370 Thomas Street, Seattle, WA 98109
The content below is from a 2003 Seattle Landmark Nomination form.
The rapid growth of America’s metropolitan areas following World War II was aided by, and limited to, available transportation systems. By the late 1950s, traffic congestion had become a major urban development problem, requiring the examination of new systems of mass rapid transit.
The proposal by Alweg International to construct a monorail system in Seattle occurred at a juncture in American life when “travel of the future, both on the earth and off, [had] stimulated the imaginations of the general public.”8 The 1957 orbit launch of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik 1 provided a catalyst for this interest, igniting a “space race” between the Soviets and the United States. The U. S. responded by launching Explorer 1 in 1958. In 1961, the Soviet Union launched the first cosmonaut into space; in 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth.
To a nation eager to display its scientific and technological strength to the world, the Alweg Monorail system symbolized the future of public transit (enthusiastically billed as “tomorrow’s transit today” by promoters and fair organizers). To many transportation planners, the Monorail was a prime candidate for solving the problems of a congested metropolis.
Rather than being a city transit initiative, construction of Seattle’s Monorail was a speculative venture undertaken by Alweg International of Cologne, Germany. Seeking to promote the monorail as the ideal form of urban rapid transit, Alweg used the occasion of Seattle’s 1962 Century 21 World’s Fair, to prove it. Event organizers, eager to showcase this future mode of urban transit, happily accepted Alweg’s no cost offer to construct a monorail for the Seattle World’s Fair. Construction contracts were signed on December 21, 1960 with construction of the guideway beginning in April of 1961.
The first Monorail test runs took place on March 3, 1962. Despite press reports referring to its bumpy ride, the trains were an instant success, carrying over 179,000 passengers before the fair opened. The official opening occurred April 19, 1962. Fares cost 50 cents one-way and 75 cents round trip for adults, and 50 cents and 35 cents, respectively, for children.
The Monorail was a vital component of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, as it provided a significant advantage for fair organizers. The 74-acre fair site, which subsequently became the Seattle Center, was bordered by water to the west and Queen Anne Hill to the north. No major arterial extended through the site, leading officials to realize that they needed a mass transit system to connect the fair with the hotels, stores and offices of the downtown retail core, approximately 1.2 miles south of the fairgrounds. The Monorail provided a further advantage by reducing the need for adjacent parking spaces, as fairgoers could park downtown and take the train to the fairgrounds.
Alweg International retained ownership of the Monorail until 1965, when the City of Seattle purchased and placed it under the control of the Seattle Transit System. The City continues to own the Monorail. Presently, Seattle’s Monorail is unique as the only public transit system in the United States to return a profit.
A linkage between the fair grounds and Seattle’s downtown core was consistent with the forward-thinking theme of Century 21, highlighting a new system of elevated transportation. Indeed, the Monorail represented the first large-scale venture of this mode of transport in the United States. Other transportation systems at the fair also celebrated future technology. These included capsule-shaped elevators in the Space Needle, pedal carts, suspended system of pod-like gondolas that made up the Skyway (which is now located at the Western Washington Fairgrounds in Puyallup), and amusement rides in the “Gay Way.”
The Seattle Monorail is an important element in downtown Seattle, as an expressive piece of urban architecture and an outstanding work of its original designer and builder. For nearly forty years it has been a well-recognized physical landmark in the city as well as in the Denny Regrade neighborhood through which it runs.
The Monorail’s distinctive physical form is both a static and kinetic reminder of Seattle’s Century 21 Exhibition. Construction of the Monorail provided a popular symbol of the World’s Fair and a solution to a complex traffic problem for fair planners. It embodied the early 1960’s confident belief in the future, which held that technology could solve urban problems. Its design and appearance in Seattle is a reminder of the promise and influence that space travel held in the collective minds of previous generations.
Similar to the Space Needle, the Monorail symbolizes the city of Seattle to visitors and residents alike, and represents a time when future innovation appeared limitless.
The Monorail’s system consists of four distinct components. These include the two stations—the north station with the nearby Monorail Administration Building at the Seattle Center, the south station on the east side of Westlake Center near the northwest intersection of Pike Street and Fifth Avenue, the raised concrete guideway structure of pylons and beams which extends through the Denny Regrade neighborhood between the two stations, and the two trains, which are each made up of two single-end articulated cars permanently connected into a double-ended train. The site of the Monorail is thus quite complex, and includes the current two stations and the guideway structure, which covers a 0.9-mile distance between the stations.
After four decades of service, the Monorail trains do not appear dated. Rather they have become a familiar and cherished part of the Seattle cityscape. The two trains that currently comprise the passenger vehicles were designed by an Italian automobile-building firm and manufactured in Germany. According to the Monorail Society, Seattle’s Monorail vehicles are the only Alweg-built trains still operating today. Promotional literature in 1962 touted the “interior comfort and eye-catching design” of these streamlined cars with wide windows and contoured glass ceiling windows providing panoramic views.
Although the changes to the south terminus in downtown Seattle have been significant, the physical integrity of the Monorail appears intact. At the Seattle Center, despite lengthening of the platforms and revisions to access routes, the station form retains its original character-defining features. The 0.9 mile guideway system of concrete pylons and beams, which run from the Seattle Center south to Olive Way, is original with the exception of the tunnel through the EMP.
While the guideway width has been changed, and reduced in width south of Olive Street, to accommodate the new Westlake Station design, it remains a tectonic system of cast-in-place and pre-cast concrete elements.
The original Alweg trains remain having been preserved through a remarkably consistent effort at ongoing maintenance. The impression gained by riding or simply viewing the Seattle Monorail in 2002 is similar to that in 1962: streamlined passenger travel, quietly moving through urban space towards a Modern future.
The Architect, Axel Leonard Wenner-Gren (1881-1961)
The creator of the Alweg monorail system was Axel Leonard Wenner-Gren, a Swedish industrialist and scientist. Born in Uddevalla, Sweden and educated in Germany, he began his career working for the Swedish Electric Lamp Company, eventually becoming its majority shareholder. In 1921 Wenner- Gren founded the Electrolux Company to manufacture vacuum cleaners and, later, refrigerators. He then acquired one of Sweden’s largest wood-pulp mills, as well as the Bofors Munitions Works. In 1941 Wenner-Gren established and endowed the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Nordic Cooperation and Research, an institute for the development of innovative scientific study.
Wenner-Gren founded Alweg International in 1952, deriving its name from his own initials ([A]xel [L]eonard [W]enner-[G]ren). To test the effectiveness of his monorail system, Wenner-Gren constructed a reduced-scale test course outside Cologne, Germany. The system design was a closely guarded secret, and the test course was off-limits to the general public. Lacking photographs of the trains, some German publications used artist renderings, each depicting its own vision of what became known as the “rail torpedo”.
Originally, Wenner-Gren promoted his monorail concept for both urban transportation and long-distance industrial (freight) traffic. Early test results, however, indicated that economic viability was limited to metropolitan (passenger) use. After five years of testing and revisions, the first public demonstration occurred in 1957. Its co-developers and technicians, Willi Brose, Karl Lindlar and Willi Fusswinkel, were on hand to operate the system. The test course consisted of two passenger trains, 36 feet in length, and a capacity of approximately 200 persons. The emphasis was on comfort and safety; the trains operated at an average speed of 50 miles per hour.
All components of the monorail system, including the stations, were to be standardized using the unit construction system. This system, Alweg argued, would prove cost effective over conventional means of public transport.