Oct. 21, 2011, marks the six-month countdown to The Next Fifty, the 50th anniversary of the 1962 Seattle World's Fair. Seattle Center Foundation will announce programming for the celebration, as well as release a new official commemorative book.

Share story

In October 1957, the world changed. With the Soviet launch of Sputnik we knew the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair had to be more than a “Festival of the West” or a simple anniversary celebration of the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (A-Y-P): It had to be a fair of, for and about the future. We owe a great deal to the talented men and women who turned this audacious idea into a transformative event that captured the imagination of the world, introduced Seattle as a global city and deliberately left our community a civic center that is thriving 50 years later. These community leaders created a solid core of civic culture that has radiated in multiple directions for decades, and ignited a spark of ingenuity and imagination that has helped shape our region.

Seattle Center, the vibrant civic center that is the fair’s greatest legacy, is preparing to celebrate its 50th anniversary. This celebration, The Next Fifty, appropriately does more than just look back to the Seattle World’s Fair: It once again ignites the creativity and vision of our community and looks toward our shared future.

— from the Foreword by Jay Rockey, director of public relations and advertising for Century 21 Exposition, Inc.


Century 21 Exposition — the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair — was called into being by civic leaders with a vision who would not hear “No.” Their dual purpose: to celebrate their city while stimulating its growth, and to create the enduring legacy of a permanent civic center, which became Seattle Center. The audacity of building a world’s fair specifically to leave so much behind is stunning, still, innovative beyond the thinking of any other exposition.

Some fairs, like the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago and the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, marked significant historical anniversaries. The Seattle World’s Fair, like New York’s 1939-1940 World’s Fair, whose motto was “Building the World of Tomorrow,” looked forward.

Century 21 was the first exposition in 22 years to be held on American soil. It looked forward with bold audacity, literally reaching for the stars through emphasis on science, seeking to ease global tensions through emphasis on peaceful uses of space technology, and transforming 13 square blocks — 74 acres — of Seattle into what would become a treasured resource for the city through the late 20th century and bravely on, into the real 21st.

The Space Needle, created for the fair, became Seattle’s icon, while the Monorail imagined a future that was sleek, streamlined and bold. The foreign nations that took the fair’s chance to introduce their industries and cultures to Americans forged important ties of trade and diplomacy. The performing arts and the visual arts both benefited greatly from Century 21 — seeds planted at the fair sprouted, were nurtured and have flourished into a vibrant cultural community. The U.S. Science Pavilion, a completely innovative way to teach science to the masses, became the Pacific Science Center, where that important work continues.

Seattle’s citizenry in 1962 differed markedly from what would come. Population in the state of Washington in 1960 was 2,853,214, according to the 1960 federal census, with 935,014 residing in King County. Of that number, 557,087 lived in Seattle, which ranked 19th in city size nationally. Within Seattle, 91.6 percent of the population was white, 4.8 percent was black, 3.1 percent was Asian and Pacific Islander, 0.3 percent American Indian, Eskimo, and Aleut, and 0.1 percent Other. (Persons of Hispanic/Latin derivation were included in the “White” count in the 1960 census.)

By comparison, the 2010 census found the state’s population was 6,724,540, with nearly 30 percent living in King County and 630,320 in Seattle. No demographic breakdowns from the 2010 census were available as we went to press, but in the 2000 census Seattle’s population was 70.1 percent white, 8.4 percent black, 13.1 percent Asian, 1 percent American Indian and Native Alaskan, 0.05 percent Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander, 4.5 percent persons reporting two or more races, and 5.3 percent Hispanic or Latino. Seattle ranked 23rd in city size nationally.

Hindsight makes it clear that in 1962 many enormous changes were nascent: racial and social upheaval, the rock music scene, the women’s movement, the Vietnam War, the shock and outrage of political assassinations. The landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned discrimination on the basis of race and sex, was two years in the future during Century 21.

A decade into the real Century 21, Seattle has put its resources and talent on the global table and has often reaped the benefits. We have survived difficult times: the tense, frightening days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which President Kennedy unveiled on Oct. 22, 1962, the day after the fair closed; the collective grief at the president’s assassination the following year; the slowly building outcry against the Vietnam War; mounting cynicism at the actions of political leaders; the growth of greed in the closing decades of the 20th century; and the psychic and emotional body blow America experienced on Sept. 11, 2001, have left us, 50 years hence, in the odd position of looking back nostalgically on 1962’s vision of the future.

The Century 21 Exposition laid hopeful, confident, impetuous claim to that future — a future ginned up from science-fiction mystique mixed with cutting-edge science, peopled with newly emerging heroes like John Glenn and other pioneers of the New Frontier. The fair’s present was replete with food and fun, with entertainment that spanned the gamut from Gracie Hansen’s beloved if brassy burlesque to the highest-level performing-arts culture Seattle had yet enjoyed.

Seattle boosters, business leaders, elected officials and, finally, everyday citizens branded their bold undertaking America’s Space Age World’s Fair — at once staking claim to the country, the magnitude of space and the whole wide world. Never again would Seattle be discounted.