Score one for Seattle's historic nuke site

The University of Washington's Nuclear Reactor Building has won a place on the National Historic Register, a key step in saving this wonderfully designed structure from demolition.
Crosscut archive image.

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

The University of Washington's Nuclear Reactor Building has won a place on the National Historic Register, a key step in saving this wonderfully designed structure from demolition.

Last Friday (Oct. 2) I received word from state architectural historian Michael Houser of the Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation that the University of Washington's Nuclear Reactor Building (More Hall Annex) has officially been listed on the National Register of Historic Places, a significant moral victory for preservationists. The saga of the building has been followed here on Crosscut.

The unusual and wonderfully designed structure has been targeted for demolition by the UW. A student effort, led by UW grad student Abby Martin, to nominate the building for national historic status has gained it national attention. The building has also been listed on the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation's "most-endangered" in 2008 and is its 2009 "Watch list." Advocates of the building and nomination would like to see it saved and re-used. One idea has been to turn it into an atomic museum. The building once housed a working nuclear reactor and was used for training engineering students.

Almost exactly a year ago, in October, 2008, the Governor's Advisory Council on Historic Preservation approved listing the building on the state heritage list, a necessary step before national listing. The UW vigorously opposed that listing.

The Nuclear Reactor building is considered significant for a number of reasons, one being that it was the result of a collaborative design effort by a multi-disciplinary group including highly regarded Northwest modern architects Wendell Lovett, Gene Zema, and Daniel Streissguth, as well as structural engineer Gerard Torrence and artist Spencer Moseley.

The result of their collaboration was a working 1960s-era reactor building of unusual elegance, especially for a concrete Brutalist structure. It is doubly unusual because it was designed with the idea of allowing the public to view the previously secretive nuclear process. Earlier this year, I talked to Hank Florence of the National Park Service, which oversees National Register nominations, and he told me there was a good deal of interest in the building because it offered a rare chance to tell the nuclear story in an urban setting.

The University of Washington campus features many important, historic buildings, but only one other is on the National Register, according to information supplied by the UW. That is the turn-of-the-century Canoe/Shell House. Denny Hall, the Observatory, Clark Hall, Lewis Hall, and Parrington Hall are on the Washington state heritage list only. Yet another National Register nomination is under consideration this fall: The University Faculty Club. The mid-20th-century modern club was nominated by Kathryn Roger Merlino, and assistant professor of architecture at the UW. Its architects were Northwest legends Paul Hayden Kirk and Victor Steinbrueck.

Chris Moore, field director for the Washington Trust, had this statement about the Nuclear Reactor Building's listing: "The listing of the University of Washington's Nuclear Reactor Building in the National Register of Historic Places adds an exclamation point to the structure's historical significance and further solidifies Seattle's role as home to a rich collection of noteworthy resources from the recent past. The Washington Trust for Historic Preservation is very pleased to see the Nuclear Reactor Building acknowledged with this honor."

Certainly the listing is an assist for those seeking to preserve it from demolition, though National Register structures can still be demolished.

I've asked the UW for comment and an update on what this means for the Nuclear Reactor Building.

UPDATE: I received (Oct. 4) the following statement in reply from Richard Chapman, the UW's associate vice president for capital projects. The UW has not yet been formally notified of the designation:

The University is an excellent steward of the campus historical resources. The University is currently preparing a Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement which will analyze various alternatives regarding the More Hall Annex including: No Action; Demolition and Site Restoration; Adaptive Reuse; Incorporation into a Future Building; Relocation of the Existing Building and Interpretive Commemoration. We are and will consider the fact that the building is (may be) listed and the relevant underlying facts. We have not made any decision about the More Hall Annex as we are still completing our EIS.

While we would indeed be proud to receive national recognition of any of our facilities, this designation does make more difficult our options of how we can best balance our historic architectural legacy with the appropriate use of our capital assets to accomplish the university's mission. When we have all information required and necessary to make an informed decision, the University will then make a determination about the future of the More Hall Annex.


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Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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