Dale Chihuly's long-debated Seattle Center exhibition, Chihuly Garden and Glass, opens May 21 at the base of the Space Needle.

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The centerpiece of Dale Chihuly’s permanent exhibit at Seattle Center is a glass conservatory where visitors can gaze up at the Space Needle framed by 1,250 colorful Persian glass pieces suspended from the ceiling.

It’s a quintessential Seattle scene — one the Space Needle and Chihuly corporations hope will draw 400,000 visitors a year.

Chihuly’s temporary exhibits, while popular around the world, have been squeezed into museums or worked into existing botanical gardens.

In contrast, the Chihuly Garden and Glass, at nearly 45,000 square feet, was designed by Chihuly himself. “What I wanted to do there was take the very best from all the museum shows I’ve done over the years and add a couple of new parts to it,” he said. “I’m so pleased with the results. It was beyond my expectations, really.”

Setting aside the controversy about Chihuly as an artist or his business acumen, the sheer volume of his work on display in the new exhibition is notable. His glass fills eight galleries. Some pieces spill from two wooden rowboats on a plexiglass pond. A long connecting walkway is decorated with seven of his giant trademark chandeliers. It’s a spectacle.

On seeing it for the first time, it’s hard to remember what was there before — the tired Fun Forest, which for all its happy memories had lost its charm.

Even those who have watched the daily transformation at the base of the Needle are awed.

“It really is his canvas,” said Ron Sevart, president and CEO of the Space Needle Corp. “He’s always creating.”

Hopes high at Center

The $20 million exhibition, financed by the Space Needle Corp., is a “huge shot in the arm” for the Center as it marks the 50th anniversary of the Seattle World’s Fair, said Center director Robert Nellams.

“I thought it was going to be special, but I didn’t envision it being as special as it’s actually becoming,” he said.

It converts the Fun Forest into a landscaped garden — which is fenced and part of the exhibit — studded with Chihuly’s signature glass reeds, fronds and sculptures. The glass house and garden are lit at night, creating what the Seattle Center hopes will become a beacon on the campus.

As soon as it was proposed two years ago, the Chihuly project drew critics who said it was yet another paid attraction at one of the city’s favorite public spaces. Others criticized Chihuly as self-promoting and more focused on marketing than art.

In Seattle fashion, a yearlong process ensued. Nine proposals were submitted for the coveted space. Chihuly’s project won the support of a citizen’s committee, the mayor and City Council.

“What we heard through the controversy and through the process was just how important the space was,” said Leslie Chihuly, Dale’s wife and president of Chihuly Studio.

The project had its fans and detractors. But in the end, it may have won for financial reasons.

“I think that it’s great that we’re going to have the infusion of cash that it will bring with it,” said Seattle City Councilmember Jean Godden. “It, as you know, is going to pay pretty good, fairly hefty rent.”

Under the lease agreement, Chihuly will pay an initial annual base rent of $350,000 for the site, the garden and an adjacent retail shop. After five years, the lease calls for annual rent payments to the city of $500,000, adjusted for inflation. The agreement includes an option to extend the lease for five additional successive terms of five years each.

The $15-$19 ticket prices are higher than the $12-$15 the Space Needle Corp. estimated in its proposal to the city, but Sevart, the CEO, said the price is comparable to similar attractions. “The project has evolved,” he said, adding that the exhibit will offer free days.

A second proposal to put public radio station KEXP at Seattle Center also was accepted by the city. The indie music station is raising money to move into the Northwest Rooms in late 2013 or 2014.

In addition, the Space Needle Corp. is committed to building a $1 million play area at Seattle Center. Work on that is scheduled to begin in the fall, after the 50-year anniversary celebration.

Gathering for a peek

Now that the Chihuly exhibit is a reality, gawkers gather along the edges of the fence to photograph landscapers putting the final touches on a garden that centers on Chihuly’s sculpture “the Sun,” thousands of curly, yellow glass spires formed into a fiery globe.

While paying visitors can wander through the garden, passers-by can see much of the outdoor artwork for free, as well as the suspended Persian glass, snaking along the high-ceiling glass house.

The glass house was inspired by Chihuly’s long love of conservatories, his effort, he said, “to make something that no one’s ever seen before … I just wanted to make it as stunning and as beautiful as I could.”

Inside the converted (and unrecognizable) old Fun Forest arcade building, Chihuly’s personal collections offer quirky surprises for ticket holders. Twenty-eight collections are on display in the cafe, where 82 accordions are suspended this way and that from the ceiling and one wall is filled with vintage radios.

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @EmilyHeffter.