Nuclear Reactor Building (1961 – 2016)
Brutal ending for a building once celebrated. University of Washington erases its own history by demolishing the Nuclear Reactor Building.
On Tuesday, July 19, 2016, the Nuclear Reactor Building was unceremoniously and quietly (as quietly as one can bulldoze a structurally sound concrete building) demolished by the University of Washington. The destruction of this historically and architecturally significant building ends a years-long effort by preservation advocates to save an important piece of UW history and architecture.
What would you do if, at the age of 55, someone told you that you are going to be executed because you are no longer useful and do not contribute to society? That you are taking up space and will be replaced by something shinier and newer. Sure, you had your day in the sun during the Atomic Age. You were the latest thing in nuclear engineering technology and appreciated for your contributions to science and research. You were also unique because unlike similar structures at other university campuses, you didn’t hide underground or behind windowless walls. You stood proud and strong and seemed indestructible. You were an architectural, engineering, and artistic marvel designed by a stellar team of talented University professors and alumni. On a campus defined by its Gothic Revival style architecture and Olmsted Brothers legacy of campus planning and landscape design, you set yourself apart with your Brutalist features. But then things changed…
By the 1970s and 1980s, nuclear energy was not valued, but feared. You were decommissioned in 1988, and by 1992, your owner, the University of Washington, closed the Nuclear Engineering Program. You sat vacant and unused, but your land became valuable. Then in 2008, the attention was back on you. Your head was on the chopping block. The University applied for a demolition permit from the City of Seattle. One of those big white land use notification signs was placed in an inconspicuous spot in the back, not very visible to passersby. Except one student noticed it. An advocacy movement began. Students and some faculty and staff believed you were significant and could be adaptively reused. The University had no immediate plans for your site other than to get rid of you and replace with a landscaped plaza. This would clear the way for future development.
Preservation advocates around the state were alerted. Docomomo WEWA, Historic Seattle, and the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation teamed up to support the efforts of the students. You were even listed on the Trust’s Most Endangered Properties list in 2008. That same student successfully got you listed on the Washington Heritage Register in 2008 and on the National Register of Historic Places in 2009. The UW objected to the listing of course. You made the press—local and national media covered your story and plight to be appreciated and used again. You welcomed adaptive reuse with open arms. And you believed there was room for a new building if it was sited and designed well. But you continued to be ignored by the very same entity that created you. You became a polarizing figure. Like some of your Brutalist siblings you were called “ugly” and “cold.” Some called for your destruction saying you were “getting in the way of progress.” Social media has made it too easy to hide behind anonymous comments. But you persevered. The vitriol directed at you was hurtful but you had thick concrete skin. These insults emboldened you and your supporters.
The recession bought you some time, an eight-year stay of execution. The University backed off on its plans for demolition in 2011 but we knew those plans were just on the backburner until the economy improved and the desire for your site trumped all other factors. Sure enough, in 2014, plans for your demolition and use of your site came back in full force. You would be replaced by the technology darling of today, computer science and engineering.
Advocates galvanized again. You were once again listed on the Washington Trust’s Most Endangered Properties list in 2015. This time around, the advocacy efforts stepped up. The Save the Reactor effort was born. Knowing full well that the University’s own environmental review process would only yield conclusions supporting your demolition, Docomomo WEWA submitted a Seattle Landmark nomination application and the University promptly filed a lawsuit against the City and Docomomo WEWA in late 2015. Historic Seattle and the Trust joined in the lawsuit.
Unfortunately, an April 2016 decision by a King County Superior Court judge ruled in the UW’s favor, clearing the way for your demise. Although you are now gone, you will not be forgotten. Your death will not be in vain. Advocacy efforts continue, focusing on the long game as we look to protect the integrity of the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance. This advocacy effort is bigger than you. There are broader implications and impacts related to the entire campus and to any property the University owns—the ultimate question to be decided is whether the University of Washington (and potentially other state institutions of higher learning) is subject to local regulations. Docomomo WEWA, Historic Seattle, and the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation have joined the City of Seattle in an appeal of the trial court’s decision to the State Court of Appeals.
And that student who sounded the alarm about your endangered status back in 2008? She graduated from the University of Washington with a Master in Architecture degree. Her master’s thesis topic was on your adaptive reuse potential. When asked for her thoughts about the demolition, Abby Inpanbutr had this to say:
To me the Nuclear Reactor Building was a special case. It was not just an important example of Northwest Modernism, an elegantly designed building by important architects from this place, but it also represented an idealistic point of view we are no longer familiar with today. The building was designed and built with such optimism for the future of the world and the potential of design and engineering. This shined through even when the building sat empty. The Nuclear Reactor Building could have been reinstated as a crown jewel on the campus, there was so much potential. I am very sorry this opportunity has been lost.
A “wake” to mourn the loss and celebrate the life of the Nuclear Reactor Building (aka More Hall Annex) will be held at the site at the University of Washington on Tuesday, August 9, 2016, at 5:30 pm. Please wear all black attire. We’ll go to a local pub afterwards. Save the Reactor advocates Docomomo WEWA, Historic Seattle, and the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation hope you join us!
In lieu of flowers, we encourage you to share stories and memories of the Nuclear Reactor Building at the wake, on the Save the Reactor Facebook page or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read Knute Berger’s obituary of the Nuclear Reactor Building in Crosscut.com.
Nuclear Reactor Building (AKA More Hall Annex)
University of Washington, Seattle
Designed by The Architect Artist Group (TAAG):
Wendell Lovett, architect
Daniel Streissguth, architect
Gene Zema, architect
Gerard Torrence, structural engineer
Spencer Moseley, artist
Photo credits: Demolition (Docomomo WEWA); “It’s Brutal” graphic (Save the Reactor); the Nuclear Reactor Building in 2008 (John Stamets for Docomomo WEWA)