Once a world’s fair, Seattle Center remains modern. New features such as the Chihuly Garden and Glass revitalize the site as it celebrates 50 years.
By John Gottberg Anderson
July 29, 2012
SEATTLE — Seattle Center is a half-century old this year, but it seems like just yesterday that I was a Eugene schoolboy marveling at its Space Needle and monorail.
The Century 21 Exposition, as the 1962 World’s Fair was officially known, was a cutting-edge showcase of space-age technology and post-colonial international emergence.
With the 605-foot Space Needle — then the tallest building in North America west of the Mississippi River — towering overhead, Seattle Center’s 74-acre campus spread along the base of Queen Anne Hill, linked to downtown Seattle by the country’s first commercial monorail, a milelong engineering marvel.
There was no Starbucks in 1962. Seattle had not yet seen major league sports. Boeing and the Pike Place Market were booming, but Jimi Hendrix was only just replacing Army life with an electric guitar, and Bill Gates was merely a precocious first-grader who had not yet dreamed of a company called Microsoft.
Fifty years later, Seattle Center is an institution in the Northwest’s largest city. And this summer, it is celebrating its roots. From the Space Needle to the Pacific Science Center, from the EMP Museum to the headquarters of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the city’s cultural hub is pulling out all the stops.
The center’s newest attraction is the Chihuly Garden and Glass, built at the foot of the Space Needle. Boasting more and brighter colors than are in a rainbow, and illuminated at night, the indoor-outdoor exhibition features the hand-blown glass work of renowned artist and Puget Sound native Dale Chihuly.
Chihuly broke ground on the project in August, a few weeks before he turned 70. It took him and his team just nine months (and $20 million) to develop a 1½-acre plot, repurposing an old exhibition hall and building a new glass house, surrounded by a garden that blends fanciful glass foliage with the real thing.
The collection is being acclaimed as Chihuly’s magnum opus. Cylindrical baskets stand side-by-side with the Native American crafts that influenced their creation. Glass designs of marine life forms are compared with original drawings. Floral ikebana sculptures are postured in traditional wooden boats from Finland, where the artist worked for an extended period. Cloudlike vases are speckled with all 300 colors available to the artist in a glass-blowing hot shop.
The centerpiece of the installation is the 40-foot-tall Glasshouse. Suspended from its glass panels is a six-section, 100-foot-long sculpture in various shades of red, orange and yellow. Chihuly was inspired to build this conservatory after visits to London’s Crystal Palace and Paris’ Sainte-Chapelle chapel.
The surrounding Chihuly Garden takes the artist’s “Mille Fiori” (1,000 flowers) concept to a climax. “I want my work to appear as though it came from nature,” Chihuly told an interviewer. Here, the glass is mixed into the environment of an exhibition garden, where dogwoods and azaleas, grasses and trees juxtapose with fanciful glass botanicals.
Two Seattle hotels exemplify the time warp visible at the Seattle Center. On a recent visit, I enjoyed overnight stays in both.
The Sorrento Hotel was already more than 50 years old when the 1962 World’s Fair was staged.
Built in 1909 in time for an earlier world’s fair, the Italian Renaissance-style building was inspired by the Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria in Sorrento, Italy. Seven stories tall, its 73 spacious guest rooms fewer than half of the original 154, it features a circular porte-cochere and a mosaic fireplace around which guests still gather for jazz concerts and author readings.
I was startled to learn that just one year after the Sorrento opened, its owner, businessman Samuel Rosenberg, traded the hotel for a pear orchard in Medford. It may not have made sense at the time, but Rosenberg’s two sons turned the orchard into a multimillion-dollar business that persists today. Their names: Harry and David.
An integral part of the Sorrento is the elegant Hunt Club, a cozy, old-school restaurant that gives classic dishes a modern makeover. One night, I had a rib-eye steak with figs and blue cheese. Another evening, I enjoyed oysters baked in absinthe.
The Pan Pacific Hotel is the Sorrento’s polar opposite. Thoroughly contemporary, just a few blocks from Seattle Center at the edge of downtown, it is barely four years old. Among its 153 guest rooms are a set of new Space Needle Suites, which offer wonderful sunset views of the iconic tower rising above the Center grounds.
A highlight of a stay at the Pan Pacific is dining at Seastar Restaurant and Raw Bar. Considered one of the finest seafood establishments in greater Seattle, it serves a not-inexpensive menu highlighted by regional seafood. Cedar plank-roasted Alaskan king crab legs were a bit beyond my budget, but I had no difficulty indulging in halibut with asparagus and morel mushrooms.
Around the Center
If you find yourself in Seattle between now and October, when the birthday party comes to an end, I suggest you start your visit with a ride up the glass-sided elevator to the observation deck and revolving restaurant on the highest levels of the Space Needle.
It takes 43 seconds to zoom 519 feet straight up.
From here, on a clear day, you can see from the Cascade Range to the Olympic Mountains, and seemingly each feature of every Seattle neighborhood.
Directly below is the Experience Music Project, the master work of avant-garde architect Frank Gehry. When it was built in 2000, it was extremely controversial. Viewed from above, it appears as a mangled mass of shiny, colorful metallic panels drawn together by a track of disjointed strings from the neck of a guitar. It looks, in fact, like a musical instrument that has been smashed on stage.
But that may be no accident. Software pioneer and philanthropist Paul Allen foresaw the museum as homage to his childhood hero, rock musician Hendrix, a Seattle native who achieved international fame in the late 1960s.
Hendrix, whose landmark “Are You Experienced?” album helped to name the museum, would be a bridge to the rich musical heritage of the Pacific Northwest, where bands such as The Kingsmen, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Heart, Nirvana and Pearl Jam could also have their stories told.
Allen subsequently added a Science Fiction Museum that has since been melded with the music museum.
Not many steps away, the 1962 World’s Fair’s original United States Science Pavilion has survived as the Pacific Science Center, the first private, not-for-profit American museum dedicated to science and technology. Its latticework towers, designed by Minoru Yamasaki, will host the center’s own 50th birthday party in late October.
But already the Science Center is celebrating — presenting the acclaimed King Tut exhibition of Egyptian artifacts through Jan. 6. Its five other halls, which form a horseshoe around a large central water court, include a variety of child-oriented educational exhibits. These include displays on dinosaurs, butterflies and other insects, marine life, health and wellness, computer technology and basic physics.
At the far northeastern corner of the Seattle Center grounds is the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, whose new headquarters opened here in February. A visitor center describes the foundation’s three-pronged global goals of poverty relief, health and education.
When I visited the Gates Foundation, I felt just like that schoolboy of 50 years earlier, agog at the amazing new developments still taking place in the heart of Seattle.