New photo exhibit brings an architect’s eye to Hanford history

Part of architect and photographer Harley Cowan’s print documenting the face of Hanford’s historic B Reactor at the Manhattan Project National Historical Park is shown.
Part of architect and photographer Harley Cowan’s print documenting the face of Hanford’s historic B Reactor at the Manhattan Project National Historical Park is shown. Courtesy Harley Cowan

A Tri-Cities native brings an architect’s eye and an historian’s sensibility to an exhibit of photographs at the Manhattan Project National Historical Park in Richland.

Harley Cowan convinced the Department of Energy to let him spend a week documenting the buildings of the new national park in March 2017.

He used meticulously developed sheets of 4-by-5-inch black and white film to capture what is both important from an engineering standpoint and pleasing to the eye.

His prints from the project are on display through March 29 at the Allied Arts Gallery at the Park in Richland.

You can meet Cowan at a open house at the gallery 6 to 8 p.m. on March 8 or attend his demonstration of silver gelatin photography methods and equipment at the gallery from 2 to 5 on March 9.

Cowan, a 1990 graduate of Richland High School, is an architect in Portland, with an interest and fellowship training in large format photography.

After the National Park Service was interested in a photo he took of the historic Bybee-Howell House on Sauvie Island in the Columbia River near Portland, his path was set.

B Reactor documented

He travels to largely unrecorded sites in the Pacific Northwest to create photography eligible for the nation’s Historic American Engineering Record and the Historic American Buildings Survey. They document the nation’s historic buildings, industry and infrastructure.

He persuaded officials to allow him to document B Reactor and other buildings on the usually closed Hanford nuclear reservation that are part of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park for inclusion in the nation’s historic engineering record.

He was somewhat comfortable with nuclear science after working at what is now the Framatome nuclear fuel fabrication plant in Richland during his summers while he earned a degree in architecture at Washington State University.

Harley Cowan, a Richland native, set up this large format camera to take black and white photos of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park at Hanford to be included in a national archive. Courtesy Harley Cowan

But nothing prepared him for his first look at the front face of B Reactor, he wrote in a blog.

“It is a powerful, cathedral-like interior of towering proportions, dramatically lit; an altar of science,” he said.

B Reactor was built in less than a year as the nation raced Nazi Germany to produce the world’s first atomic weapons during World War II.

It holds a place in world history as the first full-scale nuclear reactor, ushering in the atomic age after plutonium it produced was used in the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan.

Photos meet standards for archive

Cowan’s photos are meticulous.

They are shot in black and white, which suits the engineering details of the reactor and is a requirement for the archival quality sought by the park service for the Historic American Engineering Record.

He finds taking a few deliberate and carefully planned shots using a large format camera more interesting than the many shots he used to take with a digital camera.

His exhibition captures the different engineering systems of B Reactor, some focusing on the intricate details that visitors may not have had a chance to take a careful look at on national park tours.

Cowan also was given access to areas not on the tour, including the top of the reactor core. He photographed the safety rods that could be dropped in an emergency into the core to stop a nuclear reaction.

He also photographed the few buildings still standing that evoke the life of settlers along the Columbia River before they were ordered off their land to make way for the secret World War II project.

His photos show the Allard Pump House, perched on the edge of the Columbia River with a glimpse of Rattlesnake Ridge through its paneless windows, and the jigsaw puzzle of river-rounded stones that make up the walls of the Bruggemann Warehouse.

The Allied Arts Gallery at the Park at 89 Lee Blvd. is open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday.

Senior staff writer Annette Cary covers Hanford, energy, the environment, science and health for the Tri-City Herald. She’s been a news reporter for more than 30 years in the Pacific Northwest.