Space Towers

Postcard Image of the Spiro Tower at PNE. Plastichrome Natural Colour Productions, Burnaby.

The Spiro Tower, more commonly known as the Space Tower, on the Playland grounds at the Pacific National Exhibition (PNE) was Vancouver’s response to Seattle’s Space Needle. [1] The Seattle structure, built for Expo 1962, dwarfed Vancouver’s tower, however (Needle: 605 ft.; Tower: 330 ft; the traveling cabin ascended to 216 ft). Prospective ‘space travelers’ would cue up on the twisty concrete at the Tower’s base.

The Tower was built in 1968 and endured at the PNE site until 1979. The double decker cabin would hold a maximum of 60 people and would rotate three times on its way up the pole.

The Tower was designed in Switzerland and was imported from Mercedes-Benz of West Germany. The Mercedes logo was mounted atop the Tower, but it caused such a stink among the general public that it was later removed [2].

“[G]uides, dressed in authentic Swiss drindl costumes, are on each deck ready to answer your questions and show you the many points of interest.” [3]

Province columnnist, Lorne Patton, seemed to enjoy poking fun at the name of the Spiro Tower and the fact that it shared its name with Richard Nixon’s running mate and ultimately his V-P (until his resignation in the wake of the Watergate scandal), Spiro Agnew (Province 14 Sept 1968).

Sun 1 April 1969. Shows PNE Space Tower manager, Don Shaw, some 200+ feet above the PNE grounds on the Space Tower.
CVA 180-4279.11 – The PNE Space Tower with the Mercedes-Benz logo affixed to it. 1969.
CVA 180-4028.07 – Opening ceremonies of the PNE Space Tower showing some of the Tower Guides in their ‘authentic Swiss dirndl costumes’. 1969.

The PNE Space Tower was pretty popular for the first few years of its existence, but by the late 1970s, its popularity had waned, and it was operating in the red. It must be admitted that the tower wasn’t the most exciting ride at the PNE. It didn’t really count as a ride at all to any but the likes of me for whom ascending even a few feet is more than enough of a thrill! So, by 1979, the PNE authorities announced that the Spiro/Space Tower would be dismantled.

Expo Space Tower (Son of PNE)

A sexed-up version of the PNE Tower would be purchased by the province in time for Expo ’86. The Expo version would also be known as “Space Tower”. The Expo tower (at about 236 feet) was a little shorter than the PNE tower, but the new edition had a more thrilling component for those who were looking for more than a view of Vancouver: they could have an oxymoronic ‘controlled free-fall’ from ‘Parachute Drop’ pods from near the top of the tower.

CVA 2010-006.466 – Expo ’86 site including the Expo Space Tower. 1986. Ernie Reksten photo.

The Expo Tower, like that at the PNE was Swiss-designed. But unlike the PNE version, the Expo tower was plagued with mechanical issues. I counted at least 4 different occasions on which Expo tower riders were stranded. Headlines such as “Space Trap for Visitors” and “Stuck Fair Ride Scares 2 Teens” weren’t ideal from the perspective of Expo’s public relations staff! But it didn’t seem to unduly affect ridership — by mid-July 1986, the Space Tower Parachute Drop had “terrified just over $1 million out of 415,000 people” (Province 20 July 1986).

The Expo tower was sponsored by Minolta camera company, and, naturally, they wanted to have their logo displayed atop the tower. Yes, this is a case of ‘dejas-vu all over again’! When it became clear that the giant Minolta sign would be visible over much of the city, the Expo powers-that-were insisted that the sign be replaced by a more modest corporate flag (Sun 9 July 1986).

At the conclusion of Expo, of course, the Son of PNE was dismantled, just as the PNE Tower had been. But unlike Big Daddy (as far as I know), Expo Tower was sold. Environmental Systems Co. of Little Rock, Arkansas, reportedly paid just over $200,000 for the Expo Space Tower (Sun 17 June 1988).

Notes

  1. Unlike the Space Needle, however, neither the PNE Tower nor the future Expo ’86 Tower had a restaurant at their summits.
  2. Why the Mercedes logo should have caused such an uproar was likely due to it being a German company. American corporate logos (such as Gulf and Shell oil) adorned the tops of such buildings as the Vancouver Block well before this period, without outcry.
  3. “Sprio-Tower Has a View With a Difference”. Pamphlet, ca1968

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2 Responses to Space Towers

  1. jmv says:

    Love it! I also covered the Spiro Tower story…

    For those who may have missed it:

    https://illustratedvancouver.ca/post/50507604078/the-spiro-tower

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