The Nuclear Reactor Building is located at the University of Washington, where the campus slopes down from the old campus towards Montlake Boulevard and Husky Stadium. The building was completed in 1961, a year before the Century 21 Exposition brought the Space Needle and the monorail to Seattle (I previously talked about the monorail here). These were the years following WWII, and a general enthusiasm for technology, particularly atomic technology, was sweeping across the nation. The University of Washington founded their Nuclear Engineering program in 1958 and immediately began looking to acquire a research reactor and build a space to house it. This effort created the Nuclear Reactor Building, now known as More Hall Annex.
The building is brutalist in style, with a heavy concrete frame that seems to announce the importance of the reactor within, and leans forward, seemingly angling towards the future. Glass walls on the three main facades allow the passerby to peer directly down into the space where the reactor was housed. A two-level area of researchers, students to professors, is located on the east or back end of the building.
The Nuclear Reactor Building was designed by a team within the University, an unusual occurrence as policy dictated the University not give commissions to employees. The team was made up of three architects (Wendell Lovett, Daniel Streissguth and Gene Zema), a structural engineer (Gerard Torrence), and a painter (Spencer Moseley). They called themselves The Architect Artist Group (TAAG). This was the only building the group designed.
The life-span of the Nuclear Reactor building was relatively short. By the 1980s, enrollment declined in the nuclear engineering program as public opinion of nuclear energy and research turned negative and the demand dropped. The reactor was decommissioned in 1988 and the program closed in 1992. Today the building stands empty but its striking form and windows that look down on the now large, empty space where the reactor lived, beg you to ask, “What was this building for?” In fact, even as I stood by the building this weekend on a cold, rainy morning, I saw a family walk past and the father gesture towards the building and ask his college-age son what it was. The importance of this building is undeniable. Not only is it eye-catching, but its story is part of an important local and national narrative. Both in architecture and use, the building tells of an era of modernism and technology.
The building now stands empty and is under threat of demolition: the University wants to build a new building on this location. They are still in the planning process and are accepting public comment through November 23rd. University of Washington members and local preservationists are fighting for a solution that does not involve demolition or building new in a way that does not align with the Secretary of the Interior’s standards for Historic Preservation. If you want to join in the fight, or just learn more about the reactor, I encourage you to head over to the Save the Reactor home page. There are some beautiful photos and a plethora of information there.
I get a lot of my local preservation information from Historic Seattle. Not being affiliated with the University, it would have taken me a while to find this gem of a building without them!
The Save the Reactor website has a lot of great information. I also heavily relied on the National Register nomination form written for the Nuclear Reactor Building by Abby Terese Martin in 2008 (link to the PDF at the bottom of this page).
All pictures with this post are my own.