They are so clever and, yes, so corny in a circus-y way that revolving restaurants seem like they must be a product of American ingenuity – but they aren’t. The restaurant in Seattle’s 1962 World’s Fair Space Needle was not the first. Nor was it the second, third, or fourth. According to Chad Randl in A History of Buildings that Rotate, Swivel, and Pivot, the first revolving tower with a restaurant opened in 1959 in Dortmund, Germany. Sometime in 1961 came spinning restaurants in Frankfurt, Cairo, and Honolulu (pictured), in about that order.
The revolving building itself actually came earlier and was rather simple technologically. In 1898 a leading attraction in Yarmouth, a seaside resort in England, was a rotating observation tower on the beach. Decades later designer Norman Bel Geddes proposed a restaurant set atop a rotating column for the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933 (pictured). Unlike his, though, the design used by most restaurants features an interior ring that rotates while the building remains stationary.
They’ve often appeared in movies and TV shows. A 1934 British film, Give Her a Ring, featured a set with a revolving restaurant, decades before Elvis Presley and his date enjoyed dinner in the Space Needle in the 1963 film It Happened at the World’s Fair. A few years later evil scientist Ernst Blofeld operated a secret mountaintop laboratory in the Swiss Alps in the James Bond movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. After the film was completed the structure reverted to its original purpose, a revolving restaurant which of course uses the film as its theme.
A fantasy played out in fiction and occasionally in real life has the restaurant spinning out of control. The ideal rate of rotation is about one full turn per hour; a test of smoothness is a penny which remains set on edge for several rotations. Double the speed, as happened mistakenly at The Pinnacle in Chicago in 1965, and the ride gets jerky. Customers feel tipsy while the waitstaff can’t find their tables when they come out of the service core.
Despite being fairly easy to engineer and not really all that new, in the 1960s revolving buildings became symbols of progress. Often set atop communications towers, they were intended to help defray costs of tower construction and operation. Today, whether in towers or on hotel roofs (where they look like flying saucers that have landed), they continue to represent modernity in developing countries around the world. While North America has largely stopped building them or has shut down forever their little 1-HP motors, still they spin on in Kuala Lumpur, P’yongyang, and countless other places.
For diners gazing from on high – whether upon the Pyramids, distant mountains, or, more often, streets clogged with traffic – revolving restaurants are pleasant. Who doesn’t enjoy the feeling of god-like detachment while sipping a martini and surveying a cityscape? Yet, on the whole revolving restaurants are geared more to “peak” dining occasions than to the consumption of haute cuisine. Their forgettable yet expensive food has tended not to win them steady local trade. Plus, tackiness such as found in Florida hotels with Polynesian restaurants twirling in the sky, or “Certificates of Orbit” such as once were given out at Butlin’s Revolving Restaurant in London’s post office tower (detail pictured), have branded them cheesy tourist traps in many people’s minds.
That raises the question of why it took so long for Las Vegas to get one.
© Jan Whitaker, 2009