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Seattle Center resides on Indigenous land, the traditional territories of the Coast Salish people. This acknowledgement reminds us to strive for respectful partnerships with all people, as we search for collective healing.

Indigenous Roots

Since the last glacial period on earth ended 10,000 years ago, the Indigenous people of the Duwamish tribe have lived in the area known as Seattle/Greater King County. The advent of the maritime fur trade in the 1800s, the establishment of Fort Langley and Fort Nisqually, and white settlements at Alki and what is now Pioneer Square, brought European immigrants to the Puget Sound. By 1855, when the Treaty of Point Elliott was signed, the United States had assumed regional sovereignty and native lands were occupied by whites.

The legitimacy of the Treaty of Point Elliott was questionable, but it resulted in the Duwamish tribe being forced to move off their lands and onto reservations established for other tribes. Lives were loss due to diseases introduced into native tribes, including a smallpox epidemic in 1862. Additionally, governmental policies were established that furthered the spread of smallpox and other epidemics.

Tribe members still live in Duwamish aboriginal territories which include Seattle, Burien, Tukwila, Renton and Redmond. But the Duwamish tribe is not federally acknowledged by the U.S. government – a title that has been granted to 562 other tribes. The Duwamish’s fight for recognition as a Native American tribe has been ongoing since 1978 and continues today.

How Seattle Center Began

Seattle Center, as we know it today, began in 1927 with the construction of Civic Auditorium (now Marion Oliver McCaw Hall) and Civic Arena (now Seattle Opera at the Center). The National Guard Armory (now Seattle Center Armory) was completed in 1939. Civic Field (now Memorial Stadium) was built in 1948 and the Wall added in 1952. Many of the current structures were created for the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair including the Coliseum (New Arena at Seattle Center), Northwest Rooms (KEXP, THE Vera Project, SIFF Film Center), Cornish Playhouse, United States Science Pavilion (Pacific Science Center), Seattle Center Monorail and the Space Needle. Since the World’s Fair, continued development has renewed elements of the Center. Since 1990, over $860 million has been invested on the grounds, with $560 million raised from private sources.

The Seattle Center grounds and venues support an extraordinary level of arts, cultural, sports, educational and tourism activities. The region’s top visitor destination houses globally acclaimed performing arts including Seattle Opera (founded in 1962), Pacific Northwest Ballet (founded in 1972) and several professional genre-specific theaters. Over 14,000 events are presented on the campus each year, attracting millions of Seattle residents, arts patrons, out-of-town guests and global travelers.

A Brief History/Timeline of Seattle Center’s Evolution

With is origins dating back more than a hundred years, Seattle Center today continues to evolve to accommodate new users, meet community needs and take hold of newfound opportunities. The spirit of reclaiming the best of the past and adapting to contemporary functions has served the Center well. The region’s cultural hub, with acres of green space, gardens and waterworks, will continue to entertain and enrich visitors for many generations to come.

1853 David Denny files a land claim for a tract that more than a century later will become the site of Century 21Exposition.

1881 Saloonkeeper James Osborne bequeaths $20,000 as seed money to build a civic hall for social and cultural gatherings on the site that would become Seattle Center. His gift is eventually matched by public funding and nicknamed “The House that Suds Built.”

1886 Stipulating “public use forever,” David and Louse Boren Denny donate land for the civic hall.

1927 A public bond passes and construction begins on Civic Auditorium. Civic Field opens.

1928 Mayor Bertha K. Landis (first female Mayor of Seattle) dedicates the Civic Center Complex.

1939 The Seattle Field Artillery Armory (later named the Food Circus, and then Seattle Center House) is dedicated on April 17th

1947 Memorial Stadium opens.

1948 Un-American Activities hearings on alleged communist acts take place in the Armory.

1951 Memorial Wall honoring Seattle high school students killed in WW II is dedicated at Memorial Stadium.

1954 City Council Member Al Rochester proposes the idea that Seattle host a world’s fair to mark the 50th anniversary of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909.

1956 World's Fair Commission votes unanimously to coordinate the World' Fair program with the city effort to develop a civic center at and around the Civic Auditorium. Seattle voters approve a $7.5 million bond issue for building and land acquisition near Civic Auditorium.

1957 World’s Fair Commission receives authorization from Washington Governor Albert Rosellini to hold a fair in Seattle in 1960, and Washington State Legislature approves $7.5 million in funding for the World's Fair. World’s Fair theme changes from a celebration of the 1909 A-Y-P to Century 21 following the USSR’s Sputnik launch.

1958 The Civic Auditorium (which would become the Opera House) is chosen over such other sites as Fort Lawton (today’s Discovery Park) as the location for the world’s fair. President Eisenhower presses a button on the Century 21 chronometer upon his arrival at Boeing Field to start the countdown to the fair’s opening. On-site demolition begins.

1959 Seattle City Council passes a resolution in support of Century 21 Exposition, agrees to purchase the state’s planned Coliseum (KeyArena) from the state and convert it to a sports and trade show facility after the fair closes. A plan presented to the public for the Century 21 monorail receives mixed opinions. Ground-breaking ceremonies at the fair site are celebrated with a re-creation of the A-Y-P transcontinental auto race of 1909, with a 1959 Ford and a new, experimental magnetic levitation “Levicar.” The race is sponsored by Ford Motor Company.

Seattle voters approve a proposal to remodel the Civic Auditorium into the Opera House. The Washington World’s Fair Commission and Century 21 Exposition, Inc. agree to postpone the fair to the spring of 1962 to attract more exhibitors from industry and foreign nations. The federal government appropriates $10 million to construct the U.S. Science Pavilion at Century 21.

1960 Construction of the Coliseum begins. A 550-foot observation tower (Space Needle) is proposed to be constructed for the fair, inspired by World’s Fair Commission chair Eddie Carlson’s quick sketch of a tower on a cocktail napkin.

1961 The Civic Center campus is renamed the Seattle Center. A design by Tokyo architects Hideki Shimizu and Kazuyuki Matsushita is chosen for the International Fountain, and a contract between Century 21 and Alweg Rapid Transit Systems for construction of the monorail is signed.

1962 Seattle Center Opera House opens for the World's Fair. In February, the Fair’s public relations director Jay Rockey achieves a major coup, a picture of the Space Needle under construction is featured on the cover of Life magazine, complemented by a seven-page, praise-filled article titled: “How to Pull Off a Fair.” April 9: The Seattle Center is dedicated, and two time capsules are sealed in a cornerstone of the Opera House, to be opened in 2012. Both are inadvertently unearthed in 2002 prior to construction of Marion Oliver McCaw Hall.

President John Kennedy open the Century 21 World’s Fair on April 21. Life Magazine is published in May with the cover featuring the Monorail and headlined "Century 21 Opens -- Out of This World Fair in Seattle," that same month, John Glenn visits Century 21 and the first Naturalization Ceremony is held at Seattle Center. Elvis Presley arrives in September to shoot the film It Happened at the World’s Fair.

In October, the fair’s principal architect, Paul Thiry, submits plans to Seattle Mayor Gordon Clinton regarding the layout of the “post-fair” Seattle Center. The Fair closes on October 21, and on October 22, the United States Science Pavilion reopens as Pacific Science Center.

1963 The City of Seattle resumes possession of the Seattle Center after Century 21 Exposition’s lease ends. The fairgrounds reopen on June 1 as the Century 21 Center, a name that lasts for two years before the site reverts to simply “Seattle Center” after much brainstorming of possible names such as Needleland, Pleasure Island and Pacifica. The Bubbleator is moved from the Coliseum to Center House. Seattle Repertory Theatre premieres in November at the Playhouse.

1964 Seattle Opera presents its first season.

1965 City of Seattle purchases the Monorail system from Century 21 Center, Inc. for $600,000, and Seattle Center becomes a department of the City of Seattle.

1967 The NBA Seattle Supersonics plays its first game in the Coliseum on October 13.

1971 Festival ’71 (renamed Bumbershoot in 1973) debuts in August.

1972 Northwest Folklife Festival is held for the first time, over Memorial Day weekend.

1975 Seattle Opera stages its first production of Wagner's Ring cycle.

1976 Cherry trees are planted at Kobe Bell as part of Cherry Blossom Festival, a key component of Seattle Center Festál cultural festivals at Seattle Center

1977 Seattle voters pass a $19 million bond measure for capital improvements at Seattle Center. Seattle Center Foundation is incorporated to administer and encourage charitable gifts, grants, bequests and memorials.

1980 The Bubbleator is removed from its relocated position in the Center House, donated to Children's Hospital and placed in storage.

1982 Space Needle Skyline Level is added, housing kitchen and banquet facilities.

1983 Pacific Northwest Ballet debuts its original, acclaimed Nutcracker. Seattle Repertory Theatre moves to a new home, the Bagley Wright Theatre.

1986 KCTS 9 moves its operations from the University of Washington campus to Seattle Center. Bite of Seattle outgrows its Green Lake location and moves to Seattle Center. Seattle International Children's Festival debuts and runs until 2011.

1990 Seattle City Council adopts the Seattle Center 2000 Master Plan.

1991 Voters approve a $25,800,000 levy for implementation of the Seattle Center 2000 Master Plan, matched by $8.5 million in state funds.

1992 The annual tradition of New Year’s Eve fireworks at the Space Needle begins.

1993 Seattle Children's Theatre moves from Woodland Park to Charlotte Martin Theatre.

1995 The renovated Coliseum reopens as KeyArena. The new International Fountain with accessible design and choreographed water feature debuts.

1999 Seattle voters approve Proposition 1 providing $36 million for Marion Oliver McCaw Hall and Fisher Pavilion.

2000 The Experience Music Project (Now Museum of Pop Culture [MoPop]) opens. Space Needle's ground-level retail pavilion addition opens. Seattle Shakespeare Company and Book-It Repertory Theatre move to Center House Theatre.

2001 Seattle Public Schools opens the Center School in Center House.

2002 Fisher Pavilion opens, replacing the old Flag Pavilion and becoming the City's first LEED building.

2003 Marion Oliver McCaw Hall opens on the site of the former Opera House.

2004 WNBA Seattle Storm wins first of two WNBA titles (second is in 2011).

2007 The VERA Project moves into its permanent home in the former Snoqualmie Room.

2008 Seattle Center Century 21 Master Plan is adopted by Seattle City Council. Seattle SuperSonics depart Seattle and KeyArena for Oklahoma City.

2009 The Fun Forest closes.

2010 Seattle Center SkatePark opens. Theater Commons and Donnelly Gardens are completed.

2011 Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation opens new campus on former parking lot site. Visitor Center follows in 2012. Seattle International Film Festival Film Center opens in the former Alki Room.

2012 The initial phase of the Center House Food Court’s redevelopment to be completed. Chihuly | Garden and Glass opens in May. The Next Fifty, celebrating the 50th anniversary the Seattle World’s Fair, presents six months of events and activities.

Center House is renamed Seattle Center Armory as renovated atrium and food service debut.

2013 Seattle Center launches a new Strategic Business Plan focused on programs, place, performance and organizational capacity. Seattle Opera celebrates its 50th Anniversary and Pacific Northwest Ballet Celebrates its 40th. The theater program at Cornish College of the Arts moves into the Cornish Playhouse.

2014 Armory Conference Rooms are renovated and renamed Armory Lofts. Seattle Repertory Theatre celebrates its 50th year.

2015 Artists at Play opens in Next 50 Plaza. An innovative partnership with Microsoft provides super-fast Wi-Fi on the grounds. Bumbershoot presents its 45th annual festival and Seattle Children’s Theatre presents its 40th season of outstanding productions for children.

2016 90.3 KEXP-FM Seattle welcomes visitors to new headquarters in the upper Northwest Rooms, with audio and video broadcast studios, the KEXP Live Room and Viewing Gallery, a live performance /community gathering space, and La Marzocco Café and Showroom.

2017 The Space Needle begins the Century Project, a multi-year venture focused on preservation and renovation of the 55-year old icon. The renovation will update the structure’s physical systems and elevate the visitor experience by dramatically enhancing the view.
2018 Seattle Opera at the Center opens with new facilities that include 19,000+ square feet of community and education space, a multimedia community performance area, and increased visibility into the building.

2018 After 56 years of operation and its most profitable year in history (2017), KeyArena closes for redevelopment, privately funded by the Oak View Group. KeyArena was designed by architect Paul Thiry as the Washington State Pavilion for the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, and the $660 million redevelopment project will double the arena’s size while preserving the historic landmarked roof and trestles. Other new features will include a glass atrium at the arena’s main entrance, a four-tiered bowl and Space Needle Club with a glass ceiling view of the structure, and a tree-lined pedestrian plaza. October 2021 is the anticipated reopening date.

For more information about the history of Seattle Center

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