On the frontiers of science for decades, a storied building is soon to be razed

L.A. Cicero HEPL directors

HEPL directors past and present attended the pre-demolition celebration. They are, from left, Sandy Fetter (1996-1997), Blas Cabrera (2006-present), Mason Yearian (1973-1996) and Robert Byer (1997-2006).

L.A. Cicero HEPL

Crews on Tuesday worked on demolishing the HEPL building.

L.A. Cicero bagpipes

Alan J. Keith played and marched through the gutted laboratories during a pre-demolition party held at the HEPL building that brought together many former and current researchers for an afternoon of reminiscing.

From the obituary desk: The HEPL building, 58 years old, a Stanford baby boomer born in 1949 in the aftermath of World War II, a child prodigy that produced the world's first full-scale linear accelerator when only a year old and won the Nobel Prize for physics at age 12, has passed on. Despite a certain gangly appearance, it was loved by its extended family of researchers for its utilitarian qualities. There were several causes for its passing (old and in the way, in essence), but the final blow was delivered by heavy-duty construction equipment.

The bulldozers are circling, and if all goes as planned, an elder statesman of Stanford research structures will be torn down and hauled away this week. The HEPL building (originally the High-Energy Physics Laboratory, now the Hansen Experimental Physics Laboratory) will be put to rest with as much recycling as possible.

It was built nearly six decades ago with science in mind. Long and skinny with a wide-open interior, the no-fuss structure was an experimenter's delight, a sort of high-end tinkerer's garage stretched out over several blocks—a perfect space for a linear accelerator pushing a beam of electrons at extremely high speeds.

It was made of cinder block and concrete, in some places several feet thick. Sunlight came into the building from rows of identical windows high up on the walls. One employee described the architectural style as "old."

"I'll miss it," said Bob Byer, a professor of applied physics who was director of HEPL from 1997 to 2006. "It has character, it has a rhythm, it has a design that is pleasing. We've replaced it with buildings that have a scale larger than humans."

Working in an old building had its advantages, said Blas Cabrera, who followed Byer as HEPL director: "We always found it very useful because nobody cared if you punched a hole in the wall."

When the building was completed in 1949, it was "way out in the weeds," far west of the Main Quad, Byer said. It was constructed almost as a temporary building "because it was not known if this new thing—government-sponsored research—would last." It did, and so did the building, a crossroads of scientists and engineers at the frontier of research. But 58 years after it first opened its doors, HEPL found itself standing in the way of the new research facilities of the Science and Engineering Quad 2.

The Quad will be the home of Y2E2 (the Jerry Yang and Akiko Yamazaki Environment and Energy Building), the School of Engineering Center, the Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology, and the Bioengineering and Chemical Engineering Building.

Despite the demolition, however, HEPL lives on. The laboratory and its researchers have already moved to new quarters in the Physics and Astrophysics building.

The old building had seen its share of Stanford history, and not just the Nobel Prize that Robert Hofstadter won there for measuring the shapes of atomic nuclei, or because of the string of pioneering accelerators built there, or because HEPL spawned the Stanford Linear Accelerator, the 2-mile-long scientific instrument on Sand Hill Road whose founding director, Wolfgang Panofsky, had been a HEPL director.

HEPL, with funding from the Office of Naval Research, paved the way for government-sponsored research on campus by being the first building constructed specifically for that purpose in the aftermath of World War II, Byer said.

It was created for continuation of research that began before the war, when Stanford physicist William W. Hansen and the Varian brothers, Russell and Sigurd, working in a Stanford lab, invented the klystron tube, a high-frequency amplifier for generating microwaves. During the war, klystrons were used in radar; after the war, Hansen returned to his original objective of accelerating electrons to high energies. In 1947, he demonstrated the first linear accelerator in the basement of the Physics Department—what is now Math Corner. His progress report to the Navy contained just four words, "We have accelerated electrons."

To produce higher energies, 30 MW klystrons, a thousand times more powerful than had been made before, were developed by his associates Edward Ginzton and Marvin Chodorow.

Hansen died tragically the same year the HEPL building was completed, killed by a chronic lung disease caused by inhalation of beryllium, a toxic metal used in his research. A year after his death, the first full-scale linear accelerator began operation in the building. (HEPL's microwave research eventually split off into its own lab, now known as the Ginzton Laboratory.)

For many years, the administrative operation of HEPL fell to Associate Director Marsh O'Neill. He arrived at the lab on Valentine's Day, 1952, from a job at the phone company, which had a more highly structured business environment than the young lab. "I wondered what I'd gotten into," he recalled recently.

By the time O'Neill retired 38 years later, in 1990, things had changed. He was honored "for his management of more than 700 research projects totaling more than $361 million, which fostered the beginnings of SLAC, the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory, high-temperature superconductivity, tunneling microscopy, medical accelerators, tests of Einstein's theory of relativity, free electron laser and photon research, 13 National Academy of Science members, three Nobel laureates and 750 PhDs."

For the last 21 years, no one knew more about the nooks and crannies of the building than Mike Killian, a retired sheriff's deputy who served as facilities coordinator. One former director remembers Killian giving him a tour that involved crawling. Killian knows where weary technicians used to catch some sleep and the fine details of power-hungry accelerator experiments that drew their electricity from a generator salvaged from a ship (an ice breaker, no less). He was there as the experimental satellite Gravity Probe B was tested before being launched into space to test Einstein's theory of relativity.

"There's just a wealth of knowledge that roamed these halls," he said during a walk through the building last fall, before it was sealed off. "There's an awful lot of history here." Four stories beneath the building is the 680-foot tunnel built to house the free electron laser. It passes beneath two buildings and crosses under two roads, unknown to pedestrians and bicyclists above. The physicists are hoping to save it for future research.

"They just love dark, quiet spaces," Killian said. "If you talk to Bob Byer, his eyes just dance and twinkle and he'll say, 'Gosh this is great space. It's good research space.'"