Saving a Cold War Era Building in Seattle

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By Docomomo US/WEWA

The Nuclear Reactor Building at the University of Washington

In the wake of World War II, the atomic technology that sealed victory for the United States was welcomed by the American public as a source of cheap and efficient energy. With enthusiasm for the new technology, the University of Washington and many other universities sought to establish programs in nuclear engineering.

Fans of the Nuclear Reactor Building "heart bombs" the Nuclear Reactor Building on February 13, 2015. Credit: John Shea

The University of Washington founded its Nuclear Engineering program in 1958, and moved to acquire a research reactor as soon as possible. To house the new teaching reactor, the University commissioned The Architect Artist Group (TAAG), a collaborative group representing different design disciplines, to design the building. The group was composed of three architects, Wendell Lovett, Daniel Streissguth and Gene Zema, a structural engineer, Gerard Torrence, and a painter, Spencer Moseley. The commission was unusual. The University policy was to not offer design projects to its employees, and all of the members of TAAG were professors at the University, with the exception of Gene Zema who had a private practice. The Nuclear Reactor Building was the only building designed by The Architect Artist Group.

The Architect Artist Group’s approach to the design was bold and innovative. Research reactors installed on other college campuses were typically hidden in basements or concrete boxes and removed from the main campus activity. The case is the opposite in the design of the Nuclear Reactor Building. It is sited in the center of the engineering complex, and the reactor and its related experiments were visible from behind glass walls, encouraging public observation. In this condition the Nuclear Reactor Building on the University of Washington campus is completely unique. The University was supportive of the building design and its aspirations. The building was published in architectural periodicals of the time, nationally and internationally, including Architecture West, Arts and Architecture, Architectural Record, Progressive Architecture, and L’Architecture d’Aujourd ‘Hui.

Control Room in the Nuclear Reactor Building. Credit: University of Washington Special Collections
The Nuclear Reactor Building in 2008. Credit: Abby Inpanbutr                                           

The Nuclear Reactor Building was completed in 1961, the year before the Century 21 Exposition opened in Seattle. The building is small, but its dynamic form embodies the forward-looking spirit of its time. The architecture of the building is clear and logical, an expression of structure in concrete. Glass fills the space between the structural elements, allowing visual access to the reactor on the level below. The structural assembly showcases concrete in its different roles, especially evident in the cast in place members that support the roof. There is a kinetic energy in the form of the building that speaks of the energy contained within.

The Nuclear Reactor Building was unable to escape the downfall of nuclear power. A combination of negative attitudes and a lack of demand for nuclear engineers led to a decline in enrollment in the Nuclear Engineering Program. Research in the Nuclear Reactor Building was limited throughout the 1980s, and eventually the reactor was decommissioned in 1988. The Nuclear Engineering Program was closed in 1992. Since that time the building has stood vacant. The building has stood frozen in the past for the last 25 years.


Property Significance

The Nuclear Reactor Building is an exceptional example of design from the Modern Movement and the ideals that drove it. Designed by renowned architects of the time, the building’s design promotes technology and rejects the conventional academic architecture surrounding it. It is a completely unique structure, and represents a specific time and way of thinking in the history of the University, and the overarching history of nuclear power. Even after standing empty for many years, the structure still speaks of the heroic aspirations of Modern architecture and its association with technological development and moving ever forward into the future.


Advocacy Efforts

Preservation advocacy can be a long haul effort. The fight to save the Nuclear Reactor Building is one of these efforts. In 2008, the University of Washington had plans to demolish the Nuclear Reactor Building that summer. At the time, there were no specific plans or donors for the site. It was and remains a desirable site for future development. Due to the economic recession, the UW did not proceed with demolition and redevelopment of the site.

The Nuclear Reactor building was listed in the Washington Heritage Register and National Register of Historic Places in 2008 (nominated by Abby Inpanbutr, a graduate of the master's program in architecture at the University of Washington Architecture). The structure was 47 years old at the time of listing. The National Park Service deemed it had achieved significance within the past 50 years and was of exceptional importance.

In November of 2014, University of Washington representatives informed preservation advocates and local/state government officials that it has plans to build a new Computer Science & Engineering building (CSE II) and that the preferred site is where the Nuclear Reactor Building is located. It was clear to advocates that this meant the building was once again, threatened.

On February 13, 2015, about 25 supporters of the preservation of the Nuclear Reactor Building gathered in front of the structure for a group photo holding homemade Valentines showing their love of the historic building. This "heart bomb" event brought together Docomomo US-WEWA, Historic Seattle, Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, students, faculty, staff and others.

UW students put on a Reactor Party and Art installation in 2008. Credit: Eugenia Woo                                            
Fans of the Nuclear Reactor Building "heart bombs" the Nuclear Reactor Building on February 13, 2015. Credit: John Shea

The UW issued an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) scoping notice on February 26, 2015 seeking public comments for the scope of the EIS for the proposed CSE II project. Advocates commented about the lack of adequate alternatives to demolition and requested that the UW look at alternative sites and a true preservation alternative—one that meets the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation and preserves/incorporates the Nuclear Reactor Building into the project while allowing for new development of the CSE II building.

On October 8, 2015, the UW released the Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS). A public hearing is scheduled for October 26. Comments are due November 23. After an initial review of the Draft SEIS, it is clear that the UW's preferred alternative eliminates the Nuclear Reactor Building (called More Hall Annex by the University). The alternatives presented are not well developed and the entire Draft SEIS is skewed toward supporting its preferred alternative. Proposed mitigation for demolition is minimal.

The preferred site also contains a massive underground oil tank (larger than the footprint of the Nuclear Reactor Building) that the UW chooses to retain. In other words, the UW would rather keep an old fossil fuel source of energy and demolish a National Register-listed building. If the oil tank were decommissioned and removed, then the new CSE II building could be built on that part of the site while preserving the Nuclear Reactor Building. But this is not an alternative presented by the UW.

Docomomo US-WEWA plans to attend the public hearing and comment on the Draft SEIS. We will also be submitting written comments. We continue to work with local preservation organizations and others passionate about saving this important building. We are engaging in broader outreach for support through our network of supporters.

Advocates believe there is a creative design solution for the new project that does not destroy the National Register-listed building.

The Nuclear Reactor Building as it appears today. Credit: Abby Inpanbutr
 

 

Note: This article was compiled by Eugenia Woo, a member of the Board of Directors of Docomomo US-WEWA. It contains content written by Ms. Woo and by Abby Inpanbutr, the author of the National Register nomination.