Eric's Heroes: The man behind the design of Seattle's iconic Space Needle (2024)

SEATTLE — It hasn't aged, Seattle's Space Needle.

It endures. It is then. And now. And forever.

It is timeless.

That's because of its form.

And the story of the shape of the thing, the aesthetic, is a story of a great revelation. A profound moment of inspiration.

Maybe you've heard the story of the napkin.

In 1959, Edward Carlson, one of the big shots who brought the 1962 World's Fair to Seattle, a mover and a shaker, visited Stuttgart, Germany.

And when he was there, he saw a broadcast tower.

He'd been looking for an idea for the World's Fair, which was three years away, an enduring symbol of some kind that would capture the world's imagination.

He doodled it on a napkin, more of a crude depiction of a lollipop than anything.

But it was an idea. A seed. And it set into motion an amazing series of events.

John Graham, Jr. was an architect, and a good one.

He designed America's first shopping mall, Northgate.

In Hawaii, he designed a restaurant that revolved on an axis.

His firm, John Graham and Company, was given the task of designing the "tower" that would symbolize the World's Fair, and the city and its yearning for prominence.

Peter Steinbrueck is a modern day architect in Seattle who is familiar with the story.

"They were struggling to come up with something truly iconic and futuristic," he says, "that also utilized some of the state of the art engineering at the time."

Time was of the essence. The opening of the fair was less than two years away, and there wasn't even a design.

"So months went by," Steinbrueck says, "design after design, sketches. At one time I heard they had a team of 10 or 12 designers, all sort of working together in a studio environment with John Graham, Jr. looking over their shoulders, and critiquing things and saying, 'No, that won't work.'"

At the time, Victor Steinbrueck, Peter's father, was a hot shot architect in Seattle.

Eventually, out of desperation, John Graham and Company asked him to come in and work on the tower project.

He worked for months for $5 per hour. The clock was ticking.

Peter was just a child at the time.

He holds up a black and white notebook, filled with beautiful penmanship and one man's version of history.

"That's where this book, his journal comes in, which I hadn't seen until after he died."

Inside, one passage reads, "During the time that I was on the needle, I probably made a thousand or 15-hundred drawings of ideas, of development of the ultimate form. Feeling that I needed to try for some fresh ideas, without the pressure of producing something with the forms that Graham liked in the office, I started to work at home looking for ideas. So one evening, probably about August 5th or so I thought and put down on paper the essential structural concept and basic form that has become the needle. When I had drawn the idea in my office I came out and told Elaine that, quote, I've got it! I've got it! The idea that they'll take for the tower."

The true beauty of the story comes on the next page, when he reveals where the inspiration came from, the lightning bolt.

David Lemon was a California artist in the 1950s. He was also a friend of Victor Steinbrueck's, and a decade before he'd given Victor a gift.

It was a wooden sculpture that he'd named, "The Feminine One." It had supposedly been inspired by the form of a dancer with her arms raised skyward. It is graceful and elegant.

And so that day at his home, in August of 1960, struggling for fresh ideas, Victor's eyes had come to rest on the small sculpture. That's when it happened.

The journal tells it this way: "The actual inspiration or source of the idea, is the aesthetic concept of the wooden sculpture of David Lemon's that we had had for about 10 years. It produced extreme visual tension, by constricting the form in one section. I tried to do that with the tower form."

Peter Steinbrueck has the sculpture now. His dad handed it down to him. He describes it.

"Graceful, three-legged, with a high waist coming together and then spreading out soaring to the sky. Arms up, like a dancer in some regards."

Knowing in his heart that he'd stumbled across the design, Victor worked through the weekend.

He came up with a drawing, also in Peter's possession, and it looks very much like the finished Needle that looms over the Seattle skyline today.

Back at work on Monday, he presented it to the decision makers at John Graham and Company.

They were blown away. It was almost unanimous that they had found their design. Just like that. Like a lightning bolt.

Everything happened quickly after that.

Peter lays out beautiful black and white photos that were taken during the construction of the needle. They give an idea of the kind of project it was; gutsy, bold, fearless.

An unimaginably large hole that would be filled with concrete to hold the structure down.

Men walking on foot-wide steel 600 feet above the ground.

It took shape quickly. The rotating restaurant at the top was John Graham's idea, inspired by his restaurant in Honolulu.

And when the needle was finished, it was beautiful, a fitting announcement to the world that the Emerald City had arrived.

A photographer named Dale Cotten put three pictures together, which graphically illustrate the progression of ideas that led to the finished shape.

It's all there: the three legged base, the " high waist" as Peter calls it, and the outstretched arms reaching to the sky.

But somewhere along the way, the credit for the design of the needle went to John Graham, the boss, and not Victor Steinbrueck.

Graham didn't correct them.

Eventually, pride stung, Victor claimed that he was, in fact, the designer. That the idea was his.

John Graham and Company didn't like that. They objected.

Victor Steinbrueck said, "Sue me."

The objections stopped.

In his diary, Victor wrote this: "It was not the result of a consensus or team effort. I conceived it myself out of my own mind and feeling. Nothing else like it had been drawn in the office by me or anyone else. In other words I did produce the basic structural concept and essential aesthetic form. John Graham did not do it. John Graham and Company did not do it."

These days there's a sculpture at the foot of the Space Needle. It's a copy of "The Feminine One," only much larger. It's a nod to life imitating art, which had in turn imitated life in the first place. It's a nod to Victor Steinbrueck's epiphany.

Pete Steinbrueck says that every time he drives in Seattle and looks up to see the city's great symbol, known the world over, with its high waist and outstretched arms and pleasing lines, the soaring grace of it, he thinks about his dad.

We all should.

It has stood there, lit up, for more than 60 years, a torch in the night reminding us of a fire that burned in the belly of Seattle a long time ago, a hunger for greatness as a city and an idea.

It hasn't aged. It endures. It is then. And now. And forever.

It is timeless. Like dancer.

Eric's Heroes: The man behind the design of Seattle's iconic Space Needle (2024)


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