BACK IN 1962, the glitz of the Seattle World’s Fair filled my 11-year-old eyes with wonder. I still treasure its curios, including a souvenir tabloid with a custom banner headline, printed on the spot, employing the six-month show’s crowning landmark to convey whimsy: “Clay Eals Jumps Off Space Needle.”
I’m grateful it was fake news.
At no time, in visits that summer, did my child’s mind grasp that this was the city’s second world’s fair. But a nod to its precursor lay in the final word of its alternate name: the Century 21 Exposition.
Fifty-three years before, in 1909, Seattle’s — indeed, Washington state’s — first world’s fair embraced the sprawling title of Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition to salute the 1897 Gold Rush and what today we call the Pacific Rim. The A-Y-P opened 110 years ago this month at the University of Washington, which had relocated from downtown 14 years prior, in 1895.
The fair transformed the campus. With attractions from fine art to lowbrow amusements, it also instigated neoclassical (if largely temporary) architecture, Olmsted Brothers gardens, a new statue of the UW’s namesake, and a stately promenade and fountain pointing to Mount Rainier.
The sweep was as wide as our “Then” photo, taken atop the A-Y-P Ferris wheel by official photographer F.H. Nowell. It looks north and east, the western border of 15th Avenue slicing by at far left. But this panorama holds irony. While it conveys the fair’s grandeur, it covers only a fraction of its grounds.
Visible is the main entrance at 40th Street, off 15th. A short walk east reveals the George Washington statue (today one block north) and an array of gleaming structures: the Fine Arts Building (center-left); the domed U.S. Government Building; the Alaska Building (center); the smaller Washington Woman’s Building; the Klondike Circle; the Agriculture Building (behind a foreground spire of the Swedish Building); and an unintended presage of World War I, the Battle of Gettysburg cyclorama (“War! War! War! Replete with the Rush, Roar and Rumble of Battle”).
“It’s the greatest cultural event that has ever taken place in the city’s history,” asserts Magnolia’s Dan Kerlee, an A-Y-P researcher and collector who runs aype.com, an educational website. He says the 3,740,551 people who attended over 138 days enjoyed a uniquely inspiring, even elegant experience. “If people could walk the A-Y-P today, they would be beside themselves.”
World’s fairs, a prolific phenomenon of the late 19th and early-to-mid 20th centuries, have fallen out of fashion here, the most recent U.S. world’s fairs being 45 years ago in Spokane (Expo ’74) and in Knoxville (1982) and New Orleans (1984). A few hours north, Vancouver, B.C., put on Expo ’86, the last world’s fair in North America. Still, we can smile that Seattle hosted a spectacular pair.