Monday, April 28, 2008

UW Nuclear Reactor and Ballard Denny's

When I first read about Architecture grad student Abby Martin's campaign to preserve a nuclear reactor on the UW campus, I was surprised to learn that the UW even had a nuclear reactor! Reading the articles that were published in the UW Daily, and the Seattle Times and Abby's own blog, I discovered that the UW Nuclear Reactor (called More Hall Annex after 2001) has a fascinating story.

Built in 1961, it was designed to be a showcase for the exciting promise of nuclear energy, with glass windows on the ground floor to allow observers to see the reactor at work. After nuclear power fell out of favor as a source of energy, and after there was a small accident at the building, the reactor was decommissioned and the building fell into disrepair.

The building was designed by The Architect Artist Group (TAAG), which consisted of Wendell Lovett, Daniel Streissguth, and Gene Zema (architects), and Spencer Moseley (artist), all of whom had connections to the UW. Wendell Lovett, who graduated from the UW in 1947 and later taught at the UW School of Architecture, is an influential and highly regarded architect who designed many well-known buildings, like the Simonyi Villa in Medina (1989).

Streissguth also taught architecture at the UW, and Zema was a graduate of acrhitecture at the UW; both were members of the team that designed the UW's Gould Hall (which was built in 1971, and has much in common stylistically with the nuclear reactor building - both textbook examples of Brutalism).

Spencer Moseley graduated from the UW and was a professor in the School of Art at the UW (from 1951), serving as Director of the School of Art. There is a picture of him in the UW Libraries Digital Collections in the
"Mary Randlett Photograph Collection."

I walked across campus to a meeting last week and was in the neighborhood of the Nuclear Reactor, so I made a pilgrimage to the building and walked all around it and took some pictures. After experiencing the building, I am completely convinced that it should be preserved! Not only does it have historical presence, as a nuclear reactor and the work of UW professors, it is really an engaging building.

It is sturdy and well proportioned, has a wonderful view in its site, and would make a terrific exhibition space or museum for the history of energy. Its date puts it right at the Century 21 World's Fair in Seattle (see: Space Needle, 1962, under construction, below)

and its site on the UW Campus links it to the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909.

I agree with Abby that the building should be preserved. It certainly fits into that category of mid-century modern buildings that are dismissed as expendable in many cities in the US. It is a part of the UW's own history, the School of Architecture's and the School of Art's history, and part of a national heritage as well.

Another victim of the anti-mid-century modernism movement is a former Denny's building in Ballard, originally a Manning's cafeteria. Earlier this year, the Ballard Manning's/Denny's came under attack as old-fashioned, vernacular, an "eyesore," and a speedbump on the road to Glam-Ballard. It was destined to be torn down in the development of the site by owners who want to build multi-use, highrise condominiums.

The Architecture and Urban Planning librarian here at the UW, Alan Michelson, quickly took up the banner to save the picturesque landmark. Alan was interviewed on the radio (KUOW) and in other news media in his support of the landmark status of the Ballard Denny's. The plight of the unusual building was discussed at great length in the local newspapers and blogs.

The building is considered an example of "Googie Architecture" which is a rather whimsical stylistic movement based on the post-WWII American infatuation with modernity, the Space Age, and food. Named for Googie's Coffee Shop in Los Angeles (designed in 1949 by the far-out John Lautner, and now destroyed), the movement is described in Alan Hess's book Googie: Fifties Coffee Shop Architecture. (The article on Googie in Wikipedia is quite good.)

Intrigued again, I drove to Ballard on a sunny day during Spring Break and photographed the infamous Googie building in Ballard. Built in 1964 (only a few years after the nuclear reactor and the Space Needle) by the California architect Clarence Mayhew, the building also seems to have Polynesian AND Scandanavian stylistic references, with its swoopy roofline and its arcades of repeated shallow arches.

Looking quite sorry for itself, the building sported boarded-up windows and incongruous posters for Michael Jackson's Thriller. I found the building interesting, especially against the backdrop of construction cranes in the next block, but not quite as compelling as the Nuclear Reactor Building on campus. The intersection the building sits on is certainly atrocious and could use some design help; perhaps a renovated Googie Cafeteria could rejuvenate the area with a less "suburban sprawl" feel.

In February, the Seattle Landmark Preservation Board voted to spare the building and designate it a landmark not of Googie Architecture but of local significance. Alan Michelson and many others are not convinced the battle is fully won, anticipating an appeal to the decision by the developers of the property.

The author of Googie: Fifties Coffee Shop Architecture, Alan Hess will be giving a talk about Googie in Ballard on May 20th. The event is sponsored by Docomomo-WEWA (Documentation and Conservation of the Modern Movement, Western Washington Chapter), and will be held at the Swedish Cultural Center.

The Nuclear Reacter Building on campus is also featured on the Docomomo-WEWA website, as is a tour of the Barky Barksdale House, a Lionel Pries building in Seattle's Cedar park neighborhood - a house tour that I highly recommend! I also recommend a pilgrimage to the UW's Nuclear Reactor Building, and the Ballard Manning's/Denny's, especially now that the weather may be on the upswing!
All of the images in this blog (except for the portrait of Spencer Moseley) are from the College of Architecture and Urban Planning's Visual Resources Collection and can be viewed in larger sizes and with more information on the VRC's digital image database.

If you don't have a password yet, please e-mail me ASAP so I can set one up for you!

Heather Seneff
Visual Resources Collection
College of Architecture and Urban Planning
University of Washington

Monday, April 21, 2008

A few notes: April 21, 2008

Last night on Sixty Minutes there was an interview with Maurizio Seracini, who was our keynote speaker at the VRA 2008 Conference in 2008. I wrote about his exciting projects at CISA3 at the University of San Diego in the first VRC blog, but Sixty Minutes does a much better job describing Professor Seracini's search for the "lost" Leonardo mural, The Battle of Anghiari.

(it's only 12 minutes, and the images are great!)



Monday, April 7, 2008

Architecture Collection Issues

The sessions about architecture visual resources collections will be my last discussion topic from the VRA conference 2008 in San Diego.

The issues that architecture VR collections deal with are often very different from those that art VR collections do. Jodie Double Walz, the Director of Digital Collections and Archives at the College of Design at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, and I
co-chaired a session at the VRA Conference in San Diego called "Architecture and the Built Environment: Special Projects and Cataloging Issues."

Jodie moderated the session and also presented, "Vernacular Architecture: Capturing and Cataloging the Elegant Mundane."
Cataloging "vernacular architecture" presents many difficulties, the least of which is understanding what "vernacular" architecture is, and how the definition of it changes. Jodie discussed how a classification system accommodate temporary vernacular structures, or architecture under the radar - domestic and commercial structures destined to be outdated, replaced, or destroyed. Are these structures even "important" enough to be in a VR collection at all? (On a side note, we have a local example of "vernacular" achitecture being hotly debated this spring, which I may address in my next blog! with pictures!)

The first speaker of the session was Joe Romano, Visual Resources Curator in the Department of Art at Oberlin College. His presentation,
"From Blondel to Pugin: Architects as Authors & Theorists,"
discussed the complexities of cataloging illustrations from architecture treatises. Librarians have traditionally cataloged these treatises as books, with little regard for the illustrations within them. Architecture and architectural history faculty , of course, have a greater interest in these illustrations themselves than the actual books. The image must be cataloged at a "book level" and at an illustration level, and often the illustrator is different from, but of equal importance to, the author. Joe's presentation also dealt with the issues of digital "capture" from these rare, often delicate and/or unwieldy treatises.

The third speaker, Francine Stock, is the Visual Resources Curator at the Tulane School of Architecture in New Orleans. Her presentation was called
“Documenting the City: collaborative collection building with faculty and students."

Francine is a founding member of DOCOMOMO New Orleans, and taught a new course at the school of Architecture called “Regional Modernism: The New Orleans Archives." She collaborated with her students to locate and document the buildings damaged and condemned by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Using Google Earth, GPS Visualizer, and Flickr, the students photographed and identified buildings, which were then mapped to Google Earth.

You can read more about Francine's project at

and on Flickr at

It is a really compelling project - very dynamic and exciting! It is sure to inspire new projects and new methodology. Francine commented that New Orleans is losing an inordinate number of "mid-Century-Modern" buildings as the city os being rebuilt, and that the DOCOMOMO movement has become very string there. For more on this documentation and conservation group, see their website at:

Our final presentation in the Architecture Session was by Chris Hilker,
Director, Smart Media Center, School of Architecture, University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. Chris pulled together a compendium of web and print resources that are of great help in cataloging and finding information about architecture and the built environment. Many of those we resources can be found on the CAUP Visual Reosurces Collection's Web Resources page -

which now has a new and extensive Seattle Resources page as well, compiled by Josh Polansky, a GSA in the VRC this year.

All of the presentations from Session 12 will soon be on the VRA website, under conference highlights, at

Two other Architecture-related events were held at the conference as well that I will mention. The first was a lunch meeting for architecture collection curators as part of the VRA's "Birds-of-a-Feather" luncheons on common topics and interests. Chris Hilker and I were asked to co-host the architecture lunch and ten people signed up; it is our hope to organize a special interest group (SIG) for architecture and the built environment VR issues. I have already created a listserve of interested curators and we hope to begin lively discussions soon.

The second topic of note to the College was the announcement of a new project undertaken by the SAH (Society for Architectural Historians) called the Architecture Visual Resource Network (SAH AVRN). This collaborative project will take the form of a new online bank of architectural images to be used for reasearch and teaching. You can read more about this promising resource at

The SAH AVRN (let's hope they come up with something catchier!) will continue and enhance the work of the SAH Image Exchange, an online image bank begun in 1996 and including images photographed by a number of architectural historians. (The Image Exchange is included in the CAUP VRC web resources page here:

I think this project will be a great resource for us all - and it may be one that this collection can contribute some of its rich and unusual orignal images to in time!

Next time I will blog about the [in]famous Ballard Mannings/Dennys and will share some pictures I took of the boarded up gem/monstrosity (take your pick!)....