A successful nuclear reaction!

Over objections from the University of Washington, the Nuclear Reactor Building was added to the state's heritage list and was approved for National Register consideration.
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The vacant Nuclear Reactor Building on the University of Washington campus. (Abby Martin)

Over objections from the University of Washington, the Nuclear Reactor Building was added to the state's heritage list and was approved for National Register consideration.

More Hall Annex, otherwise known as the Nuclear Reactor Building at the University of Washington, has reached a critical phase in its history. The UW had wanted to tear the building down last summer but was stymied by the efforts of students and preservationists, led by UW grad student Abby Martin, who mounted an effort to get the structure listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

That effort got a major boost on Friday, Oct. 17, when the Governor's Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, meeting in Kirkland, approved the building for the state's own heritage register and agreed that it met at least two criteria for listing on the National Register, administered by the National Park Service. The state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation will now pass the Nuke Building's nomination on for review. A decision could take between 45 and 60 days.

UW vigorously opposed the nomination sayings that its advocates had failed to make the case that the building was "exceptionally significant," a requirement for structures younger than 50 years old. The Nuke Building was built in 1961 to house a "teaching reactor" to train young nuclear engineers. The UW argued that the building was one of many (76) teaching reactors built in the United States and that its Brutalist concrete architectural style was not particularly remarkable. The university also argued that the building's lead designer, noted Northwest architect Wendell Lovett, was no "Frank Lloyd Wright or Frederick Law Olmstead [sic]," meaning not of sufficient national stature to warrant waiving the 50-year rule.

According to the state's chief preservation officer, Allyson Brooks, it is extremely rare for building owners to contest nominations before the advisory board. Virtually all owners seek the nominations, which are largely honorary. So there was an awkward moment when, after the board voted to list the Nuke Building on the Washington Heritage Register, a certificate had to be presented to the UW's representative, who was there to shoot down any listing. The UW's Theresa Doherty, assistant vice president for regional affairs, accepted it with good grace, if not enthusiasm.

The building's nomination for state and national historic status received strong support from the board, which approved it unanimously, the staff of the state preservation office, and representatives preservation groups Historic Seattle, Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, and Docomomo-WeWA. Both of the last two groups had listed the Nuke Building as one of the state's most "endangered" historic properties.

From the standpoint of the state's preservation community, there is no dispute that the building is worthy of National Register listing. That repudiates the UW's arguments and its own, internal review process. The UW said that it is proud of its stewardship of numerous historic buildings on campus. While some preservationists agree, they also think the UW is too insular. They are exempt, for example, from the city of Seattle's historic landmark process. There are internal plans and pressures to expand campus facilities and academic turf wars. The UW clearly does not like being second-guessed and looks askance at having outsiders affix a historic plaque to their ivory tower, even if it is a publicly owned one.

The impetus for the nomination came from a grassroots group of student volunteers, Friends of the Reactor Building, who researched the building and made a case for its unique attributes, which are deeply rooted in the history of the Cold War and modernism in the Pacific Northwest. Lovett, a Seattle native, is a highly regarded Northwest modern architect, was part of a unique team of star UW architects and artists who created the building. It was built in direct response to the emphasis on bold new science initiatives after Sputnik, and the design attempted to suit the dangerous work conducted inside the building while at the same time highlighting public access to nuclear science.

"It was thought to be the centerpiece for the engineering school" when it was built, architect Lovett says. Lovett sought to balance its showcase status with what was going on inside the structure. "My thought was, this is a working building, not something you got dressed up for, science and technology. There was room on campus for a down and dirty building. It's a tough building, it had to be dealing with a new form of energy. If you didn't do it right, you could kill people."

Lovett says that even at the time it was built, it was controversial. He wasn't sure the UW president would approve a bare, exposed-concrete modern structure on a campus still in love with old fashioned brick. And Lovett himself was not particularly enamored of the Brutalist architects he had met in Europe. His ambivalence is captured in the beautiful scale and almost tea-house feel of the building's exposed and windowed upper level on prime UW view property. One student testifying on its behalf said it was "Brutalism on a human scale." Another fan of the building described it as "small, beautifully sited, almost like a temple in a strange way." Its purpose was, in part, to help demystify the priests of atomic energy.

Abby Martin said she "couldn't believe it" when the board put the seal of approval on her nomination. The UW's Doherty said, "We respectfully disagree with the council." When asked if the council's decisions would change the university's course of action on the building — including reconsidering plans to demolish it — she said "everything is on the table." The UW is going through a new environmental review of the process that will look at various options for the building and the site. They are taking public comments through Nov. 3. Doherty says she thinks the process should be concluded by March.

A National Register listing would be quite a coup for the building, but it wouldn't guarantee that it would be saved. However, it would put the university in the awkward position of proposing to destroy a historically significant building, no less one with deep and important associations with the university's own talent pool (architects like Lovett, Gene Zema, and Daniel Streissguth) and its own record of public education and commitment to research and science. And clearly, bulldozing it would offer ammunition to those who think the UW is out of step with opinion on preservation issues related to the modern movement, again an area where the UW itself has been so influential. The UW's claims of being a committed steward of such legacies could be called into question, whether the university likes it or not.

Lovett says he's pleased the Nuke Building is being recognized. He said it has always been a kind of campus "oddball" and long "an annoying little pimple" to the university. But from the standpoint of historic preservationists and architectural historians, it's no blemish.


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Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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