Remodeling an icon: A sneak peek inside the Space Needle renovation project, high above Seattle

With the sun setting behind the Olympic Mountains and Mount Rainier showing off behind the skyline on a crisp November night, the only thing missing from this quintessential Seattle view was the city’s most iconic landmark, the Space Needle.

But the Space Needle was our vantage point on Monday evening.

With demolition and renovation work hitting hit full stride as part of the multi-year, $100 million Century Project, GeekWire got a behind-the-scenes look at how things are progressing near the top of the 55-year-old structure.

It’s the latest stop on our ad hoc tour of the city’s engineering marvels. Just days ago I was deep beneath Seattle for an end-to-end trip through the State Route 99 tunnel. On Monday, after riding an elevator in the opposite direction, I stepped out onto the massive, open-air platform that was lifted into place beneath the Needle’s top house in September.

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The Seattle skyline is visible through the scaffolding erected on a platform hanging beneath the Space Needle’s top house on Monday. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)
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The Space Needle Century Project observation deck and and restaurant level rendering. (Olson Kundig Image)

I hadn’t played tourist and gone to the top of the Needle in more than 20 years. And a line in an earlier email inviting me to take this media tour kept coming back to me: “Although it is safe and meets all OSHA guidelines, this work area is not recommended for anyone not comfortable with exposed heights.”

Standing on the plywood decking 500 feet above the Seattle Center grounds, I got an up-close look at parts of the Needle that few people have ever seen — unless they’re part of the crews working on it now or were among those who helped build it back in 1961.

The rigging engineered to support workers and equipment and contain construction debris weighs 202,000 pounds. It’s attached to and suspended beneath the steel supports that provide the base for the levels above, including the rotating SkyCity restaurant and the observation deck, where visitors pay $22 for the chance to see Seattle from on high.

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GeekWire’s Kurt Schlosser descends through a hole in the Space Needle restaurant’s floor to reach the construction platform. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)
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Chains are part of the support system that holds the platform 500 feet above the ground. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Reaching up and touching this part of the structure, beneath the “halo” of the Needle, was kind of breathtaking. The soffit beneath the floor above has already been removed and the turntable and tracks that the restaurant rotates on were visible.

But as high as I was here, others have been higher, in at least one sense of the word. A Needle rep told us that among various inscriptions found on the steel beams, one from a previous worker read, “I smoked a doobie here in 1976.”

If that person only knew that 40-plus years later in Seattle, legalized marijuana would negate the need to take one’s vice to such great heights.

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The SkyCity restaurant has been gutted and will eventually have bigger windows and a glass revolving floor. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)
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Construction managers discuss the work being done in the restaurant on Monday. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

While the observation deck is remaining open during this phase of the project, the restaurant closed a couple months ago and has already been gutted.

The hostess station is gone and so is the piano and everything else. The windows are covered with plywood and the floors and ceiling have been peeled back to bare concrete.

Upstairs, the kitchen prep area and the bathrooms are gone, too.

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The upper halo of the Space Needle is visibe above two construction workers on the platform. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

SkyCity will take on a more literal meaning as the city’s restaurant in the sky. The rotating floor will be glass as part of the new experience and diners will be able to look away from their meal and down between the steel supports to see green grass far below.

On the observation deck, tourists will get an enhanced 360-degree view thanks to floor-to-ceiling glass panels on the inside area and tall glass panels on the outer ring viewing area.

Everything up top will be connected by a new stairway.

While the entire Century Project will take years to complete, the first phase will be done in just nine months, with the restaurant reopening next May.

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The platform as viewed from the ground looking back up at the Space Needle. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)