Mesa Lab marks 50th anniversary

ceremony honors iconic building's role in fostering scientific discovery

In 1967, a spectacular building opened its doors and began hosting world-class research. The NCAR Mesa Lab was immediately hailed as an architectural masterpiece as well as a catalyst for new discoveries in the atmospheric and related Earth system sciences, from weather and climate to the Sun and other areas of importance to society.

In August 2017, a formal rededication ceremony was held to mark the building's 50th anniversary. Current and former longtime NCAR staff joined visiting leaders from the National Science Foundation and elected officials on the federal, state, and local level to celebrate the occasion.

Sarah Ruth, head of the NCAR/Facilities Section at NSF, unveiled a mockup of the 50th anniversary plaque that has since been installed at the lab entrance. "The Mesa Laboratory represents a commitment to both the practice and the wonder of science," she said in her remarks. "It is a true architectural icon, symbolizing the pledge that was made more than 50 years ago … to mount an attack on the fundamental atmospheric problems."

"For 50 years, the Mesa Laboratory has been NCAR's iconic home," said NCAR Director James Hurrell, the master of ceremonies at the rededication. "The Mesa Lab has been the site of countless advances in atmospheric and Earth system research."

The ceremony celebrated both the Mesa Lab's distinct design and the close and creative collaboration between architect I.M. Pei and founding head of NCAR and UCAR Walter Orr Roberts. Now 100 years old, Pei was represented by his son and fellow architect Li Chung (Sandi) Pei.

Heartfelt remembrances of first encounters with the Mesa Lab, its staff, and the research environment fostered there were shared by a number of speakers, including Clifford Jacobs (former NCAR/Facilities head), Scott McCarthy (grandson of Walter Orr Roberts), Robert Serafin (former NCAR director), and U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, whose district includes Boulder. Their remarks can be viewed on the NCAR & UCAR YouTube channel.

a permanent home

The origins of the Mesa Lab can be traced back to NCAR's founding in 1960, when it became apparent that the new lab would need a permanent home to enable its research to move forward. After the Colorado state legislature donated a stunning tract of land in the foothills of south Boulder to NSF, a special UCAR committee selected I.M. Pei to design a building on the site.

Pei, a respected young architect at the time, came to know the site intimately. Often in the company of Roberts, he hiked it at all times of day, picnicked, camped, and watched the changing sunlight on the stony crags. Inspired by such ancient structures as Stonehenge and the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park, he sought to create a building that would complement the immensity of the setting, not compete with it. Thanks to his innovative approach and the vision that he and Roberts shared, the Mesa Lab was built in careful harmony with the surrounding land.

"This building is extremely meaningful to him," Sandi Pei said of his father at the rededication ceremony. "This place is very much in his heart."

UCAR President Antonio Busalacchi noted that the first chair of UCAR, Henry Houghton, often emphasized the importance of the partnerships that resulted in the creation of a unique building in a remarkable setting. At the original dedication, Houghton said: "This was not and could not have been the result of a small group of proponents. Rather, it has been achieved by the possibly unprecedented cooperation and support of many individuals and agencies from both the public and private sectors."

"While he was talking about the Mesa Lab,” Busalacchi said at the rededication," he could also have been describing what makes our organization so special to this day.”

The Mesa Lab quickly won widespread praise among scientists, architects, and the neighboring communities while fulfilling NSF's goal of an appropriate home for the national lab. Leland Haworth, the director of NSF 50 years ago, said at the original dedication: "We have met here in a beautiful building, which I certainly do not need to tell you. It is one of the most effective homes for an institution of this sort that I've ever seen."

In addition to hosting landmark scientific research, the Mesa Lab also draws more than 100,000 visitors yearly. They come both to see an architectural masterpiece and to explore the exhibits on weather, climate, and solar research.

"I'm sure I am not alone in recalling the first time I came to Boulder as a young postdoc, seeing the Mesa Laboratory, and thinking something truly special must happen here," Ruth said at the rededication. "I'm equally sure that 50 years from now, at the 100th anniversary of the Mesa Lab, our successors will still be awestruck by the beauty of this building and the incredible science being conducted and enabled within its walls."