In December 2015, Docomomo WEWA filed a Seattle Landmark nomination application for the Nuclear Reactor Building (aka More Hall Annex), and shortly thereafter the university filed a lawsuit against Docomomo WEWA and the City of Seattle in King County Superior Court. With approval from the Council of Historic Seattle and the Board of Directors of the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, both those organizations officially signed on as co-nominators with Docomomo WEWA when the final, revised landmark nomination was submitted just last week. Historic Seattle and the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation will also be added as intervenors in the lawsuit soon.
There is a lot at stake with the UW’s lawsuit. The University is challenging the City’s land use authority over its state property, claiming that, as a state institution of higher learning, it is not subject to the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance ("LPO"). While the LPO gives the Landmarks Preservation Board the authority to review and approve development on designated landmarks in Seattle, there are no state or national laws protecting historic structures from demolition. In this case, it is ironic that the Nuclear Reactor Building was added to the Washington State Heritage Register in 2008 by way of the Governor’s Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, and yet now the state’s largest institution of higher education wants to tear it down. A ruling in this case would likely establish precedent for historic buildings at the UW Seattle campus, and perhaps beyond to other UW-owned properties.
This is new territory for all three organizations involved with the landmark nomination. We are non-profit groups promoting the preservation of significant historic properties in Seattle and across the state; occasionally we seek landmark protection for endangered buildings. This is challenging but important work, especially in the case of mid-century modern buildings that may not have had time to gain historic appreciation by the general public. Attitudes toward Brutalism can be quite brutal indeed.
We are determined to protect the National Register-listed Nuclear Reactor Building and other historic structures on state campuses that might be affected by the outcome of this case. Last month we hired the Seattle law firm, Bricklin & Newman, to defend our interests, because the stakes are bigger than this one building. A hearing date in King County Superior Court is set for April 1st. No joke.
The unfortunate thing about this new Computer Science and Engineering Building ("CSE II") project is that UW doesn’t have to destroy this corner of its historic campus fabric to find a suitable building site. Two sites were studied in its Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS): the Nuclear Reactor Building site (“16C”) across the street from the Computer Science Department’s Paul Allen Center and a site across from the HUB (“14C”) approximately one block north. The administration determined the latter site’s distance would "diminish the collaboration” between faculty and students at the Allen Center. Failure to approve the Nuclear Reactor site would bring “serious harm” to the department, they said. It is sad commentary, that computer science faculty and students are harmed by walking one block between buildings, while the university considers its historic architecture to be dispensable.
No one disputes the need for a new computer science building, and it should be recognized that a short walk in the open air to site (14C) by the HUB would generally be good for people. Along the way they might see a fantastic concrete and glass pavilion designed by important Northwest artists and architects to showcase the technology that shaped our world half a century ago. Despite assertions from the UW Administration that there's no useful life left in the Nuclear Reactor Building, we have heard from reliable sources from within the university that there are desired options for adaptive reuse. In addition, the building is not unsafe to occupy. It has been decommissioned.
If site 16C must be the site for the new CSE II building, we maintain that it's possible to design a new building that is also more sensitive to the preservation of the Nuclear Reactor Building. The two design scenarios offered in the Supplemental EIS were not creative attempts to provide meaningful preservation opportunities. The "elephant in the room" for site 16C is the 100 ft diameter underground oil tank located just north of the Nuclear Reactor Building. Again, preservation takes a back seat. The preservation of a massive container for fossil fuel seems to be more important than the preservation and adaptive reuse of a historic structure.
We will continue to fight for the preservation of the Nuclear Reactor Building and we need your help. Join us in advocating for the building during the City of Seattle’s landmark process; we will keep you informed through our Get Involved page and social media. There will be opportunities to send letters or emails to the Landmarks Preservation Board, testify in support of the nomination at the public meetings, and help get the word out to others. Support the preservation of the Nuclear Reactor Building so it will continue to contribute to the architectural legacy of Seattle and all of Washington State.