Fermi National Laboratory

Volume 23  |  Friday, January 28, 2000  |  Number 2
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Robert Rathbun Wilson Hall

by Judy Jackson

In a January 17 obituary for Robert Wilson, the New York Times published a photograph of Wilson Hall at dusk. It was a fitting image to sum up the life of the extraordinary man whose vision and energy brought a revolutionary approach not only to particle accelerators but to nearly every aspect of the laboratory he built on the cornfields of Illinois.

From the beginning, Wilson was determined that the National Accelerator Laboratory would look beautiful.

"It seemed to me," he wrote, "that the conditions of its being a beautiful laboratory were the same conditions as its being a successful laboratory. It had to look understood."

In the 1968 Richtmyer Memorial Lecture, Wilson described his thinking about the architecture he wanted for the new physics laboratory:

"There is another feature of the project that we have decided to be aggressive aboutóthe site. It has been described as just plain old cornfield. This accusation is not wholly unjustified; it is a bit on the flat side. However, the accelerator involves a ring one and a quarter miles in diameter as well as a number of support buildings and so forth...By gathering most of our support buildings together to make a truly high tower, and by the dramatic use of cooling water, they can make of Weston [former name of the site] an architecturally significant center, a place to which physicists will be attracted by the physical beauty as well as by the beautiful facilities for research in particle physics."

In the Fermilab Annual Report for 1987, Wilson reflected on the methods and criteria he had used to develop the plan for his building.

"My own sentiment was to have just one big building located at the injection and ejection point on the Main Ring... I hated the clutter and bad communication that result from having a multitude of small buildings. To decide how high the `Lab' building ought to be I went up in a helicopter and had the pilot hover at various altitudes as I plotted an `aesthetic factor' as a function of height. The curve rose sharply to about to about 75 feet, where it began to flatten as the Fox River Valley came into view. The sky, the sunsets, the Illinois landscape all looked better at the higher level... I concluded that the building should be at least 200 feet tall, and taller if possible."

It turned out to be 239 feet.

Wilson articulated a vision for a central laboratory building that would encourage the creative exchange of ideas among scientists and that would serve as a visual as well as a functional focal point. He wanted a building that would embody his belief that "science, technology and art are importantly connected," and one that would signal the significance of the work taking place at the site.

Finally, Wilson wanted the building to be cheap. He was troubled by the oft-quoted dictum that AEC (the Atomic Energy Commission preceded the Department of Energy as the funding agency for Fermilab) buildings didn't have to be cheap, they just had to look cheap. He was hoping for an opposite result.

In 1968, the laboratory held a design competition for the Central Laboratory Building. Wilson chose a design in the form of a truncated cone with a domed atrium. Under the hand and eye of architect Alan Rider of the firm Daniel, Mann, Johnson & Mendenhall, the winning cone eventually metamorphosed into the final design for Wilson Hall. The Laboratory broke ground in 1971, and the building was finished in 1974.

The resulting building expressed Wilson's vision, perhaps even beyond what he had hoped. It became Wilson Hall, the High Riseóa symbol, a landmark, a home for a great laboratory. It has become such a recognizable symbol of Fermilab that its famous silhouette is a registered trademark of the Department of Energy.

But the story of Wilson Hall did not end there. Inside its uniquely textured concrete mass, problems soon developed.

As early as the summer after the building's dedication, loose concrete began to appear, and throughout the 1970s, occupants observed sudden cracks and spalling, or crumbling, concrete. Throughout the early 1980s, sporadic spalling occurred at the west joints of the floors with the tower. In 1993, a piece of concrete from the fifteenth floor on the south side of the building crashed through the sloped glass of the cafeteria. No one who was drinking coffee in the cafeteria at the time is likely to forget the moment.

The cause of these disturbing events lay in the nature and material of the building itself. Post-tensioned concrete crossover floors join the building's two towers together. As they change shape in response to seasonal temperatures, the two towers "want" to move slightly, independently of each other. However, friction between the concrete surfaces of the crossover beams and their seats restricts this movement. When the tensile forces become great enough, cracks develop in the structural elements, and the joints deteriorate where the crossover floors meet the west tower.

For Wilson Hall to survive, these joints must be repaired.

The work has now begun that will restore Wilson Hall to health. Like the great cathedrals of Europe that inspired it, Wilson Hall will be under repair for many months. It will continue to function as the central laboratory building, but as the repairs proceed, floor by floor, an elaborately choreo-graphed program of shoring, repairing and restoring will move successive groups of occupants in and out and back in again. The choreographer for this $18.8 million production, which also includes a plumbing overhaul and window replacement, is Fermilab engineer Elaine McCluskey (whose young daughter once remarked that Wilson Hall looked to her like "a big Barbie dress.")

At the completion of construction in the fall of 2001, Wilson Hall will have a sound structure, new windows, modern plumbing and a new front entrance. After nearly 30 years of shared triumphs and trials, Fermilab and Wilson Hall should be ready to face a new era of discovery together.


last modified 1/28/2000   email Fermilab