It’s unclear who exactly asked Robert Kessler to climb the Seattle Space Needle in a Santa Claus costume on Dec. 14, 1961. But we know what his goal was: to install a Christmas tree.
The Associated Press snapped a picture of him, and it ran in newspapers across the country — a hopeful sign during the rapid-fire construction process at Seattle’s most iconic structure in the making.
Also there that day was George Gulacsik, a photographer who tirelessly followed the Needle’s construction process. And now, with his images newly digitized by the Seattle Public Library, we can easily access images of Kessler, the workers who balanced carefully on the edge of the skyline for hundreds of days, and other micro-stories from the origin of the Needle, in a sweeping 2,400 images.
Edward E. Carlson, then-president of Western International Hotels, sketched the original idea for the Needle’s design on a napkin in 1959. Inspired by a tower he saw in Stuttgart, Germany, Carlson envisioned a column base connected to a ballooning, circular top structure.
From there, John Graham revised the design: a flying saucer set on top of a curved, upright base. His company, John Graham & Co., hired Gulacsik to document the building process.
Construction began on April 17, when workers began digging a 30-foot hole to house the structure. With a base that was only 120 feet long, the Needle would require a deep base of concrete. They began pouring concrete into the base on May 22, 1961, and continued for 12 hours in a mesmerizing process that captivated a crowd that gathered to watch.
The building effort lasted 400 days, aiming to open for the Seattle World’s Fair. Construction workers from the Howard S. Wright Company and steelworkers from the Pacific Car and Foundry Company were paid about $4.00 a day for their work.
Meanwhile, Gulacsik stood by with a Leica DRP 35mm camera, ready to capture it all.
The photos highlight incredibly unsafe working conditions during the process — hundreds of miles in the air, workers freely balance on thin planks. But not a single worker was killed as they worked.
“Nowadays it’s totally changed,” Jack Edwards, who worked on the Needle’s construction, told the Seattle Times. “We always felt that mobility was our safety. Safety harnesses, you’d stumble over them.”
The Needle opened to the public at the World’s Fair, whose theme was “Century 21,” in Seattle in 1962. At 605 feet high, using 3,700 tons of steel, the building was not only distinctive against the skyline, but audible. It contained a 538-bell imitation carillon, an instrument operated by keyboards that connected to a series of bronze bells, and its music could be heard from a 10-mile radius.
Gulacsik died in 2010. His photos tell the stories of hundreds of construction workers and some of the 2.65 million people who visited the Needle during the World’s Fair.
But they are also telling about the conditions in which he worked. Looking down at construction workers hundreds of feet in the air, he was even higher. Photographing the Needle’s visitors, he was an observer. In his photo of a welder at work, smoke and sparks fly toward the camera. With these images, you can see his story.
Check out more of them below.