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

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