Bagley Wright, the influential Seattle arts patron and philanthropist, and one of the original investors in the Space Needle, has died.

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It’s difficult to imagine what Seattle — and its fine-arts institutions in particular — would look like without the imprint of Bagley Wright.

The influential arts patron, philanthropist and developer founded Seattle Repertory Theatre, worked to transform the Seattle Art Museum from a boutique neighborhood gallery into a downtown landmark, and helped build the city’s most recognizable symbol: the Space Needle.

Mr. Wright, who along with his wife, Virginia Wright, amassed the Northwest’s largest collection of modern and contemporary art and donated it to SAM, died Monday after a heart attack. He was 87.

Mr. Wright’s pivotal role in the creation of Seattle’s arts and cultural scene can scarcely be overstated, according to prominent local arts boosters.

“He really planted the first seeds of a vibrant cultural life in Seattle that we all take for granted now,” said Susan Trapnell, a local arts consultant. “He’s really been an essential donor and supporter of almost every major arts organization in the city.”

Born Charles Bagley Wright on April 13, 1924, in Marietta, Ga., he and his family moved to Great Neck, N.Y., during the Great Depression. Mr. Wright later attended Phillips Exeter Academy and Princeton University. After serving in the Army, trying his hand as a fiction writer and working as a journalist in New York, Mr. Wright married Virginia Bloedel, the daughter of a wealthy Northwest timber-industry family, in 1953. Three years later, the couple moved to Seattle.

They arrived in a city regarded as a cultural backwater, a reputation they worked for decades to change. “He understood that a great city had to have great cultural institutions,” said Charlie Wright, Mr. Wright’s son, who is chairman of the SAM board.

Mr. Wright went into business, joining with Stimson Bullitt in a real-estate development company. He helped develop several notable Seattle structures, including the Logan Building and the Bank of California Building (now also known as the 901 Fifth Avenue Building). He was an early investor and chairman of Physio Control, a maker of emergency heart-care equipment, which was sold to Eli Lilly in 1980. Mr. Wright also was a founding investor of Seattle Weekly in the 1970s.

In the run-up to the 1962 Century 21 World’s Fair in Seattle, Mr. Wright joined a core group of investors and developers determined to turn a back-of-a-napkin sketch of a space-age tower into an international symbol for the city. Mr. Wright and other supporters overcame logistical and financial hurdles to complete construction in time for the fair opening. At 605 feet, it was the tallest structure west of the Mississippi.

In April, he attended a celebration for the 50th anniversary of the groundbreaking for the Space Needle. “I was young enough and inexperienced enough not to dwell on the difficulties,” he said at the time.

After the World’s Fair, Mr. Wright put his money and effort into ensuring buildings created for the fair at Seattle Center were put to use to create a lasting arts scene the city had been lacking. “It was at that point that Bagley Wright was the leader you needed to get it done,” said Jim Tune, CEO of ArtsFund. “We have a huge debt of gratitude to Bagley Wright and his family.”

Mr. Wright led the creation of the Seattle Repertory Theatre at Seattle Center and served as its first president from 1963 to 1970. The Bagley Wright Theatre there was named in his honor.

Mr. and Mrs. Wright championed the growth of SAM, from its move from Volunteer Park to downtown in 1991 to its subsequent major expansion in 2007. That help came in many forms, from generous financial donations to running capital campaigns and just plain advice.

“They have been so instrumental,” said Mimi Gates, the former SAM director. “Every major move that the Seattle Art Museum has made, they have been involved in.”

Mr. Wright served as president of SAM from 1974 to 1980 and as its acting director from 1979-80. In addition to being generous financial donors, the Wrights were major collectors of postwar art, and their hundreds of major works have been donated to SAM. That includes several sculptures that stand in the Olympic Sculpture Park on the Seattle waterfront.

“What’s so fascinating is they built their collection of contemporary art with Seattle and the Northwest in mind, with the idea of giving it to the community,” Gates said.

Mr. Wright had been in good health, Virginia Wright said Tuesday. He suffered a heart attack at his office and was rushed to Swedish Medical Center by an assistant. He was alert and talking for a time but died Monday night.

“We have a great family, thanks to him, and it’s a great comfort. We did have a good time together. Nobody was better company than Bagley. I’ll miss him no end,” Mrs. Wright said.

Mr. Wright was a devoted reader of fine literature, including F. Scott Fitzgerald and Marcel Proust. He also enjoyed golf and “shot his age” well into his 70s, Mrs. Wright recalled.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Wright is survived by his brother, Dan Wright, of Greenwich, Conn.; sons Charlie Wright, of Seattle and Bing Wright, of New York City; daughters Merrill Wright, of Seattle, and Robin Wright, of San Francisco; as well as 10 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

A memorial service is planned for 3 p.m. Tuesday, July 26, at St. Mark’s Cathedral.

In lieu of flowers, the family suggests contributions may be made to SAM, Seattle Repertory Theatre or the Bloedel Reserve.

Seattle Times staff reporter Nancy Leson and news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or