What does my hometown, Stuttgart (Germany), have in common with Seattle, WA? A landmark. The one in Seattle has long since been competed with by skyscrapers springing up seemingly overnight, these days only clearly visible from the sea. The one in Stuttgart can be seen for miles on end. I’m talking of the Seattle Space Needle and the Stuttgart TV tower.
I grew up in a suburb pretty much in the shadow of the TV tower. It was built on one of the hilltops which surround the Stuttgart downtown basin and was the world’s very first one. At its base, there are mixed woodlands, interspersed with Schreber garden plots and vineyards, cozy suburbs, and a sizeable number of specialized sports clubs, amongst them one of Germany’s few American football clubs and a figure skating training center. My parents were the first to take me up the tower which had two restaurants below its antenna back then; a school outing took me there a second time. Every visitor from out of town got dragged up the tower, of course – it was just a ten minutes’ drive from our home after all. The last person I introduced to the landmark was my husband shortly before we got engaged.
But what does this have to do with Seattle? There are other cities with spectacular TV towers for sure. Funny enough, I only learned after I moved to the South Sound region that the Space Needle was pretty much inspired by the landmark I was so used to from my childhood. One of the chairmen of the 1962 World Fair in Seattle had visited the Stuttgart TV tower and became passionate about having a tower with a restaurant in the Emerald City, too.
The Stuttgart TV tower was opened in 1956, and its entire height is 710.6 feet (216.6 m). It was constructed from reinforced concrete and featured what is called a head (housing the restaurant and viewing platform) underneath the TV antenna. Ever since its opening it has received architectural awards, and it has been listed amongst Germany’s cultural monuments. Needless to say, after the successful building of that TV tower, there was a worldwide TV tower building hype.
What had triggered the building of the TV tower at all was the scant provision of Southern Germany with TV broadcasting. In a way the entire region has to thank Queen Elizabeth II for this modern construction. As her coronation ceremony three years earlier had been hardly receivable by the few citizens outside Stuttgart who already owned a TV set, the need for better broadcasting services and the increase of TV usage were supported by this iconic building, engineered by Fritz Leonhardt. In its opening year, almost a million visitors rode the lift up the Stuttgart TV tower, among them the then German president, Theodor Heuss, with his wife. Queen Elizabeth visited the TV tower only in 1965, by the way.
Apart from its ingenious construction, which still makes the Stuttgart TV tower an example of engineering and architectural aesthetics, the building has kept drawing visitors over the decades. Unfortunately, a few took the height as a means to end their life, amongst them one of my favorite sixth grade teachers. Steel cages have been reinforced and heightened ever since to discourage such steps.
Let’s not end the retrospective on such a sad note though. I remember some fun events around the TV tower as well. One that pops up in my mind first is an illustrated article in Stuttgart’s leading newspaper about a huge propeller having been attached to the tower shaft. People called in all day – forgetting that it was April 1 of that year. Maybe it inspired one modern artist who received permission to install giant red windsocks around the tower shaft. It was widely visible – and a bit weird, I have to admit. I remember that skydiving world champion Klaus Renz base-jumped from the tower one year. And a few years later, tight rope artist Johann Traber drove a Smart car on special steel ropes up part of the tower and performed a handstand on the car roof – no, I wasn’t one of the 6,000 viewers. Stuttgart theaters have been using the tower for performances, too. And you can even marry in the tower head.
After I left Stuttgart for Western Washington, the tower was temporarily closed for maintenance, but reopened in 2016. The weather being nice, you should still be able to see the Black Forest and sometimes even the Alps, over 200 miles away, from up there. The Cascades and the Olympic mountains over here are so much nearer and much more imposing. But even this similarity as to panoramic vistas marks the Seattle Space Needle and the Stuttgart TV tower as related in spirit