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Building 56: Home to Reclamation Laboratories and Innovation

By Christine Pfaff, Historian

While Building 67 is unmistakable for miles around and was intended to symbolize the Bureau of Reclamation's engineering dominance, the low-profile building, Building 56, has played an equally important role in Reclamation's history. In fact, Reclamation's occupancy of the sprawling brick building preceded the addition of the modern concrete and glass tower by about 20 years.

After World War II, when the Denver Ordnance Plant, built on the site of the present Federal Center, was no longer needed, the surplus property became home to the largest concentration of Federal offices outside Washington D.C. One of the first agencies to move to the vacated munitions factory was Reclamation. In 1946, Reclamation converted Building 53 into offices for its design staff and converted Building 56 into engineering research laboratories. Both functions composed the Branch of Design and Construction, and reported to the Chief Engineer.

Bldg 56 - then

The move to Building 56 consolidated Reclamation's hydraulic laboratories at one location; before that they operated at several places. The new facility solved the need for more space and allowed for the expansion of applied research using working scale models.

Reclamation began using hydraulic models in 1930 in the laboratory of the Colorado Agricultural Experiment Station in Fort Collins to study problems encountered in the design and construction of engineering structures. The unprecedented scale of Hoover, Shasta, and Grand Coulee Dams made the establishment of a hydraulic laboratory necessary to evaluate various aspects of the new designs. Models could be tested under various conditions until sufficient information was obtained to establish the most favorable design.

The 53,000 square feet of hydraulic laboratory floor space in Building 56 was soon teeming with models to assess the adequacy and safety of the massive designs taking shape on Reclamation drafting boards. Large chambers built beneath the floor of the laboratory stored water that was circulated through pipes to the various working models. Among them were spillways, reservoir outlet works, conduits, open channels, canal structures, and fishways. Other laboratories in Building 56 were also engaged in developing new technologies and design solutions for Reclamation's massive dam projects.

In July 1950, accompanied by a major public relations campaign, Reclamation dedicated the Reclamation Engineering Center at the Federal Center. In a press release dated May 5, 1950, announcing the upcoming event, the design and laboratory facilities were described as the “water engineering capitol of the world.” Secretary of the Interior Oscar Chapman stated that the Engineering Center “represents an unsurpassed combination of human training, experience, and technical ability with the most modern of scientific tools.”

The immediate occasion for the dedication was the unveiling of the 5-million-pound capacity testing machine in Building 56. Weighing 750,000 pounds and requiring a year to install, the state-of-the-art machine was touted as symbolic of the tools of science needed to reclaim land and water. The massive piece of equipment, used to test the strength of large concrete specimens and the tension of steel, was capable of crushing concrete to powder, or pulling steel bars apart.

Over a 3-day period in late July 1950, an estimated 40,000 to 45,000 people attended the Reclamation Engineering Center open house and viewed about 300 exhibits and many special demonstrations. The City of Denver was the official sponsor of the event. During the dedication program on July 20, Reclamation Commissioner Michael Straus read a message from President Harry Truman, who wrote, “In this Center you have concentrated the wide range of scientific skills and experience and are providing the engineering teamwork required to assure the fullest and most economical development of our western irrigation, hydroelectric power, and related water resources which we can achieve by modern techniques. That is a most worthwhile accomplishment . . .” The combined talents and expertise of engineers, geologists, chemists, soil scientists, and others were applied to the complex issues of water development in the arid west.

Today, Building 56 is still the site of Reclamation's only hydraulic laboratory and home to the concrete laboratory and the 5-million-pound testing machine. A recent refurbishing of the latter included the addition of a computer control system. The unique capabilities of the machine have expanded its use beyond concrete and steel testing to assessing the strength of features such as mine cribbing.

As times have changed, the focus of research in the hydraulic laboratory has also shifted to address current water-related challenges. Sophisticated model studies and the use of contemporary data acquisition systems and instruments have maintained the laboratory's state-of-the-art status. Much of the present work is in environmental hydraulics to develop and assess fish passage and fish protection equipment at dams and other manmade water control features. A unique facility in the hydraulics laboratory is the automated canal model used to develop new methods and provide training on flow measurement and modern canal operation techniques.

Photo - Hydraulic Model of Roosevelt Dam

Innovative research conducted by the various groups located in Building 56 extends beyond hydraulics and concrete construction to other related subjects. These include dam safety, hydroelectric power, the properties and performance of materials used in Reclamation structures under various conditions, water and wastewater treatment, water quality, desalinization, and protection of aquatic ecosystems. The use of models and other special equipment needed to conduct this work would not be possible without the laboratory shops housed under the same roof.

Today when you step inside the hydraulic laboratory in Building 56, you are still greeted by a labyrinth of models, the sound of flowing water, and the steady hum of equipment. In addition to the active models being tested, historic small-scale models of a number of Reclamation's major dams such as Glen Canyon and Hoover are also on display. If you are interested in learning more about the laboratory, tours are available. For further information, contact the Hydraulic Investigations and Laboratory Services Group.

Last reviewed: 12/14/04