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The secret history of the Space Needle in 2,400 photos

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.

Photographer George Gulacsik took this image of balloons floating above the Space Needle, mid-construction, in July 1961, only a few months after workers began building the structure. Gulacsik's images are now online through the Seattle Public Library.

Photographer George Gulacsik took this image of balloons floating above the Space Needle, mid-construction, in July 1961, only a few months after workers began building the structure. Gulacsik’s images are now online through the Seattle Public Library.

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.

Onlookers watch concrete pour at Space Needle foundation, ca. May 22, 1961. Workers preparing ground for Space Needle foundation, ca. April 1961. Photo by by George Gulacsik, image courtesy of the Seattle Public Library

Onlookers watch concrete pour at Space Needle foundation, ca. May 22, 1961. Photo by by George Gulacsik, image courtesy of the Seattle Public Library

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.”

Workers on Space Needle outrigger fins, ca. December 1961. Workers preparing ground for Space Needle foundation, ca. April 1961. Photo by by George Gulacsik, image courtesy of the Seattle Public Library

Workers on Space Needle outrigger fins, ca. December 1961. Photo by by George Gulacsik, image courtesy of the Seattle Public Library

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.

View south to Space Needle and fairground, 1962. Workers preparing ground for Space Needle foundation, ca. April 1961. Photo by by George Gulacsik, image courtesy of the Seattle Public Library

View south to Space Needle and fairground, 1962. Photo by by George Gulacsik, image courtesy of the Seattle Public Library

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.

Visitors on Space Needle observation deck, 1962. Photo by by George Gulacsik, image courtesy of the Seattle Public Library

Visitors on Space Needle observation deck, 1962. Photo by by George Gulacsik, image courtesy of the Seattle Public Library

Workers painting Space Needle roof Galaxy Gold, ca. late January 1962. Workers preparing ground for Space Needle foundation, ca. April 1961. Photo by by George Gulacsik, image courtesy of the Seattle Public Library

Workers painting Space Needle roof Galaxy Gold, ca. late January 1962. Photo by by George Gulacsik, image courtesy of the Seattle Public Library

Girls on Space Needle observation deck, 1962. Workers preparing ground for Space Needle foundation, ca. April 1961. Photo by by George Gulacsik, image courtesy of the Seattle Public Library

Girls on Space Needle observation deck, 1962. Photo by by George Gulacsik, image courtesy of the Seattle Public Library

Space Needle outrigger fins, ca. 1962. Workers preparing ground for Space Needle foundation, ca. April 1961. Photo by by George Gulacsik, image courtesy of the Seattle Public Library

Space Needle outrigger fins, ca. 1962. Photo by by George Gulacsik, image courtesy of the Seattle Public Library

Workers guiding base of Space Needle leg into place, ca. June 30, 1961. Workers preparing ground for Space Needle foundation, ca. April 1961. Photo by by George Gulacsik, image courtesy of the Seattle Public Library

Workers guiding base of Space Needle leg into place, ca. June 30, 1961. Photo by by George Gulacsik, image courtesy of the Seattle Public Library

Welder inside Space Needle, ca. 1962. Workers preparing ground for Space Needle foundation, ca. April 1961. Photo by by George Gulacsik, image courtesy of the Seattle Public Library

Welder inside Space Needle, ca. 1962. Photo by by George Gulacsik, image courtesy of the Seattle Public Library

View of Mount Rainier from the Space Needle, ca. November 1961. Workers preparing ground for Space Needle foundation, ca. April 1961. Photo by by George Gulacsik, image courtesy of the Seattle Public Library

View of Mount Rainier from the Space Needle, ca. November 1961. Photo by by George Gulacsik, image courtesy of the Seattle Public Library

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