University of Washington in legal battle over brutalist building

Preservation West
More Hall Annex, University of Washington (via Save the Reactor)

More Hall Annex, University of Washington (via Save the Reactor)

In Seattle,  the University of Washington (UW) is battling the city and three local nonprofits—Docomomo WEWA, Historic Seattle, and the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation—was discussed last Friday at a hearing at the King County Superior Court though a decision is still pending.

The issue: whether the city can declare More Hall Annex, the 1961 Brutalist building on UW’s campus, a historic city landmark, and effectively stop future development plans on the site. The building is already on the national and state registers of historic places. Designed by The Architect Artist Group (TAAG) that included Wendell Lovett, Daniel Streissguth, and Gene Zema, the building was once home to a nuclear reactor for training nuclear engineering students.

Heart Bombing at the Nuclear Reactor (John Shea via Save the Reactor)

Heart Bombing at the Nuclear Reactor (John Shea via Save the Reactor)

The lawsuit embodies the age old case between developers and preservationists, a “freedom to” vs. “freedom from” debate: the university wants to exercise their control, or freedom to develop, and for the city and three involved non-profits, it’s a case of protection, or freedom from demolition of historically significant buildings.

“If the university wins it could set a precedent for exempting the UW and other state universities from local land-use laws,” writes Crosscut, an online nonprofit newspaper based in Seattle. “If the city prevails, Seattle’s landmarks ordinance could apply to buildings on campus, including the historic More Hall Annex, aka the Nuclear Reactor Building, which the UW wants to tear down but preservationists want to save.”

(Jennifer Mortensen / Washington Trust for Historic Preservation via Save the Reactor)

(Jennifer Mortensen / Washington Trust for Historic Preservation via Save the Reactor)

UW is arguing this is a constitutional issue, while the city believes the UW Board of Regents must adhere to land-use regulations.

The clash between the university and the city over More Hall Annex is not new. In 2008, The Seattle Times wrote a piece on the controversy, “UW building is hot, but is it historic?“, that profiled a UW architecture graduate student’s plan to help save the building. After learning UW wanted to demolish More Hall Annex, she nominated it to the National Register of Historic Places.

Reactor Party (Eugenia Woo via Save the Reactor)

Reactor Party (Eugenia Woo via Save the Reactor)

The university did not move forward on demolishing the building because of the recession. The student’s application was successful. In 2009, More Hall Annex was added to the National Register of Historic Places, an unusual move as the building was less than 50 years old at the time and architects involved in the project were still alive.

Yet the university re-examined its plans. In early 2015, according to GeekWire, UW hired Seattle firm LMN Architects to develop plans for a second computer science building. A draft environmental impact statement featured options exploring the More Hall Annex site. Microsoft pledged $10 million to UW to help fund the project.

More Hall Annex has stood empty for more than two decades. The nuclear reactor was decommissioned in 1988 and fully decontaminated just under a decade ago.

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