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NCAR Mesa Laboratory

Located five miles south of Boulder atop the 565-acre Table Mesa adjacent to the Flatirons, this campus was established in 1961 to provide the setting for the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). Known as the Mesa Laboratory, this 28-acre complex designed by I. M. Pei and Dan Kiley was modeled after Mesa Verde and other indigenous sites across the Southwest. Initially facing public scrutiny due to concerns about environmental impacts in Boulder Mountain Park, the selection of Pei and the promise of a natural preserve assuaged the public. Now 50 years in, NCAR remains a distinct and singular Front Range presence not just on the outside, but in its interior, as well.


Marianne Holbert, associate director and senior instructor for the Program in Environmental Design, said, “Pei believed that architecture is more than an art form to be practiced in isolation; it must engage the environment with a sensitivity to the natural elements, human ritual, internal logic and humanizing spaces.”


Terming Roberts “a passionate visionary,” Holbert said he and Pei sought to revolutionize laboratory design through the use of cluster spaces for scientists to gather, individualized reflection areas such as the six so-called “crow’s nest” offices accessible only by spiral staircases, and even its walking trail that connects to the Mesa Trail.


Holbert noted that Pei, in his 1967 dedication speech, said, “When you’re confronted with nature such power and beauty you just don’t try to compete with it. You try to join with it.” She said, “Even after 50 years, this remains true. NCAR serves as a continual reminder of the importance of passion and vision, enhancing the human condition, challenging convention and the power and beauty of nature.” Nature, and other harsh realities of the physical world, have nevertheless asserted themselves over the years.


Karyn Sawyer worked for NCAR Mesa Laboratory in Boulder for 44 years, starting at the Mesa Laboratory in 1972, before transferring to a different NCAR location in the city in 1982. “The roof leaked for 10 years,” Sawyer recalled. “For the first 10 years of the building, the whole summer, all you could hear overhead were jackhammers fixing the roof that leaked.” Sawyer is now retired, but Meehl, the senior scientist, said damage control is an ongoing project. “I think because it’s a pour-in-place concrete building, and we’re in a freeze-thaw climate, that means that any little crack that water gets in can be a problem. It has been a real challenge to maintain the building in this kind of climate. “The guys in facilities constantly are on alert for cracks, continually filling cracks in any concrete they see, so it doesn’t break apart.”


And apart from cracks that present themselves for remedial attention, the building’s biggest fans admit there are other warts and wrinkles. But consensus opinion remains that particularly for those gazing up from the city below, it still looks marvelous. Meehl credits the bush-hammering of the concrete exteriors for giving NCAR Mesa Laboratory a look that ages well. “It gives it a unique look,” said Meehl, who first toured NCAR Mesa Laboratory as an undergraduate CU architecture student before switching his primary field of study to atmospheric sciences. “It’s a timeless building,” he said. “If you took someone who didn’t know, and asked them what year do you think this building was built, I think you would be hard-pressed to say. It doesn’t have a feeling for any particular year. It could have been built last year. And it could have been built 30 years ago.”


Deputy Director Michael Thompson, like Meehl, said he never tires of the sweeping drive up the mesa toward the laboratory and enjoys the design concept that results in the facility not being fully revealed to visitors until the moment they reach the top of the road. “I love working there, and I hope future generations of scientists will have that opportunity,” Thompson said. 


In his closing comment, the dedication of the NCAR Mesa Laboratory campus, Walter Orr Roberts signed off in words that could have been penned yesterday. “In no realm are there more difficult nor more stimulating challenges than in the atmosphere that stretches from our feet to the realm of the stars. This atmosphere is a finite and perishable resource and encloses our planet in a sometimes benevolent, sometimes despotic embrace,” Roberts said. “The challenge is to understand, predict, and conserve this precious resource. More than ever, we are in a position to meet these challenges, and we are eager to do so.”.

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