We cherish the natural landscape but tend to give short shrift to the environment we’ve built, at the risk of dismissing its history, beauty and significance.
GOING, going, gone. That seems to be the status of our industrial landscape.
Up near Port Angeles, the Elwha dams are history. I was glad to see the 100-year-old dams come down and the river flow free again, but sad for the loss as well. The Elwha Dam, on Power Plant Road, spoke of strength and scrappiness, and human sweat. It stretched across the gorge from rock to rock like some Mesoamerican temple.
The weathered concrete is now history, along with the giant tube, the penstock, that lay on the land like a caterpillar and the control room, elegantly designed with slate and steel, and its analog dials that measured force.
“The long-vacant nuclear-reactor building made negligible contributions to history. … The design of More Hall Annex mostly evokes a segment of a freeway overpass,” wrote The Times editorial board in May. Read more: seattletimes.com/?p=10016003
On the University of Washington campus, another loss is about to occur, representing another era in energy. The school has the More Hall Annex in its crosshairs for expanded computer-science facilities. The small building housed a nuclear reactor for teaching atomic engineering. The Washington Trust for Historic Preservation declared it one of the state’s most endangered historic properties in 2015.
The building has a much different flavor from anything else on campus. Distinctly midcentury modern, it manages to turn glass and concrete into something delightful, even innocent. Utilitarian, yes, but with flair. It’s almost residential in its design elements, which makes the original use — holding the power of the fissioned atom in its innards — all the more striking.
The building has glass all around like a storefront, inviting passers-by to look into the cavernous interior. Back in 1961, when it was built, students peered through the curtain of glass into America’s rosy future.
It might make a nice welcome station to the UW, located not too far from the Olmsted-designed vista entrance on a leafy plaza, or perhaps even better a museum dedicated to the roles of atomic power in the state. We have a lot of history on that front. As others have noted, if Washington were a sovereign country, we would possess the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal, concentrated in the warheads at Hood Canal’s Trident submarine base.
On the other side of the state, at the Hanford nuclear reservation, where so much fissionable material was created during World War II, we have a radioactive-waste stewpot agencies struggle to clean up and contain.
And in Olympia, the state capital, we have the decisions that led to the “whoops” nuclear-power municipal-bond default of the 1980s — the largest in U.S. history — and the Washington Public Power Supply System’s mothballed cooling towers at nearby Satsop. So there’s plenty to remember concerning things atomic in Washington, and part of a university’s mission to its students and the community is such remembering.
Find another use, if necessary. But save the building. It’s worth saving on its own merits.
These days, we’re pretty good at voicing support for the natural landscape. But for some reason, the human-made environment of previous generations gets little respect. We need to hold on to those places. They help us stay grounded as things change so quickly. And they are beautiful in their own right. We don’t need everything cleaned up, rationalized and sanitized.
The Elwha Dam control room is gone, but the 1960s-era UW nuclear-reactor building is still there — ignored and allowed to fall into disrepair, and likely slated for demolition — but still standing. The building had been nominated for landmark status, but now that a judge has ruled the city of Seattle’s landmarks ordinance does not apply to the UW main campus, I hope the UW regents and master-plan honchos will agree the building has worth.
Yes, the Computer Science and Engineering Department needs to expand. We need the next generation of tech and database workers. But there are other hungers and directives.
A university, of all places, should have room for aesthetics and beauty in all its forms, for how other eras considered power and design, for unique structures and special situations, and for the values of cultural heritage and historical memory.