UA Tree-Ring Lab to Get New Home

The Bryant Bannister Tree-Ring Building will incorporate the Mathematics East building in an unusual multi-level design.
April 26, 2011
A rendition of the Bryant Bannister Tree-Ring Building.
A rendition of the Bryant Bannister Tree-Ring Building.

After 75 years in "temporary quarters" under the University of Arizona's football stadium, the world's first laboratory dedicated to tree-ring research will have a new home.

The groundbreaking ceremony for the Bryant Bannister Tree-Ring Building, named for the UA Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research's director emeritus, will be held on Tuesday, May 3 at 11 a.m. at the UA Highlands Commons. Attendance at the ceremony is by invitation only but is open to the media.

Speakers will include UA President Robert N. Shelton, UA Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research Director Emeritus Bryant Bannister, UA Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research Director Thomas W. Swetnam and UA College of Science Dean Joaquin Ruiz.  

The study of the annual rings of trees, known as dendrochronology, was invented by lab founder Andrew E. Douglass more than a century ago. Douglass, who came to the UA in 1906, pioneered the use of tree rings to date the ancient ruins of cliff dwellings.

The Bryant Bannister Tree-Ring Building will incorporate the Mathematics East building in an unusual multi-level design.

"It's a tree house, basically, an elevated canopy with a stem," said Swetnam.

On the ground level, the "tree trunk" will have public exhibit space and a multipurpose room that will serve as an auditorium and as a teaching lab. Above that will be two floors of laboratory and office space "in the canopy." Those upper floors will be wider than the floor beneath, thus giving the idea of a tree canopy that provides shade to the ground below.

The outer shell of "the canopy" will be a screen on the east, west and south sides that will minimize heat input to the building. The screen is designed to move slightly, evoking the rustling of a tree in the wind. The north side of the building will be uncovered, providing natural light for the building and a view toward the mountains.

The building is designed to meet or exceed the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating of silver.

The new building's first-floor exhibit hall will showcase the 2 ton, 10-foot-diameter cross-section of a giant sequoia given to Douglass in the 1930s by the superintendent of Sequoia National Park.

"For generations it was a museum piece that every school kid in Tucson remembers seeing," Swetnam said. The cross-section had been on display in the old Arizona State Museum building.

The award-winning team of James Richärd, Kelly Bauer and Stephen Kennedy of Richärd + Bauer Architecture, LLC, designed the building.

The team, all UA alumni, also designed the UA's Meinel Optical Sciences Expansion, which received a 2007 American Institute of Architects National Honor Award for Architecture and has been named as one of Arizona's 18 Greatest Architectural Achievements.

The basement of the Mathematics East building, which currently houses the lab's collections of bristlecone pine and sequoia, the shop and some lab space, will be renovated. The lab's archaeological samples, currently in the West Stadium, will then be moved to the Mathematics East basement.

Actual groundbreaking for the building is scheduled for late spring or early summer.

Those portions of the Bryant Bannister Tree-Ring Building are scheduled for completion in late 2012 – the year the lab turns 75.

The new construction will provide 17,300 square feet of usable space – about 7,000 square feet more than the space the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research is currently using in the West Stadium.

The new construction plus the renovation of the Mathematics East basement is primarily funded by a $9 million private donation from Agnese Nelms Haury.

"Agnese has been a great friend to the tree-ring lab and other departments on campus," Swetnam said. "She's been incredibly generous and supportive of the tree-ring laboratory and of the School of Anthropology on campus. She is really visionary about the unique strengths and importance of these units."

In a subsequent phase of construction, a modern, climate-controlled archive will be built in the Mathematics East building to house the lab's extensive collection of wood samples, ranging from pencil-thin cores of trees to 7-foot-diameter cross-sections of giant sequoias. The irreplaceable samples, the work of scores of scientists starting with lab founder Andrew E. Douglass, are still used by researchers as they continue to explore the wealth of information recorded in tree rings.

The collection is estimated to contain more than 2 million individual pieces of wood. Once complete, the new archive will allow the lab to double the amount of wood samples in the collection.

The lab recently received a $425,000 grant from the National Park Service and National Endowment for the Humanities' Save America's Treasures Program. The funds will be used to purchase mechanical-compact shelving units to store the collection.

Douglass and his student Emil Haury used tree rings to date the great ruins of the Southwest, including those at Chaco Culture National Historical Park and Mesa Verde National Park. Their 1929 breakthrough made the field of dendrochronology world-famous, said Swetnam. Their work gave archaeologists the critical tool they needed to pinpoint the occupation dates for nearly all of the prehistoric pueblos in the region.

Haury went on to become one of the preeminent figures in Southwest archaeology, head of the UA anthropology department and director of the Arizona State Museum. He also mentored three of Douglass's successors, including Bannister.

Agnese Nelms Lindley married Emil Haury in 1990. The two had been friends since the mid-1960s, when she worked on Haury's excavations at Snaketown, an extensive Hohokam archaeological site near Casa Grande, Ariz. Emil Haury died in 1992 at age 88.

Agnese Haury's own remarkable career spans 60 years. She graduated with degrees from Bryn Mawr College and Wheaton College, and visited, worked and lived in more than 60 countries. She worked for, among others, the United Nations and the Woodrow Wilson Foundation.