An Icon Reimagined: Seattle Space Needle Gets a Major Upgrade

Thanks to $100 million, 500 workers, a 196 percent increase in glass, and 1 powerful crane, the Space Needle’s views are better than ever.

When the Space Needle was built for the 1962 World’s Fair, it was designed to be an instantly recognizable symbol for Seattle, an emblem of the pioneering and ambitious spirit we embody in this little corner of the country.

The theme for that year’s fair was all about the future, and the Space Needle was certainly that. It looked like a flying saucer hovering in the sky, representing all the possibilities on the horizon.

Today, the future is here. Those flying cars the World’s Fair promised are still a few years off, but the Space Needle, for its part, has done everything intended. It’s made Seattle’s skyline one of the most recognized in the world, and now, a massive $100 million renovation will ensure it stays that way for another 50 years to come.

Making a Change

As the Space Needle rolled past its fifth decade of life, it became clear that some upgrades would be necessary, given that many of the original systems were nearing the end of their useful life. “You only want to do construction in the air once, so we thought, ‘While we’re up here, let’s enhance the view,’” says Karen Olson, the Space Needle’s chief marketing officer.

Local architectural firm Olson Kundig took on the big challenge—how to significantly improve the visitor experience while maintaining the same contours against the skyline and staying true to the original intent of the building.

Oh, yeah—and it all had to be done 500 feet in the air. “You might as well be building on Mars,” Olson says.

The original observation deck had just a low wall, and designers knew from old renderings that the intent all along had been an unencumbered, thrilling view. They set to work on how to do just that and found the answer in glass.

Ten different types of glass and 176 tons of it, to be exact. Where security cages, pony walls, and actual walls once were, glass now stands, adding more-expansive views than ever before. On the observation deck outside, the glass walls tilt out at a 14-degree angle, so you can lean against them while surveying the landscape.

New and Improved

Other new, notable features include:

Oculus: A grand cantilever staircase—crafted from steel, wood, and glass—connects the two observation levels. Looking down from the top floor provides a sneak peek of the glass-bottomed views below.

The Loupe: This glass turntable floor on the lower observation level lets you see to the ground—all 500 feet below. The 10 layers of structural glass are actually stronger than the previous floor (although you might not feel that way when staring down!). You can also see the elevators going up and down and the 12 motors that keep the turntable rotating both clockwise and counterclockwise. It’s the world’s only rotating glass floor.

Skyrisers: Outside on the upper-level observation deck, these glass benches are slanted downward in the back and purposely designed to be taller than the average bench—meaning when you sit down, your feet are dangling as you lean against the glass walls. The sensation is one of floating above Seattle’s skyline.

Atmos Café and Atmos Wine Bar: Grab light bites, wine and beer on both observation levels with these new dining outlets. Sunset is a particularly pretty time to sip and savor the views.

Stratos VR: At the base of the Space Needle, step into a clear tube, sit on a rotating stool and put on a headset. Soon, you’ll find yourself bungee jumping off the top deck—virtually, that is—taking in the sights and sounds as you careen through the air toward the ground and back up again.

An Enduring Landmark

While there’s still work to be done, 95 percent of it is complete. Next up, a new restaurant to replace the old SkyCity, the elevators will be upgraded, and the exterior will receive a fresh coat of paint.

Even if you’ve visited before, it’s a completely new experience now. “You can’t not step into the view; it’s very much participatory,” says Olson, noting that it’s been fun to see people doing glass angels or applauding when someone who’s afraid makes that first step onto the glass.

For anyone who’s doubted that the Space Needle could remain relevant decades down the line, it offers its unbeatable combination of history and views as a response. “Seattle’s all about what’s possible,” Olson says. “There’s no reason a flying saucer on a stick should’ve been built, and there’s no reason why 57 years later it should still be cool, but it is.”

Haley Shapley
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