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Sunday, April 14, 2002 - 12:00 a.m. Pacific

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Seattle Center at 40

Forty years after the World's Fair spun dreams of a grandiose future, its most enduring legacy is a low-key, 74-acre plot of land that has become our community front porch. What makes this place work?

By Marc Ramirez
Seattle Times staff reporter

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The Space Needle — the symbol of the city and a relic of the 1962 World's Fair — is reflected by Seattle Center's newest major attraction, Experience Music Project, as the monorail moves below.
The morning begins on the Seattle Center grounds with the stirrings of gardeners and daybreak joggers. Before long, periodic bursts of passers-by spill off the monorail into the 63-year-old Center House.

As the hands of the hanging clock cartwheel into midmorning, Terry Metcalf, of Seattle's Zion Preparatory Academy, keeps watch over 50 frolicking kindergartners. As a kid, Metcalf rode a newly launched monorail; as a high-school student, he played football in Memorial Stadium. Years later, he's still finding reasons to be at Seattle Center, whose 74-acre palette may offer more than any similar urban setting in America.

"People talk about the (Pike Place) Market being the soul of the city," says former Mayor Paul Schell, "but I think Seattle Center better plays that role.

"Think about all the things that happen there. It's not just an arts park, or a sports facility, or a cultural center, or a school. It's everything in one place."

It is all those things, plus three museums, black-tie events, open space, an amusement park and the city's most famous symbol, the Space Needle. It's the community's front porch, a place where old folks dance and new citizens are sworn in, where applause rains on pirouettes and marionettes, alley-oop dunks and drum solos. Here, arias are wailed, wishes made, skateboards thrashed, funk blasted, grief shared.

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Sonics season-ticket holders Yukinori Inagawa and his wife, Linda, cheer recently at KeyArena as Seattle defeated San Antonio.
Hundreds file past flowers in the International Fountain after the Sept. 11 attacks. A memorial, scheduled to last three hours, stretched for days.
Hair flying, Chamaigne dances to the music of a steel-drum band on the lawn at Seattle Center, where many informal concerts take place.
How did this happen? No one laid out a grand plan putting this all in one place. You couldn't, not without being accused of having taken one too many rides on the Rainbow Chaser. And yet, with little conscious nurturing, almost in spite of itself, Seattle Center has emerged as one of the country's most effective — if not necessarily most glamorous — urban spaces.

It's one of the rare World's Fair sites in this country that has found an afterlife, generating 80 percent of its $36 million budget. And like Virginia Anderson, its director for the past 14 years, it's quietly earned virtually untouchable status, surviving some fierce battles — including one near-invasion from a distant Magic Kingdom.

An era begins

Two events divide the first three chapters of Seattle's young life, historian Walt Crowley says: 1909's Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition and the 1962 Century 21 World's Fair. Both events signaled the cresting of previous decades' development and launched new eras for the city.

The 1962 undertaking — particularly its World's Fair designation by the Bureau of International Exhibitions — was a major coup for a Northwest burg of junior status. It marked the emergence of a brash new group of civic leaders whose goal was not only to throw a killer party, but, for a $100 million investment, to leave Seattle with a facility usable for years to come.

"It should serve as a catalyst to accomplish things in this area that would not have been done otherwise," fair-commission chair Eddie Carlson told Life magazine.

Thus the old civic auditorium, built on the site in 1927, became an opera house, while a 1939 National Guard armory housed the Food Circus. The city built two more theaters plus an exhibit space; private owners raised the Needle.

Meanwhile, the state built a coliseum and the U.S. government kicked in a science pavilion. And, of course, there was the International Fountain.

Over time, those buildings became the Center House, Pacific Science Center, KeyArena and Phelps Center. The Gayway amusement park is now the Fun Forest.

But beyond the physical structure, for a populace in need of fresh air, the fair threw open all the windows. ("We'd been pretty stuffy coming out of World War II," Crowley says.) The event inspired widespread community reform by mobilizing new leadership, boosting the performing-arts scene and challenging the area's provincialism and ethnic isolation.

"It was the first step in our becoming an international city," says Charles Royer, Seattle's mayor from 1978 to 1989.

But things weren't always so good for the Center, which limped through the '60s and '70s without much notice or funding. The party was over. Puget Sounders had other worries — crippling recessions, Interstate 5 construction, the fight to save the Pike Place Market.

"Like a good friend you don't really see anymore, everyone took it for granted," Anderson says.

Improvements proceeded piecemeal — the mural amphitheater, new fountain nozzles. Center officials launched two successful music festivals, Bumbershoot and Folklife.

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Bathed in blue, Orizon performs at Experience Music Project's Sky Church during a recent battle of the bands. EMP is the newest major addition to the Center, bringing exhibits, performances, special events and a space where visitors can try their hand at different musical instruments. The unconventional building is wrapped around the monorail track.
Still, under the weight of high maintenance costs and 7 million annual visitors, the place was falling into ruin by the 1980s — becoming, in Anderson's words, "slummy" and "seedy." Temporary fair buildings were still kicking around; some mechanical systems dated back to 1927. Despite hosting major festivals, the Center also suffered the indignity of the NBA's first rain-out because of a leaky coliseum.

Pigeons held sway over the Center House; carpenter ants ruled the Flag Pavilion. Space heaters tripped the Opera House's electrical system.

By the site's 25th anniversary in 1987, emerging spaces were stealing business — the Tacoma Dome, Kingdome, Washington State Convention and Trade Center. Meanwhile, Center management was being re-evaluated as employee morale plummeted amid labor squabbles.

"Disney was an effort to revitalize this thing," Anderson says.

'A very populist space'

When Walt Disney Imagineering responded to Royer's request for ideas for the Center's future, he admits having been a little nervous about the flak that could fly. But the Center needed investment — "more than a fix-up," he says and investors needed confidence. Disney could provide that. Why not get them involved?

The Disney plan, submitted in the wake of many failed others, met resistance from the public and City Council from the start. People resented anyone messing with familiar icons, especially someone from outside.

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Karen Dilloo and her niece, Katelyn Conery, 3, play goalkeeper by watching a monitor and blocking virtual shots at the Pacific Science Center. Seattle Center is full of kid-friendly spaces, from the Science Center and Fun Forest to the Center House.
The response, Schell says, reflected a uniquely Seattle mindset: evolutionary, as opposed to revolutionary. Residents viewed Seattle Center as a comfortable old shoe, not a sparkling glass slipper.

People objected to Disney's plan to demolish the Center House, Memorial Stadium and Flag Pavilion. But nothing matched the reaction saved for Disney's suggested destruction of the International Fountain.

Disney suggested replacing it with an amphitheater. People said no.

Disney figured, "OK, they want water; how about a duck pond?" People went nuts.

The anger fascinated Anderson, recently hired by Royer to bring new energy to the Center. The International Fountain wasn't much to look at, she thought. Ringed by white rocks and "Danger" signs, its prickly nozzles were a safety concern.

She eyed it again.

What was it the public wanted to keep?

After hours of careful listening at the scores of public hearings on the Center's future that followed the Disney dust-up, she realized it was the fountain's circular design and original World's Fair message of global unity that had grown such heartfelt roots. "I just suddenly got it," she says. And from that process came the 1989 master plan that has guided Center management ever since.

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Victor Alfonzo practices break dancing in the food court of the Center House, where Orange Julius is the only holdover from the World's Fair 40 years ago. Alfonzo is preparing for a competition in May.
"It's a very populist space," says Crowley, the historian. "I'd hate to see it gentrified. It truly is our commons; it's the one place in Seattle where I feel all classes and races mingle without embarrassment, hierarchy or self-consciousness."

And 40 years later, amid the chaos of Whirligig, the Center House's indoor carnival, tables fill with coffee meetings, workers on break, watchful parents, camped-out transients. The whole scene seems somehow like a prehistoric diorama in a science book, with dozens of species improbably clustered around some primordial swamp — they shouldn't be together, and yet here they are. It's what makes the place so unique.

So while Anderson has pursued two things — a commitment from Center institutions to remain at the site, and greater fund-raising capability for the Seattle Center Foundation — it's the Northwest notions of community and inclusion that inspire her, from her employee-guided decision-making to structural design. No one has to put up a Center House sign saying kids are welcome, for example; half-pint chairs and tables say that.

Feeling they have ownership, voters traditionally have been good stewards. In 1991 and 1999, Seattle residents approved Proposition 1, providing funding to complete 20 projects including renovation of the old Center House and the International Fountain. The fountain's new design is broad and welcoming, with two ramps descending into the bowl for strollers and wheelchairs.

Then came the attacks of Sept. 11. Huddled in their offices that Tuesday morning, realizing there was no greater occasion for an expression of community, Anderson and her staff recalled the crowds at the 1994 memorial for Nirvana's Kurt Cobain.

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At Pacific Northwest Ballet on the Seattle Center grounds, schoolchildren hoping to be ballerinas practice twice a week at DanceChance classes. Performing-arts groups at the Center include PNB, Intiman Theatre, Seattle Repertory Theatre and Seattle Opera.
The experience told them a vigil would probably be a good idea.

Outpouring of goodness

With a rally planned that Friday for Westlake Plaza, Anderson's staff decided on a Saturday-morning vigil, to be held from 9 to noon.

"It was important to create something where everyone could have their own moment, with no speakers, so that whatever part of the three hours you came, you could experience the same thing as everyone else," Anderson says.

An artist-created willow fence was built around the fountain. The plan was to begin the event by having police officers and firefighters march in and place memorial items inside. But by Saturday morning, the bowl was already full of flowers and people who'd shown up as early as the day before.

The ceremony proceeded as planned, even as mourners blanketed the nearby patrol cars and firetrucks in flowers, too. Despite a throng tens of thousands strong, and a bowl that could be descended upon from any direction, people politely lined up along the fountain's sloping ramps, waiting 90 minutes in line to leave flowers and thoughts inside.

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Virginia Anderson, Seattle Center director, reacts to the changing fountain spray striking the back of her legs. The Center has seen its share of changes and had its best years under her 14-year leadership.
But Center officials, who know how to hold events and orchestrate queues, had no way to deal with what happened next.

A group of Sikhs appeared at the crowd's edge, with signs reading "God Bless America" and "Love Is Stronger Than Hate." They had no connection whatsoever to the terrorists, but across the country, people like them, in turbans like theirs, were being targeted for vengeance.

Invite them down, Anderson suggested.

The thousands turned. Wept. Applauded for 20 minutes as the Sikhs wound their way down the fountain ramps with their offerings. Reached out with words that said: We know it's not you.

"I would love to say we programmed every moment of it," Anderson says now, scrambling to dry her tears. "But I can't.

"I've never seen such an outpouring of human goodness in my life."

The fountain's design enabled that, she adds proudly.

As the Center House clock ticked noon that day, the event that was supposed to last three hours showed no sign of ending. People poured in for days.

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Deep under Center House, a security guard opens the door to an unfinished swimming pool that was being built for the military when the building was an armory, before the 1962 World's Fair. The "pool" is just a dirt pit.
"The fountain represents a whole other world," says one-time Center director C. David Hughbanks. "It was probably the best investment (Anderson) made."

Challenges await

Building a constituency, Anderson says, is her greatest challenge now, even more than the short-term problem of guiding the Center through the current economic climate and vigilantly ensuring it doesn't slip into the decay of decades past.

Just as the Center's individual elite institutions have their supporters, she says, so should Seattle Center itself cultivate people who value the place as a whole and don't think of their patronage as just going to the ballet or the opera or the Rep.

Crowley says Anderson has successfully balanced the Center's role as a democratic space with the needs of its elites; next year's opening of a new Opera House will be a jewel in her crown and a show of support to Center anchors. "That's a real circus, and she's been a great ringmaster," he says.

Says Royer: "Because of the network she's built, she's pretty untouchable. A mayor would have to have a pretty good reason to replace Ginny Anderson." None so far — not Norm Rice nor Schell nor Greg Nickels — has tried.

At the same time, Anderson recognizes the public's passion about the Center, and the uproar destined for major changes made without a vote. The closest call was Paul Allen's Experience Music Project, which produced levels of debate rivaling a public vote and provided an overall community nod to the controversial addition.

The past decade has brought a methodical execution of the master plan and creation of several new festivals as the Center struggles to match demographic changes in its community — for instance, the Hmong and Tet festivals. "I'm for incremental progress," Anderson says. "You can't solve everything at once. As long as you're making little baby steps, you're fine."

But Royer wonders: As the region changes, bringing people from other cities and lands with their own heroes, will the stories of Eddie Carlson and a few guys imagining a Space Needle on a cocktail napkin still mean anything? What lessons does Seattle Center hold for other cities, and for the city Seattle has become?

Schell says one lesson is that intergenerational projects are worth the effort, a shared vision that leaves room for others to modify. Just as important is an enlightened, engaged citizenry. "You need to stay with them, to make sure they own it and that it doesn't belong to any one person or organization."

That the Center's leadership has been willing to share its vision, he says, has really been the magic. It's why, when tragedy struck, this was the place where we found our collective solace.

Befitting a city that would rather evolve than embrace big schemes, the World's Fair spawned, in Seattle Center, a perfect creation — accomplishing things, as Carlson told Life magazine, that wouldn't be done otherwise.

Seattle Times reporter Marc Ramirez can be reached at 206-464-8102 or


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