Categories
Places of My Life

Why do I want to live in a city that has a full time Historic Preservation Coordinator?

More of what I did that made me happy when I lived in the place where I was happiest.

I can’t remember where I picked up for the first time a strange small booklet that laid out a quite confusing driving tour of Oak Ridge.  Turned out one of the reasons it was so confusing is that the topography of the area (valleys separated by hills) conformed to the purpose of its design to keep all the different development areas separated and secret from each other. These factors also kept all the housing areas separated even though they all required similar facilities to maintain the functions of daily and family life. 

The city ended up with five downtown areas, most of which are now rundown and for the most part sadly closed down except of course schools and churches! The driving tour booklet was so outdated that it included some of those closed places which added to my confusion so I worked with the ORCVB president and other members to get it updated, modernized and republished which finally happened just before I left!

My first visit to the Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge (CMOR) also came just before I left town.  That visit was timed to the official opening of the Oak Ridge headquarters of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park in that building when the museum also offered free admission. I hadn’t visited earlier since I didn’t have any young children to take there so I was quite surprised to discover many of its permanent exhibits also educated adults on Oak Ridge history. CMOR’s website page on “The Manhattan Project” summarizes a good part of what I saw there in my first short visit.

Oak Ridge was built as a planned community, with dormitories, apartments and prefabricated houses, and featured amenities such as restaurants, a library, churches, medical facilities, and clubs and organizations of all kinds. Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge’s “Difficult Decisions” and “Manhattan Project” exhibits house many artifacts from the period and help tell the story of Oak Ridge.

The most fascinating parts of CMOR for me were (1) the very extensive exhibit of area Girl Scouts with some of the troops that started when the city did still very active (2) another Ed Westcott gallery and (3) a re-creation of a room of one of the “Alphabet Houses” to show kids today how small houses used to be! I was so proud that Girl Scouts had been established and retained more importance there than Boy Scouts!

I joined several book groups and a couple of them both read and discussed The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan.  Among the “girls” the author met while doing her research in Oak Ridge was Virginia Coleman Spivey.  Virginia came to town in WWII as a scientist, as did Lianne Russell.  I met both of these highly educated and motivated and liberated for their times ladies in a memoir writing class.  Unfortunately, both passed before they could put pen to paper. 

There were already a range of articles written about Lianne and her achievements.  I had to pry shy Virginia’s story out of her so I could summarize it for a series of articles in the local paper.  Later, I wrote another article about another liberated for her times woman I knew, who happened to be the leader of one of those book groups!  The last article I did was to tout an upcoming ORHPA speaker, another woman who also happened to be the Program Manager at the Center for Historic Preservation at Middle Tennessee State University.  Learned as she was, Lydia Simpson shared the irrational fear that Oak Ridge was radioactive but still agreed to come to town for a tour.  As I’d expected, throughout our afternoon with Ray Smith, Lydia’s appreciation for all the aspects of what had gone on in town increased exponentially.

Links to the articles I wrote that were published can be found here. Scroll through the dates and you’ll find the ones I wrote: 6/8-7/26/17; 10/25/17; 1/10 & 1/17/18.

I’m also not sure where and when I first learned about the “Alphabet Houses” but, given the diversity of the people who lived in town, I was most intrigued by the development philosophy employed by its military governors in directing its layout by a civilian design company

The town site was in the northeast corner of the reservation, a strip less than one mile wide and six miles long with hilly terrain descending from the Black Oak Ridge in the north. Architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) envisioned pleasant neighborhood communities with libraries, schools and shopping centers.  Rather than performing time-consuming grading, houses were adjusted to fit the contours of the land. Most of Oak Ridge’s kitchens faced the street to minimize the length of plumbing and utility lines.

Original plans called for the military reservation to house approximately 13,000 people in prefabricated housing, trailers, and wood dormitories. Town planners were originally to provide housing for an estimated 30,000 people. By the time the Manhattan (Project) headquarters were moved from Washington, DC to Tennessee in the summer of 1943, estimates for the town of Oak Ridge had been revised upward to 45,000 people. By 1945, the population had reached 75,000 and by the end of the war, Oak Ridge was the fifth largest city in Tennessee.

Materials were in short supply, so the first houses were built of prefabricated panels of cement and asbestos or cemesto board. They were known as “alphabet houses” because each of the handful of home designs was assigned a letter of the alphabet. There were small, two bedroom “A” houses, “C” houses with extra bedrooms, “D” houses with a dining room, and so forth for a total of 3,000 cemesto-type homes. Later, thousands of prefabricated houses were sent to Oak Ridge in sections complete with walls, floors, room partitions, plumbing and wiring. Workers turned over 30 or 40 houses to occupants each day.

Atomic Heritage Foundation – Locations – Oak Ridge, TN

In a town that was the developed by the government, I was surprised to learn it was actually built pretty quickly and efficiently. This revelation led to an exhibit titled Secret Cities – The Architecture and Planning of the Manhattan Project on display May 3, 2018 – July 28, 2019 in the National Building Museum that became the central focus of a visit I made with a friend to Washington, D.C., just before the exhibit closed.

As a fan of HGTV programs I have learned just enough to make me dangerous if/when I might ever encounter a new (to me) home that I wanted to remodel.  Many of the programs talk about load bearing walls and how expensive they are to replace when remodeling.  So, imagine my excitement when I learned that Oak Ridge’s historic and unique Alphabet Houses have no load bearing walls!  I was ready to redo and release a few to the young people I hope will be coming to work in Oak Ridge so they can preserve and revitalize the place where I was so happy.  I want a new generation to live and work in this Secret City, to keep it current and relevant as a source of information in what I consider to have been the setting for a great social experiment. I know they would make more fascinating history there!

3 replies on “Why do I want to live in a city that has a full time Historic Preservation Coordinator?”

Oak Ridge, founded as a production center for the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb, is already a source of great interest to know the behind the scenes of this city. Your story is fascinating and highlights important aspects of the city. A good article. I enjoyed reading
Manuel Angel

Like

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s