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The NCAR Mesa Site

The site of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) Mesa Laboratory, flanking the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, features not only a major architectural monument but also a dramatic mountain preserve where local citizens can picnic, hike, and learn about the natural world. When the site of the laboratory was chosen, NCAR pledged to the people of Boulder, Colorado that as far as possible its natural aspects would be preserved. The site, now named the Walter Orr Roberts Mesa after the first director of NCAR, is maintained as an extension of the City of Boulder parklands to the north, south, and west.

In the early 1960s, Walter Orr Roberts had high aspirations both for the new center and for the structure that was to house it. Of the possible land parcels available for NCAR, the dramatic Table Mesa top was the clear favorite. Tician Papachristou, then a Boulder architect and consultant on the NCAR headquarters, recalls, "One day I was visiting Walt Roberts at home and we began to wonder who owned that hillside. I put my baby on my back, and we immediately hiked over to take a look. When we mounted the top, it was like magic -- a sacred site the ancient Greeks would have envied." Surrounded by undeveloped land, the mesa's dry western landscape was covered in juniper, pines, and wild flowers, and frequented by a large herd of deer. Yet it was accessible to the university and to other research faciliities.

The 565-acre mesa was made up of five privately owned parcels of range land in 1960. A site-selection committee contacted the owners and put together a potential package encompassing the 28-acre mesa top and the hillsides leading down to town and back toward the Flatirons, the dramatic sandstone outcroppings to the west. However, before NCAR could lay claim to the site, a major political hurdle had to be surmounted since Boulder voters had amended the city's charter in 1959 to include a "blue line" above which city water would not be supplied. The NCAR site was located above this line.

Many of the natural features, both biological and geological, can be seen from the road up the mesa or from the laboratory itself. Others will only be evident to those who explore on foot. More growing things can be seen on the site during the warm months from May through October than during the rest of the year; nevertheless many of the plants and animals also can be observed year round. Visitors to the NCAR site are partners with our staff in helping to conserve the natural beauty of the site by staying on the trails, not littering, and not carrying away plants or rocks as souvenirs. NCAR staff feel privileged to work in and to share the natural beauty of the mesa with NCAR visitors.

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Wide angle image of NCARAn early image of the NCAR Mesa Lab site and a faint outline of its access road, which I.M. Pei called his "grand gesture."

Boulder FlatironOne of Boulder's famed Flatirons spirals above a foreground of ponderosa pines on the NCAR mesa. (Photo credit: T. Eastburn)

architecture highlightAccording to I.M. Pei, the challenge in the design of NCAR was to create a man-made structure bold enough to live up to the immensity of the setting and yet compatible enough not to try to compete with it, a competition any building was bound to lose. (Photo credit: T. Eastburn)