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V-Site captures national preservation award

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By The Staff

The National Trust for Historic Preservation recognized today the restoration of a modest building where the world’s first plutonium bombs were assembled At the 2008 National Preservation Conference, meeting in Tulsa, Okla., the trust named the V-Site project at Los Alamos National Laboratory as one of 21 national award winners. “The V-Site is architecturally humble but historically significant,” said Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in an announcement. “Thanks to an innovative preservation partnership, the centerpiece of a crucial time in history will not be lost.” As the Manhattan Project began what many thought was a race for atomic supremacy, wooden sheds known as the V-site were thrown together in a relatively remote part of a secret location on a isolated plateau in northern New Mexico. Abandoned almost as rapidly as they were built, the V-Site buildings quickly eroded and were in danger of collapsing after World War II. The buildings stood empty and threatened with demolition until the 1990s when historians and preservationists mobilized to save the vestiges of the original laboratories. The National Trust’s explanation of the award described another dimension of challenges that had to be overcome. The V-Site’s location on the grounds of the Los Alamos National Laboratory — a Department of Energy complex with significant security and safety constraints —required creative problem solving and commitment far beyond the norm. Moreover, in May 2000, the Cerro Grande Fire overwhelmed Los Alamos, burning 42,000 acres. The wildfire spared only two of the dilapidated structures, including Building 516 — the most significant V-Site structure, where the atomic bomb, known as “the Gadget”— was assembled. Fueled by funding from a variety of public and private sources, including the Save America’s Treasures program, each challenge was met. “Several factors posed special challenges,” the Preservation announcement noted, “but the energy and dedication of federal, state and private-sector partners resulted in the preservation of an historic resource of international significance.” Co-nominees honored today for the V-Site’s Preservation Award are Los Alamos National Laboratory and the lab’s Cultural Resources Management Team Leader, John Isaacson, and Historic Buildings Project Leader, Ellen McGehee, Crocker, Ltd. Of Santa Fe, the Atomic Heritage Foundation of Washington, D.C.; and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Director of the Office of Management Ingrid A.C. Kolb. National Nuclear Security Administration, U.S. Department of Energy, Los Alamos Site Office’s Cultural Resource Program Manager, Vicki Loucks, was scheduled to accept the award. Many of the project’s design elements required innovative approaches. The preservation team worked from the 1944 blueprint specifications and made use of original materials wherever possible. The team used custom-milled lumber to match original buildings, preserved interior and exterior details and clearly delineated new construction materials. Modern, non-visible systems were devised to improve structural longevity, including moisture barrier and French drain systems. The entire process was meticulously documented, establishing it as a model for the planned restoration of other sites associated with the Manhattan Project. At the end of last year, when V-Site won a state award, officials of the New Mexico Historic Preservation Office and others involved in the preservation project said they would now focus on saving two more structures from the Manhattan Project era, the Gun Site and the Trapdoor Site. The National Trust bestows National Preservation Awards on distinguished individuals, nonprofit organizations, public agencies and corporations whose skill and determination have given new meaning to their communities through preservation of our architectural and cultural heritage. These efforts include citizen attempts to save and maintain important landmarks, companies and craftsmen whose work restores the richness of the past, the vision of public officials who support preservation projects and legislation in their communities and educators and journalists who help Americans understand the value of preservation. The winners of the National Preservation Awards will appear in the November/December issue of Preservation Magazine and online at www.PreservationNation.org/magazine.