The Mesa Lab: What might have been

It’s a Boulder landmark, sitting upon its mesa with the dramatic Flatirons in the background. But what many people don’t know is that the Mesa Lab could have turned out very differently.

Preliminary plans drawn up for NCAR (then being called the National Institute for Atmospheric Research) in the late 1950s featured a building quite unlike the Mesa Lab in design. It did, notably, call for “space for an electronic computer.”

Pei's original model

In February 2008, the UCAR/NCAR Archives obtained this model of Pei’s final design of the Mesa Lab. The model, which dates to sometime around 1962–64, is on display in the Mesa Lab library. The tower seen on the left was not built due to financial limitations.

NCAR founder Walter Orr Roberts had his eye on the mesa above town, which was made up of privately owned parcels. The organization made an offer to the owners, and in 1961, Boulder voters approved NCAR to build on the mesa, after Walt pledged that the area would remain a nature preserve and the building would be environmentally sensitive.

The young I.M. Pei was selected as architect. His design, a model of which is now on display in the Mesa Lab library, differed from the final product, calling for a third tower on the south side of the mesa and a conference center east of the current parking lot. Construction began in 1964 and took three years.

In early 1989, NCAR began to plan a new building, which was originally going to be on the NIST campus, much like the NOAA Skaggs Building. But discouraged by the expense and logistics of building there, the organization began exploring the idea of expanding on the mesa instead.

A major meeting involving all NCAR’s divisions was held in September 1989 to plan the new mesa building. Division delegates and a team of architects devised a plan consisting of several semicircular tiers of office and lab space descending in a terraced fashion from the present lab. The tiers were located atop the current parking lot; a new lot would have been built closer to the east edge of the mesa. A central corridor would have connected the tiers and provided a covered walkway from the parking lot through the new building and perhaps to the current Mesa Lab.


Artist's rendering of Mesa Lab expansion plans
An artist’s rendering of the 1989 expansion plans for the Mesa Lab.

But by early 1990, it became clear that traffic and other city concerns would make expansion on the mesa challenging. That April, UCAR bought the former NBI building (now Foothills Lab), resolving these concerns and ending months of uncertainty.

The building was known as NCAR North for about a year until a naming contest was held among staff. Names that made it to the final vote included Prairie, Roberts, Hayden, Cottonwood, North, Mitchell, Plains, and, of course, Foothills. Suggestions from staff ranged from serious to creative to comical, including Valle (the opposite of “mesa” in Spanish), Money Pit, Jewel of the West Lab, World o' Research Lab, I Was a Teenage Were-Lab, Lab of a Thousand Dances, and Fortress of Solitude.

To learn more about the history and architecture of the Mesa Lab, visit EO's Architecture.


I.M. Pei inspects test slabs at Mesa site
I.M. Pei visited the Mesa Lab construction site in 1965 to inspect test slabs for the exterior of the building. The exterior’s unique look is a result of "bush hammering" the poured-concrete surfaces. Although the lab strikes many as futuristic, ancient Indian cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde National Park in southwest Colorado strongly informed Pei’s design.