Century 21 World's Fair

The Century 21 Exposition - also known as the Seattle World's Fair - was held between April 21 and October 21, 1962 drew almost 10 million visitors. A defining moment in the history of Seattle, this fair began life as the brainchild of City Councilman Al Rochester. By 1955, the councilman had generated considerable interest in his idea from decision makers at the state and city level, and in January Washington's legislature allocated $5,000 for a small commission to study the feasibility of such a fair. Public excitement, spurred on by effective advertisement, soon gave the project further momentum; in 1957 Seattle voters passed a $7.5 million Civic Center bond for possible fairground development, an amount which was then matched by the legislature.

The newly-expanded Commission of 1957 decided on a theme for the Fair centered on modern science, space exploration, and the progressive future, wrapped in the broad concept of a 'Century 21 Exposition.' A 28-acre parcel of city-owned land near Queen Anne Hill was eventually chosen for the site of the Fair over larger and more nominally attractive sites such as Fort Lawton (800 acres) and Sand Point Naval Air Station (350 acres). The site's proximity to the downtown area, as well as the interest in converting the Exposition's permanent facilities into a Civic Center after the fair made this location attractive to the planners.

Early planning continued into 1960, when the Century 21 Commission, after considerable lobbying, secured from the International Bureau of Expositions a certification as an official World's Fair. International confirmation provided a powerful legitimacy among the various entities the Fair's representatives sought to attract as funders and exhibit-builders. Enticed by the publicity possibilities inherent in the millions of fair-goers projected to appear, several giants of American business decided to sponsor exhibits in the 'World of Commerce and Industry' section of the Exposition, including Ford Motor Company, Boeing, and Bell Telephone.

The US Government, for its part, was exceedingly interested in demonstrating the nation's scientific prowess to the world, and so committed over $9 million to the fair, chiefly to build the NASA-themed United States Science Exhibit (now the Pacific Science Center). A number of foreign governments provided the international flavor crucial to a World's Fair, and eventually 35 states signed on as exhibitors. The tense geopolitical mood of the early 1960s, however, limited involvement of the Communist states; the Soviet Union declined to participate, and the People's Republic of China, North Vietnam, and North Korea were not invited.

To coordinate the overarching blueprint of all these exhibits, respected designer Paul Thiry was hired as chief architect of the Exposition. Thiry was also tapped to design the Washington State Pavilion (now the KeyArena), the conceptual centerpiece of the 'World of Tomorrow' section. Under the supervision of Thiry, the World's Fair Commission, and the city's Civic Center Advisory Committee, the ideas and plans of many differing minds began to take shape in the fairgrounds at the base of Queen Anne Hill, gradually creating an aesthetically adventurous cityscape intended to excite the visitor with futuristic visions of scientific progress.

Reinforcing this sense of futurism was the ultra-modern Monorail line developed to ferry tourists from downtown Seattle to the fairgrounds. Those searching for more conventional entertainments would be catered to as well, with the construction of the 'Gayway' (a small amusement park that would become the Fun Forest) and 'Show Street' (the "adult entertainment" section, featuring a number of bars, restaurants, and nightclubs). The visual centerpiece of the fair, ultimately, would also become an icon of Seattle: the Space Needle. This 605-foot, $6.5 million rotating restaurant tower was considered a risky investment because of its grandiose dimensions and spectacular design. The needle was nonetheless wildly popular among fairgoers, and has remained a well-loved tourist attraction.

By April 1962, all that remained to be done was to open the doors to the public, which occurred during an extravagant opening ceremony on the 21st. Amidst 538 clanging bells, 2000 balloons, and 10 Air Force F-102 fighters swooping overhead, Exposition president Joseph Gandy officially opened Century 21 for business. For the next six months, visitors would be entertained not just by the many exhibits, but also by an array of musicians, orchestras, dance troupes, art collections, singers, comedians, and other various shows traveling through the fair during its run. Adding to the star-studded atmosphere was the presence of the 'King of Rock and Roll,' Elvis Presley, who arrived to shoot a film, It Happened at the World's Fair. Indeed, a number of celebrities came to the Exposition as tourists, including Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, Walt Disney, and Prince Phillip of Great Britain. By the close of the fair on October 21, a total of 9,609,969 people officially visited, largely satisfying attendance goals.

City Involvement in Century 21

Though the fair was primarily administered by the non-profit private Century 21 Exposition, Incorporated, the government of Seattle was deeply involved in development and execution. Once preparations began in earnest in 1957, substantial efforts were made to integrate the planning of the municipal, state, and private entities involved. Planner Evan Dingwall, for example, simultaneously held the directorships of the Washington State World's Fair Commission and Seattle Civic Center Advisory Committee, and would later serve as general manager of Century 21 Exposition, Inc. For its part, this Advisory Committee wielded substantial influence on the design process, reflecting the long-term goal of creating a viable core of facilities for a post-Exposition Civic Center. Thanks in part to this advocacy, Seattle would inherit 400,000 square feet of permanent indoor exhibition space from the fair. In addition, the city government oversaw a number of fair-based building projects both within and beyond the fairgrounds, including the Monorail line, the International Fountain, and a 1,500-car garage along Mercer Street.

Individual branches of municipal government also pursued a range of initiatives necessitated or provoked by Century 21. The Mayor's Office, for one, spearheaded a Downtown Beautification program that encouraged the cleanup and renovation of prominent City facilities, such as firehouses and parks. The Board of Public Works conducted oversight and licensing for building projects underway on municipal land, and so was crucial to the design and construction of fair exhibits. In 1960, $537,000 was approved to construct and install underground lighting facilities in the Century 21 site and vicinity; this involved removing approximately three and half miles of overhead pole lines. The projected influx of 10 million fairgoers prompted the Engineering Department to undertake a significant slate of improvements to the downtown transportation network, in addition to the needed incorporation of the fairgrounds into the water/ sewer utility system. Seattle City Light, finally, provided more than just the expected power to the Exposition; as a integral member of the Electric Utilities of Washington consortium, City Light played a pivotal role in developing the 'Pavilion of Electric Power,' a sizable exhibit featuring a 40-foot tall depiction of a hydroelectric dam.

Controversy: Housing at the Fair

The Century 21 Exposition has generally been considered a success by later commentators, though this does not mean it occurred without incident. A principal controversy arose from the perceived 'housing crunch' expected during the fair, as millions of tourists descend upon the city and rapidly fill up existing hotels and motels. Unless extraordinary action was taken, many felt, fair visitors would be turned away without accommodation, damaging the Exposition's reputation. As the City Council took steps to respond, such as permitting the use of docked 'marine vessels' as temporary lodgings, certain residential hotel owners sought to exploit the housing shortage. With little warning, these landlords converted their buildings, which often housed people who had resided there for years, from monthly rentals to daily. Thus, prices were raised significantly, effectively 'pricing out' long-term residents in favor of the more lucrative tourist trade. Understandably angered by their 'eviction,' many wrote emotional letters to the Mayor, City Council, and the Seattle press. Though the actual numbers of residents evicted remains unclear, public indignation ignited a heated debate over what the municipal government should do in response.

Public concern over landlord malfeasance climaxed in April, 1962. Pushed to respond, Mayor Gordon Clinton sent a proposal to the City Council calling on the establishment of an Emergency Hotel Licensing Board. This entity would issue licenses to temporary tourist hotels only if at least 90% of their rental units were committed to transient guests during April-October of 1961. This would, theoretically, provide further sources of fair accommodation while preventing the opportunistic eviction of hotel residents in long-term occupancy of their rooms. The proposal was passed as Council Ordinance 91079 on April 17.

The Licensing Board set to work quickly separating residential hotels from potential new accommodations, though it was already under fire for its dubious legality. On May 25th, Judge W.R. Cole ruled Ordinance 91079 invalid and unconstitutional. Though shut down after barely a month of existence, the Board served its political purposes by calming public fears of rampant evictions and demonstrating the municipality's resolve to punish those landlords who acted improperly. Ultimately, the Fair housing shortage that the property owners hoped to exploit never materialized; Seattle's accommodations proved sufficient throughout the Exposition. This was due, in large part, to the effective use of unoccupied apartment projects and docked cruise ships as temporary hotels, as well as the average stay of the fairgoer being shorter than originally projected. The documents in this Digital Document Library illustrate the planning process as well as the citizen and city government reaction to housing issues during the Fair.


Fair Preparations and Information

Housing Shortage: Housing Planning Efforts

Housing Shortage: Public Reactions

  • Letters and petition sent to Council protesting the raising of rental rates for Fair (January 30,1962), along with copy of notification of said increase in rent sent by owner (January 29,1962)
  • Letter sent to Council expressing skepticism about eviction claims and suggesting a solution (February 6, 1962)
  • Letters sent to Mayor Clinton protesting evictions due to Fair-related rental rate increases (April 11 & 14, 1962)

Housing Shortage: Elected Official Reactions


Preparation for the Fair

Space Needle construction
Space Needle construction and aerial view of
fair grounds (October 17, 1961)
Image 165664, Seattle Municipal Archives
Removing last utility pole on Fair Grounds
Removing last utility pole on fair grounds
(October 17, 1961)
Image 165678, Seattle Municipal Archives
Installing underground wiring on fair grounds
Installing underground wiring on
fair grounds (March 8, 1962)
Image 165680, Seattle Municipal Archives

Promotional Materials

City Light Ad for Electric Power Pavilion
City Light ad for Electric Power Pavilion
Vertical File 435, Seattle Municipal Archives
Fair map
Fair map from promotional booklet (1959)
Document 8057, Seattle Municipal Archives
Fair map
Artist's rendering of private industrial exhibits
from promotional booklet (1959)
Document 8057, Seattle Municipal Archives

Photographs of the Fair

Space Needle and Flags
Space Needle and flags (March 29, 1962)
Image 77810, Seattle Municipal Archives
Space Needle base and surrounding exhibits
Space Needle base and surrounding exhibits (1962)
Image 73133, Seattle Municipal Archives
Street Scene at Fair
Street scene at the fair (April, 1962)
Image 77811, Seattle Municipal Archives

Travel Trailers

Travel trailer interior - artist's rendering
Artist's rendering of interior of
prototype travel trailer (1962)
Comptroller File 244930,
Seattle Municipal Archives
Artist's rendering of travel trailer park
Artist's rendering of possible
travel trailer park (1962)
Comptroller File 244930,
Seattle Municipal Archives
Travel trailer interior photo
Interior photo of prototype
travel trailer (1962)
Comptroller File 244930,
Seattle Municipal Archives


Textual Records

Civic Center Advisory and World's Fair Commissions Records, 1957-1962 (Record Series 9315-01) Records of Seattle's 1962 World's Fair commissions including: Century 21 Executive Committee, World's Fair Commission, other committee and board minutes, authorizing legislation, promotional materials and reports. Issues addressed included: land acquisition, building design and landscaping, transportation, exhibits, and financial issues. The records date primarily from 1957 to 1959.

Office of the Mayor, Mayor Gordon Clinton Records (Record Series 5210-01) Records from Mayor Clinton's office regarding various aspects of planning for the exposition.

  • Box 4, Folders 16-17: Century 21 World's Fair, 1960
  • Box 7, Folder 1; Box 8, Folder 18; Box 9, Folder 1: Century 21 Downtown Beautification, 1961-1962
  • Box 7, Folder 15-18: Hotel Licensing Board, Housing, 1962
  • Box 10, Folder 4; Box 20, Folders 6-7; Box 24, Folder 16; Box 42, Folder 7: Correspondence - Century 21/Seattle Center, 1963-1964
  • Box 24, Folder 6: Armory, Century 21, Pier 91, 1964

Seattle Center Facilities Maintenance Records (Record Series 7605-01) Correspondence, progress reports, architectural drawings, specifications, and financial records relating to construction, maintenance, and site development of Seattle Center facilities. The bulk of the records are for the Civic Auditorium, Coliseum, and parking facilities. Most of the records date from the World's Fair and immediate post-fair development.

  • Box 1, Folder 5: Seattle Center Central Plant, 1963-1964
  • Box 1, Folder 46: Seattle Center Park Garage, 1963
  • Box 1, Folder 47: Seattle Center Peripheral Street Trees, 1964-1965
  • Box 2, Folder 17: Seattle Center General Site Development, 1964-1965
  • Box 2, Folder 21: Seattle Center Irrigation and Drainage, 1964
  • Box 2, Folder 22: Seattle Center Landscape Site Development, 1964-1965 (also includes information on Civic Auditorium, Coliseum, and International Fountain)

Wesley C. Uhlman, Subject Files (Record Series 5287-01) Records from Mayor Uhlman's office relating to the conduct and results of several World's Fairs, principally the Century 21 Exposition and Spokane's Expo '74. Contains valuable third-party research on the Fair both before and after 1962.

  • Box 196, Folder 11: Worlds Fairs, 1958-1972

Engineering Unrecorded Subject Files (Record Series 2602-02) Records relating to Engineering Department involvement in various city projects, including Century 21.

  • Box 1, Folders 386-388: Century 21 - World's Fair, 1957-1972

Board of Public Works Miscellaneous Subject Files (Record Series 0601-01) Records of the Board of Public Works, which coordinated public works projects.

  • Box 1, Folders 12-15: Century 21 Exposition, 1959-1962

Ordinances (Record Series 1801-02) Permanent laws of the City passed by City Council and signed by the Mayor. Search the ordinance database using terms like "worlds fair" and "monorail."

  • Over 30 ordinances related to concessions, housing, permits, leases, rent, facilities.

Resolutions (Record Series 1801-09) City legislation of an administrative or administrative nature, or expressing policy. Resolutions are passed by City Council and may carry the Mayor's signature as an endorsement. Search the resolution database using terms like "worlds fair" and "monorail."

  • Over 25 resolutions related to vacations, donations, commendations, intent to acquire property.

Clerk Files (Record Series 1802-01) Materials placed "on file" with the City Clerk as an official City file. Types of records include affidavits, agreements, audits, applications, appointments, contracts, correspondence, annual reports, Mayor's messages and vetoes, petitions, policies and procedures, City publications, and legislation background materials. These records can be generated by elected officials, City agencies, and the general public. Search the clerk file database using terms like "worlds fair" and "monorail."

  • Over 175 clerk files related to citizen complaints/concerns, housing, minutes, murals, parking, lighting, dignitaries, moral standards, beautification, censorship, post-fair planning.

Seattle City Light Advertising Scrapbooks (Record Series 1201-03) Scrapbooks of newspaper, magazine, and other advertisements publicizing Seattle City Light, products and appliances, developments in hydroelectric power, and the city of Seattle itself. The Century 21 Exposition figured prominently in City Light advertisements around 1962.

Vertical Files Program, brochures, planning timeline, ephemera, and other materials.

  • Vertical File 435: Century 21 - World's Fair Brochures and Souvenir program, 1962

Maps and Drawings

Engineering Miscellaneous Improvement Records (Record Series 2615-02) Records documenting public works projects.

  • Box 1, Folders 1486-1491: Alweg monorail drawings, 1959-1962

Engineering Utility Franchise Records (Record Series 2623-02) Utility franchises granting permission to grantees to use sidewalks, streets, underground or air space owned by the City. The monorail records contain detailed drawings of columns, tracks, and other parts of its structure.

  • Box 15, 8 Folders: Alweg Rapid Transit Systems drawings, 1961
  • Box 16, 8 Folders: Alweg Rapid Transit Systems drawings, 1961

Department of Community Development Maps and Drawings (Record Series 1600-05) 2 drawings by Paul Thiry, Seattle Planning Commission.

  • Study of Broad St, 4th Avenue and 5th Ave. access to Seattle Civic Center. Proposed alignment of monorail on Century 21 grounds. 62x80 cm. Diazo on paper with colored pencil. May 18, 1960. Item 1169 in Map Index.
  • Alternative monorail terminal Century 21. 62x81 cm. Diazo on paper with colored pencil. 1960. Item 1170 in Map Index.

Photographs and Moving Images

Century 21 Footage (Record Series 3902-01) Collection of short pieces including two animated Public Service Announcements encouraging visitors to the World's Fair, footage of fair grounds model and construction including Coliseum, monorail and Space Needle, dignitaries touring fair grounds during construction, Century 21 offices, and a woman touring the Fair.

World's Fair Slides (Record Series 9955-01) 55 color slides available online depicting Century 21 the International Fountain, the Space Needle, amusement park rides, the monorail, and other attractions and landmarks.

Seattle Engineering Department Photographs (Record Series 2613-07) Over 70 negatives available online of parking signs, construction, safety awards and other images of Century 21.

Jim Skinner Photograph Collection (Record Series 9975-01) A total of 57 color slides taken by Jim Skinner in April 1962 of Century 21, many available online.


1962 Seattle World's Fair background information (Document 5866) Authored by Century 21 Exposition in 1962. 79 pages.

Seattle "Carveyor" proposal / passenger belt conveyor system for Seattle Transit Commission to service Century 21 Exposition (Document 6118) Authored by Passenger Belt Conveyors, Inc. in 1958. 18 pages.

Monorail proposal for Seattle Transit Commission (Document 6119) Authored by Monorail, Inc. in 1958. 21 pages.

Seattle Monorail / a mass transportation demonstration study (Document 7627) Authored by University of Washington Civil Engineering Department in 1962. 108 pages.

Report of examination / World Fair Commission and Century 21 Exposition, Inc. (Document 7742) Authored by Washington State Auditor in 1963. 94 pages.

Seattle Center, "the first year" (Document 7767) Authored by Century 21 Center, Inc. in 1963. 55 pages.

A United States World Exposition at Seattle: 1962 (Document 8057) Authored by Century 21 Exposition in 1959. 39 pages.

Note: Some images from these materials can be seen on our Flickr site.

Other Century 21 Resources

Seattle Public Library's Century 21 Digital Collection features over 1200 photographs taken of the Fair area before, during, and after Century 21, all digitized and available through the Library's website. Also in the collection are over 65 documents relating to the Fair's conduct, from brochures to internal memos to congressional reports.

The Special Collections division of the University of Washington Libraries holds a significant quantity of primary sources concerning the Fair, both written and visual. Much of their holdings are digitized and available online via their Century 21 Subject Guide.

Municipal Archives, City Clerk

Anne Frantilla, City Archivist
Address: 600 Fourth Avenue, Third Floor, Seattle, WA, 98104
Mailing Address: PO Box 94728, Seattle, WA, 98124-4728
Phone: (206) 684-8353

The Office of the City Clerk maintains the City's official records, provides support for the City Council, and manages the City's historical records through the Seattle Municipal Archives. The Clerk's Office provides information services to the public and to City staff.