IT WAS AN era of courageous quests: nationally, landing on the moon within the decade; locally, building a bold, enduring beacon.
Sixty years ago, ground was broken for our city’s 605-foot Space Needle — on April 17, 1961, to be exact. A year later, on April 21, 1962, the Seattle World’s Fair opened, and so did the Needle.
Today’s warp-speed endeavors have little on this one. It’s hard to fathom how fast the fair’s signature symbol went up, but Gary Curtis has a grasp.
The 24-year-old was two years out of Walla Walla University’s engineering program in March 1961, when he worked in the five-person Pasadena office of structural engineer John Minasian, an expert in the wind and seismic loads of towers. There, Curtis began pumping out detailed drawings that guided the Needle’s assembly.
From the get-go, adrenaline fueled the overtime pace. “Thirteen months later, the structure’s going to be done,” Curtis says. “They hadn’t even rolled the steel yet in Chicago.”
Daily, Curtis and others produced and overnighted tubes of oversized documents to Seattle at 11 p.m. for use by 8 a.m. “We would look at where they were, the actual construction, the guys putting steel together, and we’d be detailing stuff 150 feet above where they were working,” he says. “You didn’t mess around.”
Instead of cutting corners, however, the engineers strengthened them.
“We just threw the steel at it,” he says. “What we did was brutal. It was a beautiful design, but we didn’t have time to do a refined analysis. If you found out that a quarter-inch plate was going to probably be about right, use three-eighths, use five-sixteenths. You didn’t skimp on anything. If 50 bolts made a connection, 75 went in. There was no time to try to figure out how to save money. Saving money wasn’t the point. Getting it done on time was the point.”
Through the Needle’s decades of wear and renovation, the work has held up — and so has Curtis. Now 84 and living 80 miles and a ferry ride north of Seattle, Curtis lovingly preserves copies of his drawings and the tools he used to create them: a slide rule, triangle, drafting pencils, a pencil sharpener, erasers and an erasing shield. Eyeing his 1961 lettering and “GNC” initials on the plans, he breaks into a grin.
“It was really exciting,” he says. “You’re 24? Come on! Good grief; that’s just what you do.” Though he has worked on high bridges and geodesic domes and consulted at the South Pole, for him the Needle stands supreme: “It’s the most dramatic project that people know most about.”
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