Never-before displayed photos of the Space Needle construction show iron workers with no harnesses and steel, lots of steel.
For someone like Jack Edwards, images that for decades were stored in a closet sure bring back the memories.
Fifty-five years ago, Edwards, 83, of Lake Stevens, was one of the iron workers building the Space Needle, which has become a worldwide symbol of Seattle.
He is asked if it really was like the photos depicted — no harnesses, nets or safety straps. Just guys balancing themselves hundreds of feet in the air on iron beams maybe 1½ feet wide.
“No, didn’t use them,” Edwards says about all that safety gear. “Nowadays it’s totally changed. We always felt that mobility was our safety. Safety harnesses, you’d stumble over them.”
This week the previously undisplayed collection of 2,400 photos is finally available to the public. Just go to the Seattle Public Library’s George Gulacsik Space Needle Photograph Collection, all digitized and online so they can be viewed on your laptop.
An exhibit at the Space Needle itself includes photos from the collection and other material about building the structure. It’s included in tickets to the observation deck ($23.10 for adults and $14.70 for kids).
The collection includes the early drawings of the Space Needle as it went through various artistic renditions. It had its beginnings when Eddie Carlson, then president of Western International Hotels and a Seattle civic leader, was inspired by seeing a TV tower in Stuttgart, Germany.
The tower was topped by a revolving restaurant. Carlson drew his concept for the Seattle version on a paper napkin.
Gulacsik, who died in 2010, was a graphic artist and industrial photographer contracted by John Graham & Co., architects for the project.
Week in and week out, Gulacsik would take the legendary Leica DRP 35-mm camera he owned and drive to where the Space Needle was being built.
He began taking his historic pictures in April 1961 as the giant 30-foot-deep hole for the foundation was being dug.
He ended in January 1962 as the workers spray-painted “Galaxy Gold” on the roof, getting it ready for the Seattle World’s Fair that would open three months later.
Gulacsik took 2,400 photos; the negatives for decades were stored in a closet. His wife, Sally, donated the photos to the library before she died in 2014.
“They’re great images. They put a face on people. You see guys, iron workers, with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths,” says Knute Berger, author of the official history of the Space Needle.
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Back then, Edwards figures, he was making around $5 an hour working out of the Iron Workers Local 86. That’s $39.65 in today’s dollars.
It was good money, especially the overtime for working nights.
“Some of these pieces were so big they had to be delivered at night, at 3 in the morning,” remembers Edwards. “You had tower legs that were 60 to 70 feet, weighing 30 to 40 tons.”
It wasn’t a job for some, working on a structure that would rise to 605 feet.
“One guy lasted half a day. Another worked a day and didn’t come back,” says Edwards. “It was pretty spooky, being up so high, and you couldn’t see much underneath you.”
Still, he wouldn’t put the Space Needle among his top 10 scariest jobs, not, for example, like that radar tower in the Aleutian Islands. It was January, a snowstorm hit, and Edwards was barely able to hold on and not be blown off.
Gulacsik is listed as co-author with writer Harold Mansfield of a 59-page photo book, “Space Needle USA.”
One part tells of a Bill Gassoway, who wanted to get experience as an iron worker before going back to college to study engineering. Along with an experienced hand, Herb Ganske, he went up in an open bucket, swinging on the hoist cable.
The book tells of Gassoway walking onto “quivering 12-inch boards at the 200-foot-level, then looking up a vertical wood ladder tied on with wire.
“He looked down and his heart and head were not normal. He stayed at the 200-foot level that day,” the book goes on.
The next day, Gassoway made it to the 300 level.
“For two weeks he had dreams at night that he was losing his hold and falling off the tower. … ”
Despite the danger, says Berger, there were no bad mishaps during the building of the Space Needle and it received a state award for no days lost to injury.
The collection of photos shows the sheer massiveness of everything involved in the project.
That 30-foot hole was 120 feet across, and it took 467 trucks full of concrete to fill it.
Gary Noble Curtis, 79, of Guemes Island, back then was a young structural engineer working for John Minasian, of Pasadena, Calif.
Back in those days, Curtis remembers, it was slide rules and pencils that engineers used.
Minasian was well accustomed to dealing with massive structures, having worked on radio and TV towers, as well the Saturn rocket gantry tower.
He didn’t spare on the steel.
Minasian had studied with seismologist Charles Richter, after whom the Richter scale to measure earthquakes is named.
For the Space Needle, Minasian would double the specs for seismic codes and wind loads.
Curtis says the Space Needle could have been built with a lot less steel and be fine.
“But then,” because of the longer design time, “we would have opened late and the fair would have been over,” says Curtis.
Above ground, the Space Needle would end up weighing 3,700 tons, most of it steel.
“Overbuilt? We jokingly would tell people that the best place to be in an earthquake was the Space Needle. Nothing is going to fall on you,” says Curtis.