In the wet climate of the Pacific Northwest, many concrete buildings may appear heavy or dark. The University of Washington’s McMahon Hall, however, seems to lift itself beyond the gloom. The high-rise dormitory was built in 1965 for more than $6.5 million. The Brutalist, board-formed concrete building is highly responsive to its site and climate: its upper floors and balconies—which extend seemingly at random from the facade—provide ample access to views and light, while the lower floors are enmeshed in trees that shield the hall from the street.
Such an interpretation may not appear obvious at first glance. McMahon Hall rises above the trees on the northeastern side of campus as a massive 11-story structure built to house 1,100 students and parking for 180 cars in four levels below grade. It is not, however, monolithic: its structurally expressive exterior is distinctive with its balconies extending like trays or dresser drawers and covered, concrete pedestrian entry bridges with wood trellises spanning a sloping topography. The elongated co-educational residence is also noted for its living arrangements, with floors featuring single-sex clusters of four or five double rooms arranged around a central lounge. The building—which is essentially two joined towers or wings—features exposed precast and cast-in-place reinforced concrete, with use of post-tensioned concrete beams. The exterior wall planes are finished with deep vertical or horizontal grooves and show remnants of board forms and ties, lending an aesthetic touch to the concrete. Many of the precast concrete elements were lifted into place by cranes—a somewhat unusual construction method for the time. The grounds, meanwhile, were landscaped by Lawrence Halprin, whose design work was beginning to achieve national recognition at the time.
Completion of McMahon Hall in the summer of 1965 came in time to house the unexpectedly large number of student residents at the beginning of the fall quarter—a total of 1,040, many of whom had been previously placed on housing waiting lists. Upon opening, it was the second of the university’s co-educational residence halls, following the completion of the two-towered Haggett Hall two years earlier (also designed by Kirk, Wallace, McKinley and Associates). Initially, McMahon Hall was planned for occupancy by women in the south wing and men in the north wing; due to the large enrollment and more applications from men than women, the university accommodated male students on three floors of clustered arrangements in the south wing.
During its early years, McMahon Hall was a linchpin for innovative housing programs and progressive campus policies. Some suites and wings were occupied by members of different academic clubs, such as the Casa Hispania and LaMaison Francoise (the Spanish and French houses, respectively), which provided foreign language immersion. In 1967, partly in response to a proposal from the residents of McMahon Hall, students at the university were granted room-visitation privileges through a revised policy. The following year, male and female occupancy was permitted on alternating floors rather than in separate wings.
In 1973, the Board of Regents and the State Department of Social and Health Services agreed to a special program that allowed inmates of state correctional institutions to live in McMahon Hall while attending the University of Washington; similar programs were planned for or underway at other colleges and universities in the state. Under this initial program, five men lived in the dormitory in a school-release project, supervised by counselors and a parole officer.