The University of Washington has approved plans to tear down a building on campus that once housed a nuclear reactor, and replace it with a new computer-science center.
The nuclear age is losing to the computer age.
More Hall Annex — a small concrete building on the University of Washington’s Seattle campus that once housed a nuclear reactor — happens to be sitting on the best location for the proposed new computer-science building, staffers say.
On Thursday, the UW Board of Regents approved a site plan that sacrifices the reactor building to make way for a second computer-science hall.
That’s bad new to those who sought to save More Hall Annex, which is considered a good example of the modern-era architectural style known as Brutalism, and is listed on the Washington Heritage Register and the National Register of Historic Places. Many of those who objected to the plans urged the UW to preserve the little building, and instead build on a site next to the UW Club.
Eugenia Woo, director of preservation services for Historic Seattle, a public development authority, said she was not surprised but was disappointed. “The university … continues to alter the historic nature of the campus,” Woo said via email. “The mid-century modern architecture on campus should not be treated like disposable buildings. And there is NO mitigation for demolition.”
Woo said preservationists will continue to fight for the building by focusing on the building’s landmark nomination and designation. However, she said they’re being sued by the UW, which she said holds that because it is a state institution of higher learning, it is not subject to the city’s Landmarks Preservation Ordinance.
The reactor was built in 1961 and used for three decades, for teaching and research. For years, it was known as the Nuclear Reactor Building, before its name was changed to the safe-sounding More Hall Annex after 9/11. It was officially decommissioned in 2007.
Hank Levy, chair of the Computer Science & Engineering Department, argued that the More Hall Annex site is the best location because it’s right across the street from the existing computer-science building, called the Paul G. Allen Center. Having the second building close to the first is essential to preserving a collaborative culture, Levy told the regents.
In fact, the staff has requested that a bridge be built between the two buildings, which will be separated by Stevens Way East, the road that curves its way through the south end of campus.
In trying to find a way to keep More Hall Annex intact, the architects experimented with wrapping the new building around the reactor, or incorporating parts of it into the structure. But the result was a compromise of a building — one that didn’t serve computer science well, Levy said.
There was a nuclear accident in the building in June 1972, when a capsule containing plutonium failed, causing 42 milligrams of plutonium dust to leak out. But staffers say the reactor building has been fully decommissioned, and will not require special treatment when it is torn down.
The $104 million computer-science building will be funded primarily through private donations; Microsoft has already donated $10 million.
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In budget documents, lawmakers said they committed $32.5 million toward the new building. But that’s because the Legislature directed the UW to use $15 million out of a tuition-funded university account, one that’s supposed to be used for building maintenance and remodels.
The UW is hoping it won’t have to do that, said UW computer-science professor Ed Lazowska. Instead, it hopes to persuade lawmakers this session to add another $15 million directly from the state.
Plans call for construction to begin in early 2017, and the 135,000-square-foot building is scheduled to be ready for occupancy in early 2019. The new building will allow the UW to double the number of degrees the department can award each year — from about 300 to about 600.
But More Hall Annex will live on, even if only virtually.
The computer-science department plans to create a virtual-reality 3D tour of the exterior and interior of the annex, one that will be freely available online.