The Space Needle features an observation deck at 520 feet (160 m), and a gift shop with the SkyCity restaurant at 500 feet (152 m). From the top of the Needle, one can see not only the Downtown Seattle skyline, but also the Olympic and Cascade Mountains, Mount Rainier, Mount Baker, Elliott Bay and surrounding islands. Photographs of the Seattle skyline often show the Space Needle in a prominent position, even appearing to tower above the rest of the city's skyscrapers, as well as Mount Rainier in the background. This occurs because the tower, which is equivalent in height to a 60-story building, stands roughly four-fifths of a mile (1.3 km) northwest of most downtown skyscrapers.
Visitors can reach the top of the Space Needle via elevators that travel at 10 mph (16 km/h). The trip takes 43 seconds, and some tourists wait in hour-long lines in order to ascend to the top of the tower. On windy days, the elevators are slowed down to a speed of 5 mph. The Space Needle was designated a historic landmark on April 19, 1999.
The architecture of the Space Needle is the result of a compromise between designs. The two leading ideas for the World Fair involved businessman Edward Carlson's sketch of a giant balloon tethered to the ground (see the gently sloping base) and architect John Graham's concept of a flying saucer (see the halo that houses the restaurant and observation deck). The Space Needle was built to withstand severe earthquakes by doubling the building code of 1962. But an earthquake registering 6.8 on the Richter Scale jolted the Needle enough in 1965 for water to slosh out of the toilets in the restrooms. The Space Needle can escape serious structural damage during earthquakes of magnitudes below 9. Also made to withstand Category 5 hurricane-force winds, the Space Needle sways only 1 inch per 10 mph (16 mm per 10 km/h) of wind speed.
For decades, the "hovering disk" of the Space Needle was home to two restaurants 500 feet (152 m) above the ground: the Space Needle Restaurant, which was originally named Eye of the Needle, and Emerald Suite. These were closed in 2000 to make way for SkyCity, a larger restaurant that features Pacific Northwest cuisine. It rotates 360 degrees in exactly forty-seven minutes. In 1993, the elevators were replaced with new computerized versions. The new elevators descend at a rate of 10 mph.
On December 31, 1999 (New Year's Eve), a powerful beam of light was unveiled for the first time. Called the Legacy Light or Skybeam, it features lamps that total 85 million candle power shining skyward from the top of the Space Needle to honor national holidays and special occasions in Seattle. The concept of this beam was derived from the official 1962 World's Fair poster, which depicted such a light source although none was incorporated into the original design. It is somewhat controversial because of the light pollution it creates for astronomers. Originally planned to be turned on 75 nights per year, it has generally been used fewer than a dozen times per year. It did remain lit for twelve days in a row from September 11, 2001 to September 22, 2001 in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks.
The same 1962 World's Fair original poster showed a grand spiral entryway leading to the elevator, but this, too, was omitted from the final building plans. The stairway was recently realized with a new two-story Pavilion Level enclosed in glass. Some feel that this level's design resembles that of a nautilus. There are 832 steps in all from the basement to the restaurants on the observation deck.
At approximately 605 feet (184 m), the Space Needle was the tallest building west of the Mississippi River at the time it was built by Howard S. Wright Construction Co., but is now dwarfed by other structures along the Seattle skyline, among them the Columbia Center, at 967 feet (302 m).
Edward E. Carlson, chairman of the 1962 World's Fair in Seattle, originally had an idea for erecting a tower with a restaurant at the World's Fair. Carlson was then president of a hotel company and not previously known for art or design, but he was inspired by a recent visit to the Stuttgart Tower of Germany.
John Graham, an architect who had won praise for designing (Northgate Mall in Seattle) soon became involved. Graham's first move was to make the restaurant featured in the plans revolve, in the same manner as a tower he had previously designed for the Ala Moana shopping center in Honolulu.
The proposed Space Needle had no land on which to be built. Since it was not financed by the city, land had to be purchased that was within the fairgrounds. It was thought that there would be no land available to build a tower and the search for one was nearly dead when in 1961, a 120 foot by 120 foot (37-by-37 m) plot that contained switching equipment for the fire and police alarm systems was discovered and sold to the investors for $75,000. At this point, only one year remained before the World's Fair would begin.
It was privately built and financed by the "Pentagram Corporation" which consisted of Bagley Wright, contractor Howard S. Wright, architect John Graham, Ned Skinner, and Norton Clapp. In 1977 Bagley, Skinner and Clapp sold their interest to Howard Wright who now controls it under the name of Space Needle Corporation.
The earthquake stability of the Space Needle was ensured when a hole was dug 30 feet (10 m) deep and 120 feet (40 m) across, and 467 concrete trucks took one full day to fill it. The foundation weighs almost 6,000 tons and there are 250 tons of reinforcing steel in the base. With this concrete base weighing the same as the above-ground structure, the Needle's center of gravity is just 5 feet (1.5 m) above ground level. The structure is bolted to the foundation with 72 bolts, each one 30 feet (10 m) long.
With time an issue, the construction team worked around the clock. The top dome housing the top five levels (including the restaurants and observation deck) was perfectly balanced so that the restaurant could rotate with the help of one tiny electric motor, originally 1 hp (0.8 kW), later replaced with a 1.5 hp (1.1 kW) motor. With paint colors named Orbital Olive for the body, Astronaut White for the legs, Re-entry Red for the saucer, and Galaxy Gold for the roof, the Space Needle was finished in less than one year. It was completed in April 1962 at a cost of $4.5 million. The last elevator car was installed the day before the Fair opened on April 21. During the course of the Fair nearly 20,000 people a day rode the elevators to the Observation Deck. The 20,000 mark was never reached, missed by fewer than 50 people one day. At the time of construction, it was the tallest building in the West, taking the title from the Smith Tower across town that had held that title since 1914.
In 1974, author Stephen Cosgrove's children's book Wheedle on the Needle postulated a furry creature called a Wheedle who lived on top of the Space Needle and caused its light to flash. Its closing quatrain is: There's a Wheedle on the Needle/I know just what you're thinking/But if you look up late at night/You'll see his red nose blinking. The Wheedle had since become a fixture of Seattle, becoming for a time the mascot of the Seattle SuperSonics.
In 1982, the SkyLine level was added at a height of 100 ft (33 m). While this level had been depicted in the original plans for the Space Needle, it was not built until this time. Today, the SkyLine Banquet Facility can accommodate groups of 20–360 people.
Renovations were completed in 2000 that cost nearly five times the original price ($21 million). Renovations between 1999 and 2000 included the SkyCity restaurant, SpaceBase retail store, Skybeam installation, Observation Deck overhaul, lighting additions and repainting.
Every year on New Year's Eve, the Space Needle celebrates with a fireworks show at midnight that is synchronized to music. The 2007/2008 show stopped, restarted, then stopped again with the rest of the pyrotechnics needing to be detonated by hand. The pyrotechnics crew blamed the problem on a corrupted file in the customized software they use to control the timed detonations.
In May 2008, the Space Needle received its first professional cleaning since the opening of the 1962 World's Fair. The monument was pressure washed with water at a pressure of 3,000 psi and a temperature of 194 degrees Fahrenheit. No detergents were used in consideration of the Seattle Center and the EMP.
Twice as many jumpers have used parachutes to break their fall as part of a sport known as BASE jumping. Six parachutists have leaped from the tower since its opening, but this activity is illegal without prior consent. Four jumpers were part of various promotions, and the other two were arrested.
This information is on the cover of a Long Playing vinyl 12 disc called "Bells On Hi-Fi" catalog number AR-8000, produced by Americana Records, of Sellersville, PA. There are 12 pieces recorded on the "Carillon Americana" before it was installed in the Space Needle. They are performed by carilloneur John Klien.