Center for Preservation and Adaptive Reuse

November 1, 2016

The Life and Death of UW Nuclear Reactor Building

“Even after standing empty for many years, the structure (Nuclear Reactor Building) still speaks of the heroic aspirations of Modern architecture and its association with technological development and moving ever forward into the future.” – DOCOMOMO (“Nuclear Reactor Building”)

In June of this year (2016), the back and forth between the University of Washington and supporters of the Nuclear Reactor Building, officially renamed More Hall Annex in 2002, reached a conclusion: in under a month, little was left of the building as the University prepped the lot for a new Computer Science and Engineering facility.  For years, the debate over the structure’s architectural and historic merit churned in response to the University’s plans to replace the building with a new structure that could accommodate a growing department and student body.  In spring the University won its case against the City of Seattle which liberated it from the city’s Landmark Preservation Ordinance and plans moved quickly to take the building down before an appeal could say otherwise.

Although considered by many to be ugly and far past its prime, there was also a vocal and passionate population that appreciated the building as an icon of Modernism (and the nuclear age), and who had successfully petitioned to get the structure on both Washington Heritage and National Historic registers in 2008. (“Nuclear Reactor Building”; Berger)  Despite fervent advocacy for protection of the building, in the end, the University viewed development in place of preservation as most advantageous to their needs. A new structure on the site of the former Nuclear Reactor building will allow for a convenient location of the new Computer Science and Engineering facility next to the existing computer science (Paul G Allen) building.  As a whole, this expansion will allow the program to double the number of computer science engineering degrees from 300 to 600.(Long) While the site gets prepared for the next generation of academic facility, many are mourning the loss of a structure that was simultaneously unique and unassuming.  

Originally constructed in 1961, the Nuclear Reactor Building was constructed to house the University of Washington nuclear program.  The building was designed by a conglomerate of architecture, engineering and fine arts faculty known as The Architects and Artists Group (TAAG).  TAAG consisted of the architects Wendell Lovett, Daniel Streissguth, and Gene Zema, the artist Spencer Moseley, and electrical engineer Gerard Torrence.  The nuclear reactor building is their only known built structure.  

The Nuclear Reactor Building, has been described by some as the intended “crown jewel” of the UW engineering department when it was built. (“The University of Washington Nuclear Reactor Building: Artifact in the Landscape”)  Not only was it characteristically Modern but it was one of the mostly boldly visible nuclear experimentation labs placed on a college campus at the time of its construction.  (“The University of Washington Nuclear Reactor Building: Artifact in the Landscape”)  Its simple but thoughtful use of materials, primarily concrete and glass, gave the building a glowing presence and allowed for an unequaled visibility into the building’s operations.

The Nuclear Reactor Building remained in use until 1992 when the nuclear program ceased operation due to a lack of interest.  In 2002, the building was renamed to assuage any fear of terrorist organizations looking for access to nuclear materials and took on the title of More Hall Annex.  The reactor within the building was dismantled and the site declared decontaminated in 2006.  In 2008, demolition was applied for by the University. (“Nuclear Reactor Building”; Berger)  Opposition arose and action to demolish was halted through the hard work and advocacy of the group Friends of the Nuclear Reactor Building, led by then graduate student Abby Martin (now Abby Inpanbutr), in combination with several other historic preservation advocacy organizations. (“The University of Washington Nuclear Reactor Building: Artifact in the Landscape”)  In October of the same year, the State of Washington Governor’s Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and the National Park Service voted in favor of placing More Hall Annex on both the Washington State and National Historic Registers.  (“Nuclear Reactor Building”; Berger)  The building’s place on the historic register was secured, “for its direct connection to the development of nuclear energy and as a significant example of the architectural style known as Brutalism.” (“Nuclear Reactor Building | Washington Trust for Historic Preservation”)  According to DOCOMOMO in its petition for the historic register,  “The building is small, but its dynamic form embodies the forward-looking spirit of its time…There is a kinetic energy in the form of the building that speaks of the energy contained within.”

Despite the building’s status on both state and national historic registers, the building stood in the way of an expansion project for the Computer Science and Engineering facility which ultimately resulted in the building’s demise.  While some plans were drawn up that included the existing structure, these were not the preferred alternative by the University and members of the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation felt they did not do justice to the historical significance of the Nuclear Reactor. (“Nuclear Reactor Building | Washington Trust for Historic Preservation”)

While opposition from non-profit preservation organizations and some UW faculty (including those in the computer science and engineering department) over the demolition of the nuclear reactor building rose, the University took matters into their own hands and sued the City of Seattle as a means of establishing their independence from the city’s Landmark Preservation Ordinance (LPO).  UW argued that, as a state institution, it was not an “owner” as stated by the LPO and in Spring 2016, Judge Suzanne Parisien agreed with the University.  The City has since appealed but, in the meantime, demolition of the building took place swiftly.  As it stood, the City and non-profit organizations could not afford to be liable for damages incurred by the University for the delay of development so they did not apply for a stay of demolition.  

The University of Washington is now moving forward with plans for a 130,000 square foot facility on the site of the former Nuclear Reactor Building which itself was only 5,300 square feet.  The estimated project costs are $104 million and they expect the building to be complete by 2019.  Public outcry in response to the demolition of the Nuclear Reactor Building has been staunch, and the Friends of the Nuclear Reactor Building in conjunction with the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation hosted a memorial for the structure on August 9th at the site of the former structure. Architect Dan Streissguth was among the faculty and preservation advocates who attended the memorial.  The mood was somber and the event consisted of a recap of the history of the building and many comments from individuals about the “lost opportunity” the demolition resulted in. In 2015 the Hanford Nuclear Site was inaugurated as part of the Manhattan Project National Park Project and mourners at the wake lamented that UW's own Nuclear Reactor Building could have served as an information center and icon of the nuclear era as well.   

While preservation advocacy groups mourn the loss of an iconic structure,  the saga of the Nuclear Reactor Building will linger over the coming months as the UW defends their ability to establish independence from the city’s Landmarks’ Preservation Ordinances in court.  The City’s appeal is expected to be ruled on by early 2017.

"The University of Washington Nuclear Reactor Building: Artifact in the Landscape." The Cultural Landscape Foundation.

"Nuclear Reactor Building | Washington Trust for Historic Preservation." Nuclear Reactor Building | Washington Trust for Historic Preservation.

"Nuclear Reactor Building." Docomomo WEWA

Berger, Knute. "At UW, Computer Science & Nuclear History Spar | Crosscut."

Long, Katherine. "UW Regents Vote to Demolish Old Reactor Building Listed as Historic." The Seattle Times.