattle decision makers needed to hear a positive story about the changes that are coming to the city. She began speaking up at public meetings, studying the details of HALA and tweeting as @YIMBYmom, a quiet rebuke to those who say all urbanists—i.e., people who believe that cities should be dense, culturally vibrant, diverse places with lots of different transportation options—are single, transient renters with no ties to their community.

By embracing the YIMBY concept, Maxana joins a growing community of activists, researchers, housing experts and community-based organizations that see growth as an opportunity to create housing for all the new people who want to live in cities, rather than a hostile invading force. These groups make up a loosely organized, informal coalition of organizations and individuals across the country and, indeed, the globe (groups using the YIMBY framework have sprung up from Melbourne to Helsinki to Iowa City), who believe that the root of housing affordability is a housing shortage, and that the solution to that shortage is simple: Build more housing.  

Image By: Maria Billorou
Zachary DeWolf at the 12th Avenue Arts Building: trying to make Capitol Hill a place for mansion owners and street people alike

Although they span the political spectrum, from far left social-justice activists to hard-core libertarian free marketeers, YIMBYs generally agree that cities should be accessible and affordable for everyone, whether they own a million-dollar mansion or rent a $900-a-month studio, and whether they work as a barista or just moved to Seattle for a new job at Amazon.

Seattle might not seem the most obvious axis for this pro-density revolution. For one thing, it’s a city where the single-family home, especially the iconic Craftsman bungalow, is sacrosanct. So thoroughly did Seattle embrace the postwar ideal of the detached single-family house with a yard that it’s written into our zoning code, which preserves a remarkable 57 percent of the city’s buildable land exclusively for single-family houses. (In Portland, the number is 3 percent.)

But as more and more people move to Seattle—the city’s long-range plans anticipate 120,000 new residents by 2035—tension between longtime homeowners and renters, many of them relative newcomers to the city, has mounted. Rents in Seattle increased more last year than those in any other big city in the country, and in the past five years, the median rent has increased from just over $1,500 to more than $2,000. Meanwhile, the median income of renters, $47,847, is less than half that of homeowners, $108,768.

Instead of merely complaining about the housing crisis, Maxana says, YIMBYs “see growth as something that can catalyze change and bring about good things for cities.”

“I don’t see YIMBYs as addressing a problem so much as addressing an opportunity,” Maxana says. “We’re not trying to stop things; we’re trying to say yes to change. I think it’s much more exciting to be pushing for a vision than against what’s happening.”

For Maxana, that vision includes more new neighbors, more interesting shops and coffeehouses, more places to walk and bike and ride—in other words, more of all the things that are coming to her Ballard neighborhood already. “In Ballard, we have all these new breweries, and they’re child-friendly and they’re dog-friendly, and there are places to sit outside with your kids,” Maxana says. “I see more people in the parks, on the streets, on the bus. In my neighborhood, I can walk to five bus lines that get me across town to everywhere I could possibly need to go in the city. And all of that activity lends itself to more vibrancy, and just a more interesting place to live.”

Maxana can rattle off the statistics that describe Seattle’s housing crisis—for example, 40 new people and 35 new jobs are added every day, yet only 12 new housing units a day. But she and other YIMBYs argue that statistics don’t change minds; values do. “We cannot convince anybody with the data alone. We have to be speaking about our values and we have to be speaking from our heart—not ‘I feel this way and so should you,’ but ‘I’m a mom in Ballard and I want my kids to be able to live here when they grow up, and ultimately, this is why I support [density].’”

YIMBYs are starting to make waves at city hall. In July, under pressure from YIMBYs and other urbanists who argued that the city needed to do more to include marginalized groups such as renters, immigrants and people of color, Murray announced the city was cutting formal ties with the 13 neighborhood councils that advise the city on growth and development, eliminating their funding and creating a new advisory group to come up with a more inclusive neighborhood outreach strategy. (The neighborhood councils, Murray noted, are dominated by older, white, wealthy homeowners, and are not representative of an increasingly diverse city.)

While the YIMBYs didn’t make this change happen on their own, their support helped provide political cover for Murray and his neighborhood department director, Kathy Nyland (a former Georgetown neighborhood activist who is openly sympathetic to the YIMBY cause), for what turned out to be a controversial move. Many neighborhood activists liked the neighborhood councils as they were.

Some neighborhood groups are starting to move in a YIMBY direction. A Capitol Hill renter and self-identified YIMBY, Zachary DeWolf stepped into a leadership vacuum on the Capitol Hill Community Council in 2014. He was first elected vice president in 2014, and then president in 2015. As president, he restructured a traditional neighborhood group dominated by older homeowners into an organization run almost entirely by young renters.

His goal: to make the group that represents Capitol Hill more welcoming and inclusive. He has encouraged young renters to run for leadership positions; changed the style of the meetings from a traditional format with leaders sitting at a table facing the audience, to a circular roundtable where everyone can participate; and instituted more after-work hours/evening “community conversations” and “socials” to give a wider range of people a chance to get to know each other and discuss neighborhood issues.

The group’s policy emphasis has been different, too. Instead of advocating for anti-urbanist causes, such as banning corner stores in residential areas and placing a moratorium on new micro apartments as it did in the past, the council is discussing how to accommodate a supervised drug-consumption site in the neighborhood. As DeWolf puts it, “Instead of pushing [drug users] out to neighborhoods that are farther out, where there’s less resources and community, why not just keep them here and take care of them ourselves?” He adds, “At the end of the day, every person that’s in our neighborhood—whether it’s someone living in North Capitol Hill in a gajillion-dollar mansion or someone sleeping in the doorway on 15th in front of someone’s business, every type of person is our neighbor. To me, that is very YIMBY.”

Dennis Saxman, a longtime Capitol Hill activist and renter who opposes what he sees as out-of-control development and gentrification in his neighborhood, believes YIMBYs are well-meaning, but that they misunderstand the root causes of Seattle’s affordability crisis. “I don’t think they understand that Seattle was once notable for the strength of its neighborhoods and their differing characters, and that at one time, that was seen as something important to preserve and desirable,” Saxman says. “Now it’s seen as a way to market neighborhoods while at the same time destroying what makes a neighborhood a neighborhood.”

Saxman says he admires a lot of what DeWolf has done to bring new people into the council, but argues that “they’re falling short” when it comes to including more racial minorities, longtime residents and low-income people. “I don’t think they’re authentically community-based,” he says.

Will Seattle’s future look more like DeWolf and Maxana’s vision—an ever denser city, where newcomers and their ideas are welcome—or more like the city of the past, where conversations were dominated by residents resistant to change? That may depend on whether YIMBYs can make the leap from a vocal group of contrarians who provide a counterpoint to conventional wisdom at city hall to a force that helps guide city policy while bringing new allies, including more single-family homeowners, on board.

One sign that yimbys in Seattle are having an impact came last June from 1,300 miles away in Boulder, Colorado. A group of 150 YIMBYs from all over the country convened at an inaugural conference, YIMBY 2016, to talk about their challenges and successes. The Seattle contingent, which included Maxana, Sightline Institute staffer and Capitol Hill renter Serena Larkin, and University District renter and YIMBY activist Laura Bernstein (who tweets at @YIMBYSea), showed up feeling a bit discouraged by local rancor over HALA. But they left energized after delegations from other cities expressed enthusiasm for what they see as an inclusive coalition of Seattle groups that support HALA, which include urban activists, developers, environmentalists and social justice organizations.

“All these other groups and cities kept telling us, ‘We need to do that work—how did you get all of those people at the table together?’” says Larkin. “It wasn’t the policies [the details of HALA] we came up with, but the relationships that they saw had been built through HALA.”

When you’re in the thick of things in Seattle, it’s hard to see what’s being accomplished here, notes Bernstein. “But when you compare Seattle to other cities, then all of a sudden we look like the success story. I think that there are battles that we’re losing, but we’re winning the war.”

Maxana points to the success of the housing levy, which funds low-income housing and which Seattle voters approved by more than 70 percent in August, as a sign that many Seattleites support the idea of building more housing, including affordable housing. “I see that, and I just have to believe something is clicking,” says Maxana. “And even though you have such a volume of vitriol on [private social media site] Nextdoor and in some of these neighborhood meetings, I think, for the most part, when I look at the city, I see people who want a good place to live not just for themselves, but for their kids and their neighbors.”

Including neighbors they don’t even know yet.

What The Hala?
The proposed Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA), billed as an “action plan to address Seattle’s affordability crisis,” aims to build 50,000 new housing units in the next 20 years, 20,000 of those affordable to people making less than 60 percent of Seattle’s median income ($37,680 for an individual and $53,760 for a family of four*).

To help accomplish this, HALA will: 
Increase the maximum height of new multifamily buildings in multifamily areas and commercial buildings outside downtown, South Lake Union and the University District by 10–20 feet.

Require rental housing developers to make a percentage of the new housing they build affordable to people making less than 60 percent of median income, or pay a fee that will go toward affordable housing elsewhere in Seattle. (Commercial property developers will also have to pay a similar fee.)

Ease restrictions on backyard cottages and mother-in-law apartments in single-family areas, to allow as many as one of each on single-family lots.

Expand the boundaries of urban villages and rezone about 6 percent of Seattle’s single-family areas to allow low-rise multifamily housing in those areas.

Implement anti-displacement strategies in neighborhoods with low-income residents who are especially vulnerable to displacement, and promote homeownership, especially for vulnerable populations.

See a full list of HALA strategies at
* Source: City of Seattle