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An historic hot house

Nuclear Reactor Building.

The vacant Nuclear Reactor Building on the University of Washington campus. (Abby Martin)

If you thought landmarking a diner that was once a Denny’s is pushing the preservation envelope, how about putting a nuclear reactor building on the National Historic Register? Before you scoff, learn just a bit about a remarkable, little-known modern building in the heart of Seattle. Today, it’s called the More Hall Annex, but when it was built on the University of Washington campus in the early 1960s, it was called the Nuclear Reactor Building. Yes, that’s right: it housed a small, functioning nuclear reactor situated on a prime piece of campus real estate just off Stevens Way with a view toward Union Bay. Today, it’s facing demolition. Ask around, and most people are stunned to learn that there was ever a nuclear reactor on campus, just a short walk from places like the HUB and above the gym, stadium and Burke-Gilman Trail. It was built as part of a program to train students to be nuclear engineers. Planned in the late 1950s and brought online in 1961 just before the Seattle World’s Fair–when the Sputnik-spurred space race had unleashed a national effort to promote science and technology to the public–it reflected the belief that our future was a nuclear future. That was echoed in the vision of “Century 21” presented at the fair, where Ford displayed the “Seattle-ite XXIsome greens are starting to find new things to like about nuclear energy in the era of global warming. The building may vanish just as nuclear power may be on the eve of a comeback. But what remains standing is quite remarkable and has caught the interest of a graduate student at the university’s College of Architecture and Urban Planning named Abby Martin. Martin has researched the history of the building and submitted a nomination to Washington’s Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, which handles applications for listings on both the state and national historic registers. That application tells an interesting story, because the old Nuclear Reactor Building not only tracks the history of our interest in nuclear power, but embodies a unique design. Instead of a concrete box hiding an atomic heart, this building was made to showcase the work inside. The result was a small, very stylish and open concrete and glass structure that allowed the process of running a nuclear power facility to be observed from above. On top of that, it was designed by a multi-disciplinary group of talents assembled from the University’s own faculty, which included some of the top architects teaching and practicing in Seattle. Thus, the facility is connected not only to our tech and energy ambitions, but is an expression of the University’s in-house talent. Plus, it has the feel of classic Northwest-style modern design. A reactor in a glass house with a view and surrounded by trees–where else but Seattle? Martin’s application lays out the building’s history and significance. It was designed by a group called The Architect Artist Group (TAAG), which consisted of Wendell Lovett, Gene Zema, and Daniel Streissguth, all highly respected (and still living) local architects, and structural engineer Gerard Torrence and artist, Spencer Moseley. All, except Zema, taught courses at the UW at the time. It was a highly influential group, not just for their work here and elsewhere, but on the campus itself. Zema and Streissguth, for example, also designed Gould Hall, home of the University’s architecture school. The Nuclear Reactor Building, according to Martin, was “intended to dispel the mystery of nuclear power and to showcase the progressive technology.” It not only served to train engineers, but generated radioactive isotopes used in medical treatments and other tests and experiments. But eventually, concerns over safety and the collapse of the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS) which pulled the plug on building more nuclear power plants in Washington contributed to the decision to wind down the nuclear engineering program and de-commission the reactor. The UW has wide latitude with what it can do with the buildings on campus. They are not under the jurisdiction of the city of Seattle landmarks laws, and the state and national registers cannot prevent demolition–they are honorary only. But Martin believes that it’s important for the public to hear the story of this obscure and one-of-a-kind building that appears to meet criteria for historic status: it’s unique, the result of the work of important architects, and part of our Cold War-era scientific and technological history. When you know the building’s purpose, it’s striking just realize how original and unusual the design is. It was an effort change the public profile of the atomic era, to replace secrecy with openness, and to offer transparency into a complex process usually hidden from public view. Martin also contends that the UW has a special responsibility to preserve its heritage. In her application, she writes:

In the past 100 years, the University of Washington campus at Seattle has undergone many cycles of change. Many existing buildings appear to be long established, but this is deceiving. Although the University seeks to convey fortitude and endurance, the academic campus shows little evidence of its history and formation. Buildings and landscapes have come and gone, most notably every [See correction below in comments] building built for the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition in 1909. The University is devoted to education and for that reason should record and preserve history through its campus. The Nuclear Reactor Building is a landmark in nuclear engineering education and in the development of the University and should not be quickly discarded…[I]f the building is removed a vantage point will be lost in the framework of the recent past. Although memory is inconvenient, the physical repercussions of nuclear technology have been embedded in the modern world. The Nuclear Reactor Building, as a public nuclear structure, is an artifact of a period which it is our obligation to remember….

The UW demolition is slated for some time this summer. For Martin, it is a race against time: will her applications be reviewed before the wrecking ball swings? That depends. Michael Houser, architectural historian at the state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, says the application has a couple of hurdles. He has asked Martin for some additional information. The next review of applications won’t be until July, which could fall close to or after the demolition date. In addition, the Nuclear Reactor Building is less than 50 years old, the usual minimum age set for state and national historic status. However, in cases where entities are younger, they can still meet the criteria for registration if “exceptional significance” can be demonstrated. Houser says the fact that the architects are still alive could also hurt the cause. He said there is an unwritten policy to avoid adding entities built by still-living architects to the national register. The state has no such rule. He cited Seattle’s Gas Works Park, designed by landscape architect Richard Haag. The state listed it, but the feds turned it down, he says, because Haag is still alive and still practicing. Nevertheless, from what he’s seen so far, Houser says he thinks the Nuclear Reactor Building is “definitely eligible.” The value of historic registration is mostly symbolic. Houser says commercial buildings on the federal list can apply for a tax credit, but for the most part, a listing merely gives a building owner bragging rights and the chance to put up a plaque. It also offers an opportunity to add to the historic record and to raise public awareness. In some cases, it might give the community a little moral leverage over owners who might want to take a historic building down. But ultimately, it is no protection. Abby Martin hopes that, whatever its fate, the Nuclear Reactor Building finally gets public acknowledgment of its role in history, and credit for its architectural originality. That would be in keeping with its original intent. It’s hot core may be gone, but it can still teach us something.

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