The fight over a building that housed a nuclear reactor on the UW campus raises the issue of just who decides which structures are landmarks. A UW lawsuit about the city’s Landmark Preservation Ordinance is scheduled to come before a Superior Court judge this week.

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Some call it a useless relic of the nuclear age. Others say it’s a modernist gem of a building.

One thing is certain: The fate of the old nuclear-reactor building at the University of Washington has set off a chain reaction of concern about historic preservation, and has raised fundamental questions about how much power the UW’s Board of Regents can wield.

After preservationists nominated the reactor building, More Hall Annex, to receive landmark status under the city’s Landmark Preservation Ordinance, the university sued, saying it shouldn’t be bound by that law.

The UW argues that its Board of Regents is best suited to decide if a building has historic value.

But preservationists contend that the city should have a role in determining if a building has historic properties. Without it, they say, there will be no checks and balances of the type afforded by the preservation ordinance’s public-review process.

The debate started when the regents voted to tear down More Hall Annex, the 55-year-old Brutalist-style concrete building that once housed a small nuclear reactor. It’s across from the Paul G. Allen Center for Computer Science and Engineering, and the site is designated for a $104 million expansion of the computer-science center.

But this is about more than just one building, said Eugenia Woo, the director of preservation services for Historic Seattle. If the university doesn’t have to follow the city’s landmark ordinance, she said, a dozen more modernist-style buildings on the 703-acre Seattle campus could be threatened, too.

“The UW is a public university in a community and cannot act as if it’s an island unto itself,” Woo said.

Woo is co-founder of the state chapter of the Documentation and Conservation of the Modern Movement, Western Washington (DOCOMOMO US-WEWA). The nonprofit’s goal is to raise awareness and appreciation for modern design in the region.

And it’s those midcentury buildings — designed at a time when a new, modern aesthetic called for buildings to be stripped of their ornamentation, and for design to stress utility and function — that are most at risk, said Woo and Chris Moore, also a DOCOMOMO member and executive director of the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation.

“It’s some of this later, postwar, midcentury stuff that isn’t as well understood yet — not as widely appreciated,” Moore said.

The university is suing because it wants the issue settled by a judge, said Sally Clark, director of regional and community relations for the UW and a former Seattle City Council member.

“It would be going too far to say it’s a friendly lawsuit — but in the meetings I’ve been a part of, everybody got tired of ‘You’re wrong!’ ‘No, you’re wrong!’ ” she said.

“Let’s go ahead and have a judge decide.”

The suit is scheduled to come before King County Superior Court Judge Suzanne Parisien on Friday. In its arguments, the UW says the Legislature has granted the regents the power over where buildings are constructed on campus.

But city lawyers argue that if the UW has autonomy over land use on all of its many land holdings, then the university — and, by logical extension, all the state’s other public universities — wouldn’t have to follow any local ordinances that regulate development, and perhaps even environmental regulations, too.

Moore said all other landowners in the city must work with the preservation ordinance, so the UW should, too. Or, as city attorneys wrote in a legal brief: “No state university is a legal island unto itself.”

Clark says the UW and the city have had a running dispute over the landmarks-preservation legislation for more than a decade, but DOCOMOMO’s decision to nominate More Hall Annex for historic preservation brought it to a head.

But she also said no other historic buildings on campus are at risk because the UW doesn’t have the money for new construction. The campus master plan, which is being updated, calls for preserving most buildings on the main campus.

“There’s not a tidal wave of new development coming,” Clark said.

Woo and Moore agree that the UW has been a good steward of its pre-World War II buildings.

It is spending $56 million to renovate the interior of 120-year-old Denny Hall, and in 2009 the university moved Cunningham Hall — a two-story wooden building that was constructed in 1909 — to an area next to Parrington Hall to make way for the UW’s molecular-engineering building.

“We take the historic value of our buildings very seriously,” said UW spokesman Norm Arkans.

The modernist buildings deserve that same level of protection, Woo said.

Many were designed by important Northwest architects and reflect the building materials and construction techniques that were common 50 or more years ago.

Take Mackenzie Hall, Woo said. Its team of designers included Northwest architect Paul Hayden Kirk, one of the most influential modernist architects working in Seattle during that era. The three-story building, long and rectangular, was built in the late 1950s and is clad in composite material. It has a small courtyard and a metal fountain sculpture by renowned Northwest artist George Tsutakawa that was likely commissioned along with the building.

What’s happening to Mackenzie Hall, though, is something that Woo describes as “demolition by neglect.” The building’s steel windows are rusting, giving Mackenzie a decaying, antiquated appearance.

Clark said Mackenzie is, indeed, on a list of buildings that could potentially be redeveloped. It’s considered by facilities planners to be in poor condition.

The nuclear-reactor building also looks old and tired because it hasn’t been cared for, Woo said. Windows on all sides of the concrete structure are coated with a film of grime, and the white beams that hold up the roof are discolored and mossy. “But it is structurally sound and maintains integrity,” she said.

UW officials disagree. “We happen to believe the nuclear-reactor building is not of the same ilk” as other historic buildings on campus, Arkans said. “And, it has no use.”

Built in 1961, More Hall Annex was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2009, but that designation doesn’t afford it any protection. And it’s only been nominated for consideration under the Landmarks Protection Ordinance. Even if the UW loses its lawsuit, there’s no guarantee that More Hall Annex would be saved.

Woo said she’s not in favor of preserving everything. For example, a modern addition to the art building, next to Mackenzie, isn’t a building preservationists would fight for.

But she fears for other buildings, including McMahon, a residence hall that is under study and could be demolished in years to come. Other modernist buildings of special note include the UW Club, and Bloedel and Winkenwerder halls, as well as Brutalist-style Gould and Schmitz halls, she said.

“Part of the significance of the campus is that it has evolved over the decades,” Woo said. “The buildings on campus from different eras are part of the continuing narrative of its history.”