10 of America's Iconic Landmarks and the Unexpected Stories Behind Them
10 of America’s Iconic Landmarks and the Unexpected Stories Behind Them

10 of America’s Iconic Landmarks and the Unexpected Stories Behind Them

Larry Holzwarth - May 6, 2018

10 of America’s Iconic Landmarks and the Unexpected Stories Behind Them
The Space Needle during the 1962 World’s Fair. Seattle Municipal Archives

The Space Needle

Built as a centerpiece for the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, the iconic Space Needle is the symbol of Seattle. It was constructed in just under one year, being completed in April 1962. Its foundation is sunk 30 feet into the ground, is over 120 feet across, and contains 250 tons of steel reinforcement within its nearly 5,800 tons of concrete. The foundation weighs as much as the structure it supports, and is designed to withstand an earthquake up to 9.0 in magnitude. In 2001 an earthquake centered in Puget Sound shook the structure sufficiently to slosh water from toilet bowls, without any significant damage to the structure.

Originally the Space Needle held a carillon, though it was an imitation using speakers rather than real bells, and could produce the sound of a carillon containing 538 bells. It could be played live by an operator or through the use of perforated rolls in the manner of a player piano. The carillon was played throughout the 1962 World’s Fair, after which it was uninstalled. Its sound was captured on a record before it was installed in the Space Needle and can be found on You Tube videos, though most incorrectly claim that they were recorded while the carillon was installed in the Space Needle.

The 1962 World’s Fair opened on April 21, and during the course of the Fair the Observation Deck of the Space Needle received an average of just under 20,000 visitors each day. Since the fair the Needle has undergone multiple changes, the revolving restaurant replaced with other eateries which have changed over time, and an additional level added which includes banquet facilities for private events. A second rotating restaurant opened, as of spring 2018 it was closed for renovations. Since 1999 a beam of light has been emitted from the top of the Space Needle to observe special occasions, it was illuminated in 2001 for eleven consecutive nights following the 9/11 attacks.

Several disconsolate individuals have used the Space Needle to commit suicide over the years, leading to renovations in which the observation deck’s windows were expanded to floor to ceiling panels. There have been at least six incidents in which parachutists have jumped from the building, which is 605 feet in height at its tallest point. The Space Needle serves as Seattle’s answer to Times Square every New Year’s Eve, when a fireworks show is performed at midnight. From time to time the Space Needle has been repainted to display support of sports teams, and for its 50th anniversary celebration it was painted gold.

The Space Needle has appeared in motion pictures and television, probably most famously in a drawing at the opening of the sitcom Frasier. Its base was also visible from the deck of that program’s fictional apartment. One of the interesting facts about the Space Needle is the amount which it moves. It is designed to sway one inch per ten miles per hour of wind speed, meaning a gust of 40 miles per hour will cause the structure at the top to move sideways a full four inches.

10 of America’s Iconic Landmarks and the Unexpected Stories Behind Them
Steelworkers install the girders for another floor as the Empire State Building rises in New York. Wikimedia

The Empire State Building

Originally designed with a mooring mast for airships at its peak, the Empire State building has been iconic since before it was completed. It has appeared in television and movies throughout its lifetime, beginning with King Kong in 1933. It was built in the early and darkest days of the Great Depression, with construction beginning in the spring of 1930, and it opened in May of the following year, completed in just over 13 months. It has two observatories, on the 86th floor and on the 102nd, and over 4 million visitors use them every year.

Its construction was a masterwork of coordination and planning, with materials delivered on time and on demand, and its workers accommodated in ways calculated to minimize work time lost on site. As the building rose cafeterias and snack bars were installed on the uncompleted floors so that workers did not have to descend several stories to avail themselves of their services during breaks. Temporary water lines rose with the floors, providing drinking water to the workers. Building materials came from across the United States and Europe. As the supporting steel structure rose skyward, the façade was applied beneath it, and workers within the building finished out successive floors.

There were impressive firsts as the building was under construction. The steel structure resulted in the largest single purchase of steel ever up to the time of construction. When Otis Elevator received the order for the 66 elevator cars to be installed in the building it was the single largest order they had ever received, and a welcome one as the growing depression threw more and more out of work. More than 3,500 men worked on the building itself, supported by the daily delivery of materials and supplies. The building was completed under budget by almost $20 million, and twelve days ahead of schedule, an event celebrated by the last rivet in the steel frame being a ceremonial one of solid gold.

Although its construction was a resounding success the building was slow to gain popularity in terms of occupation. There was little demand for office space in the early 1930s. The mooring mast for dirigibles was revealed to be impractical and dangerous due to the vagaries of wind and updrafts, and the idea was abandoned after the US Navy made one failed attempt to tie up to the mast. In 1945 a US Army Air Force B-25 crashed into the building, an accident in which 14 people were killed. The building was slightly damaged and was open for business two days later.

It was not until the 1950s that the building began to be profitable and though no longer the tallest building in the world it remains one of the most prestigious addresses in Manhattan. Today it is considered an art-deco masterpiece and its public areas have undergone numerous renovations and improvements. In some years the sale of tickets to the observation decks have exceeded the income to the building derived from rents, an indication of the Empire State Building’s approval from the public. About 1,000 businesses have offices in the building, including several television and radio stations, which broadcast from its premises.

10 of America’s Iconic Landmarks and the Unexpected Stories Behind Them
The towers for the Golden Gate Bridge under construction in the 1930s. National Park Service

The Golden Gate Bridge

The Golden Gate was the name given to the one mile wide strait through which a vessel passes to enter or depart San Francisco Bay. The headlands to the north of the strait are the San Francisco Peninsula, to the south is today’s Marin County. In the early days of settlement, the two headlands were connected only by ferries, which were forced to navigate nearly blind during their passage across due to the heavy fog which often enshrouded the area. By the 1920s these ferries were operating on a regular basis, transporting people, products, and vehicles, and included the Golden Gate Ferry Company, the largest ferry operation in the world.

Pressure to build a bridge across the Golden Gate increased with the growing popularity of the automobile and the delivery of goods to their destination by truck. Opponents to a bridge were supported by arguments stressing the difficulties imposed by the currents in the strait, the often dangerously high winds, and the pernicious fog. The War Department and the Department of the Navy both opposed the construction of a bridge, because of the possibility of closing the strait to naval traffic. The politically powerful Southern Pacific Railroad – which owned the Golden Gate Ferry Company – was concerned that the bridge would destroy its profitable ferry service.

Construction of the bridge began in January of 1933. A thin deck was designed to span the straits, able to flex in response to the winds and the loads placed upon it, with the loads transferred to wound steel cables which supported the deck. In turn the loads were transferred from the cables to the twin towers, which transferred them to the bedrock on which they stood. Construction took just over four years, at a cost of $35 million (just under $500 million today) and 14 lives. A week-long celebration took place following completion. The bridge has pathways for both pedestrians and cyclists, which can be used according to specific published schedules during the day.

The Golden Gate Bridge was the world’s longest suspension span when it opened, a title it retained until 1964. More than 80,000 miles of wire are wound together to form its cables and suspenders. More than 1.2 million rivets hold the framework together and its iconic orange color is maintained by a team of 38 painters. The bridge paid for its construction through the collection of tolls, with the construction loans being fully paid in 1971. Tolls today are used to defray maintenance and repair costs. They have also been used to cover the costs of suicide barriers, which began to be erected on the bridge in the spring of 2017.

The barriers were deemed necessary due to the over 1,500 deaths ascribed to the Golden Gate Bridge in the years since it opened in 1937. The bridge holds the dubious distinction of being the second most used for suicide in the world. Jumping from the center of the span generates an impact speed of roughly 75 miles per hour, depending on wind conditions. Impact with the water is usually fatal, and if the impact is survived hypothermia can set in quickly in the cold waters of the strait.

10 of America’s Iconic Landmarks and the Unexpected Stories Behind Them
An early twentieth century post card depicting Independence Hall. Wikimedia

Independence Hall

Independence Hall can rightly be called the birthplace of the United States. Within the building, then called the Pennsylvania State House, the Second Continental Congress convened and commissioned George Washington to command the Continental Army. Independence of the thirteen colonies was proposed, debated, and enacted within the building, its windows closed despite the stifling June heat, to keep its discussions private. The Continental Congress used the building for its sessions throughout the Revolutionary War, except when forced to flee the city of Philadelphia before the British occupation.

When the Articles of Confederation, debated within the building but passed elsewhere, proved inadequate to the task of creating a national government it was to Independence Hall where the founders repaired to create the Constitution of the United States. What eventually became the United States Department of the Post Office was created there, its first Postmaster General the Philadelphia native Benjamin Franklin. The Liberty Bell was originally hung in its lower steeple, and then in a new upper steeple. It is now displayed across Independence Square.

Independence Hall was the home of the Pennsylvania Colonial Assembly from 1732. The Governor’s council also occupied the building, which is built of red brick and which was expanded with the addition of wings until it reached the configuration it retains today. The scenes which unfolded within the building during the Revolutionary era alone would be enough to give the building its status as an American Landmark, but there are other, lesser known events in its past which contribute to its status in American history.

Abraham Lincoln’s body was brought to Independence Hall to be held in state in April of 1865. Over 300,000 people waited in lines for hours to pass by the bier and pay their respects. The coffin was open. The following morning Lincoln’s coffin was carried by a hearse through the Philadelphia streets to the train station and the next stop of his funeral train in New York City. Since the Civil War era Independence Hall has been the site of protests, rallies, Presidential addresses, local political speeches, and numerous documentaries and films. It is one of the leading tourist attractions in Philadelphia.

The back of the one hundred dollar bill features a depiction of Independence Hall, and its interior is featured in dozens of paintings of the Founders as they went about their work. Independence Hall is part of the Independence National Historical Park and is administered by the National Park Service. It has been painstakingly restored to its appearance during the Revolutionary War era, both interior and exterior. It is a World Heritage Site as listed by Unesco, and besides being the site where the United States announced its independence, it was the site where an independent Czechoslovakia was announced in 1918.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“In Search of Liberty: The Story of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island”, by James B. Bell and Richard L. Abrams, 1984

“A Monumental Achievement”, by Judith Dobrzynski, The Wall Street Journal, July 15, 2006

“Chicago In and Around the Loop”, by Gerald Wolfe, 1996

“History of Mount Vernon”, by George Washington’s Mount Vernon, mountvernon.com, online

“Hoover’s Promise: The Dam That Remade The American West Celebrates Its 75th Anniversary”, by Sally Denton, American Heritage’s Invention & Technology, Summer, 2010

“Seattle Space Needle”, by Jeff Jacobs, Emerald City Journal, June 3, 1013

“Empire State Building Has a Tangled History”, by Charles V. Bagli, The New York Times, April 28, 2013

“The Golden Gate Bridge”, by T. O. Owens, 2001

“The Nine Capitals of the United States”, by the United States Senate Historical Office, based on the book of the same name by Robert Fortenbaugh, 1948 (out of print)