A rebirth of architectural activism

Red balloons and hot dogs help in a University of Washington grad student's fight to save the Nuclear Reactor Building. Plus: Honors for the state's historic preservationists.
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Hot dogs are served at the University of Washington Nuclear Reactor Building, adorned in red balloons. (John Stamets)

Red balloons and hot dogs help in a University of Washington grad student's fight to save the Nuclear Reactor Building. Plus: Honors for the state's historic preservationists.

University of Washington grad student Abby Martin is trying to get her master's degree in architecture wrapped up while at the same time championing the UW's unique old Nuclear Reactor Building (the More Hall Annex), which is slated to be demolished soon. On Friday, May 16, she and supporters threw a barbecue to raise awareness about the building, which could be torn down this summer.

The party included an "installation," which consisted of the building being covered in red balloons, which to my eyes suggested atomic particles blown-up for a kid's birthday party. UW photographer Jon Stamets — noted for his documentation of structures old and new — caught the moment (see accompanying photographs) in which a relatively obscure engineering building was brought renewed attention with a dash of color.

The event definitely attracted the curious as UW students came to find out what the fuss was about and lined up for foot-long hot dogs. The fast-foot theme fit an impression some have of the building's design, articulated recently by Seattle Post-Intelligencer architecture critic Larry Cheek, who called it"the bastard love child of Brutalism and Burger King." If so, the two should have mated more often.

The students were joined by other fans of modern experimentation, including preservationists from Docomomo--WeWA and the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation. A few people from the fight over the Ballard Manning's/Denny's were there, too, including Alan Michelson, head of the university's architecture library. (Further developments on the fate of the diner are on the agenda for Seattle's Landmarks Board meeting May 21. Also, there's a lecture on Googie design on May 20.)

Martin's effort to get the reactor building listed on the National Register of Historic Places is moving forward — she has just sent off a revised application to the state Department of Archeology and Historic Preservation, the first stop in the application process. Meanwhile, word is that the powers that be at the UW are not happy with the attention the building is receiving — keeping it is not part of their master plan.

On the other hand, the festive atmosphere also celebrated a return to architectural activism. Not only is a younger generation of UW architecture students turning out to champion history and design, they're helping revive a tradition once symbolized by Victor Steinbrueck, the UW architecture professor who led the fight to save the Pike Place Market. He stormed out of the ivory tower and into the streets, took on the powers that be, and made Seattle a better city. For the students, making the UW a better campus is a good place to start, but the city beyond needs their generation's help, as well.

Preservation notes

Tuesday, May 13, was the awards ceremony in Olympia for the State Historic Preservation Officer's Awards for Outstanding Achievement in Historic Preservation. A list of recipients (including yours truly) can be found here. The awards were given by Dr. Allyson Brooks, the state's chief preservation officer, and handed out by amiable First Gentleman Mike Gregoire, the governor's husband.

A couple of quick impressions: It was truly humbling to be included among those assembled. I get to write about historic preservation, but most of the recipients are the people who actually do the hard work of saving our state's heritage. Many have accomplished remarkable things.

The testament to former Seattle City Council member Peter Steinbrueck, who won a career achievement award, was really impressive and inspiring. So was the spectacular renovation of the Fox Theater in Spokane, an Art Deco masterpiece that was saved from the wrecking ball and lovingly restored as the home for the Spokane Symphony.

Another notable save: Seattle's First United Methodist Church, for which Nitze-Stagen's Kevin Daniels and King County Council member Dow Constantine were recognized. That effort was truly remarkable because the church's own congregation, with the support of the state Supreme Court, were set to destroy the city's last great historic downtown church for a cause that was hard to argue: so they could serve the poor better. It's an example of what can happen when people set their minds to creative solutions that combine the private sector with public interest. Developers will get to build a high rise, the marvelous sanctuary is saved, and the congregation has been freed to pursue its mission in a new location.

I left the ceremony feeling inspired and grateful to the people in this state who believe as I do that we live in a place — that Seattle, Washington state, the Pacific Northwest, the American West — aren't blank slates on which anything can be written but wonderful somewheres with heritage and culture worth honoring and incorporating into the futures we make.

TVW videotaped and broadcast the awards event, and it can be viewed in full here.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.