Historical landmarks right in our backyard

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By Kirsten Laskey

Sure, you can learn about the Manhattan Project through countless books, photographs and articles, but there is another way to be exposed to this significant period of time. There are actual physical artifacts, right here in Los Alamos, which can transport you back through history and into the era of the atom bomb.

Ellen McGehee, an archaeologist and historian with Los Alamos National Laboratory, will discuss these artifacts, these historic buildings, during the Los Alamos Historical Society’s lecture series at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Pajarito Room in Fuller Lodge.

Basically, McGehee said, she will address buildings that are related to the Manhattan Project. They were either built or in use from 1943-1946.

“Really just a handful remain,” she said.

The lecture will shine the spotlight on the famous structures, which include facilities in the V-site and the Gun Site, the experimental structure known as the Concrete Bowl and the Quonset Hut where the Fat Boy was facilitated.

The Pond Cabin and the building located at T-A-18-1 known as the Slotin Building will also be discussed.

Perhaps not as well known are the experimental pit structure at T-A-12 and the K-Site.

McGehee said she included these lesser-known locations because “even though they are much lesser known, they tell part of the story of the Manhattan Project.”

She added, one of the most accessible buildings during this time period, Fuller Lodge, does not really give visitors a sense of the laboratory during the WW II.

Therefore, her presentation is an “opportunity for people who don’t get behind the fence to see these facilities,” McGehee said.

Also, people will be informed of the plans that are being made to preserve these structures.

Restoration has recently been completed to the V-Site. McGehee said the restoration was a multi-year program that was completed in 2007.

She said the work included repairing the roofs but it primary focused on repairing the back wall of the assembly building, which was used to assemble the high explosives and other components to be taken to the Trinity Site.

Additionally, “we did some other cosmetic repairs,” McGehee said.

“The goal is to keep that facility, which is so significant, to be there for future generations,” she added.

Recently, a restoration plan was submitted to the state Historic Preservation Officer for work on the Gun Site.

Currently, the clean-up phase is being acted on to make the site more stable, McGehee said.

During this phase, some structural repairs will be made.

In the next phase, more structural work will be done, particularly to the bunkers were velocity tests were conducted.

In the final phase, it is hoped to build a periscope, which was used for observation of these tests.

While it is required by law that these nationally significant buildings be preserved, McGehee said, “I am pretty adamant you can learn a lot by looking at photos and studying (books) but when you see it, you get a much different feeling then you do by reading about it.”  

“That sense of place – that’s important for people,” she added.

While historic, some of these buildings are still in use today.

Take T-A-16, for instance, “50 years later it is doing the same type of work,” McGehee said.

Although none of the buildings are nationally registered as historic buildings, McGehee said work is being done to get some registered as National Historic Landmarks, which is step above being nationally registered.

“We will work toward that,” she said.

The lecture, which is free, will include a slide presentation and the screening of a short film, “A Sense of Place: Preserving the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos.”

The Atomic Heritage Foundation produced the film and the Los Alamos Historical Society supported the film.