August 9, 2016

Experience the Scientific Hub of the Manhattan Project

Hans Bethe House

The Los Alamos Historical Society plans to use the Hans Bethe House for exhibit space that explores the Los Alamos Laboratory during the Cold War.

After visiting Oak Ridge in 2013, my sister and I decided to continue our Manhattan Project travels to the scientific hub of the Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Unlike Oak Ridge, there are not yet public tours of the Laboratory sites within the Manhattan Project National Historical Park, but there is a great walking tour of the main historic district.

Outside the gates of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, there are few sites that date from the Manhattan Project. These are concentrated around the Los Alamos Historic District, a collection of properties that mostly pre-date the project from the site’s history as the Los Alamos Ranch School. One of these sites includes the Hans Bethe House, a Ranch School-era property that served as the home for its namesake in 1945. Bethe was a Nobel Prize-winning physicist that later played a significant role in developing the hydrogen bomb and exhibited political influence during the Cold War as it related to nuclear weapons.

During our visit to Los Alamos, we were treated to a tour of the Bethe House by Los Alamos Historical Society Executive Director, Heather McClenahan. After pipes froze and burst in the former scientist’s house, the historical society worked with a donor to restore the property for use as a new exhibit space.

The damage to the house required a top-to-bottom restoration, from flooring to plastering, plumbing, and painting. The restored house includes period appropriate bathrooms, kitchen, and finishes throughout. While the historical society intends to use the house for exhibit space centered around Los Alamos during the Cold War, the precision of the restoration will also allow visitors to enjoy both the history of the house itself when it is open to the public

After our trip to Oak Ridge, we arrived in Los Alamos with similar expectations for the Manhattan Project site. While some elements of the community were similar to Oak Ridge, we also found striking differences. As we drove up the highway from Santa Fe to Los Alamos, we experienced the same feelings of isolation and remoteness as with Oak Ridge. We imagined, for a moment, the feelings the scientists must have had driving up the hill, wondering where on Earth they were headed.

As for differences between the two sites, the role of both communities in the project was significantly different—while Los Alamos served as the scientific laboratory for the project, Oak Ridge was one of two production sites. This difference in purpose was evident in the built history of both sites.

While Oak Ridge retains many of its original World War II workers housing, Los Alamos does not. The need to attract talented scientists to the Los Alamos lab in the 1950s led to the construction of many post-war neighborhoods that replaced quickly constructed wartime housing. As a result, the rustic homes on Bathtub Row—so named because it held the only homes in town with the luxury of a bathtub—are some of the only remaining homes used during World War II, yet they pre-date the project.

Santa Fe

This non-descript courtyard in Santa Fe is where Manhattan Project employees would enter an office and never exit. A car would be waiting in the back to take them up the mountain to Los Alamos.

While the Oak Ridge Historic District consists of buildings built during World War II, the Los Alamos Historic District features properties constructed for the Ranch School and repurposed for the project. Fuller Lodge, the Guest Cottage, and houses along Bathtub Row all utilize log and rustic architecture popular during the 1920s when most of the structures were built.

While Fuller Lodge served as a dining and recreation hall for the project’s scientists, the most important figures of the project lived in the homes on Bathtub Row. Oppenheimer’s old house is at the end of the street, while General Groves often stayed at the Guest Cottage adjacent to the lodge.

The difference in these accommodations from Oak Ridge to Los Alamos further demonstrates the striking difference in how scientists were treated by the project administration.

We’re eager to make a repeat visit to Los Alamos when the historic sites within the National Laboratory are made available to visitors. In the meantime, we recommend taking a day-trip to Los Alamos as part of a vacation to Santa Fe, where you can also visit Manhattan Project sites where employees started their journey.

Preservation Magazine: Secret Cities

Control Room

Manhattan Project National Historical Park preserves the classified sites and complex legacy of the dawn of the Atomic Age. Learn more in the Summer 2016 issue of Preservation magazine.

Raina Regan is the former director of the easement program at the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the author and creator of Uplifting Preservation, a monthly newsletter of uplifting ideas on how to cultivate mentally healthy preservation workplaces informed by research from experts in psychology, business, and management.

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