This is a transcript of a presentation at the Preserving U.S. Military Heritage: World War II to the Cold War, June 4-6, 2019, held in Fredericksburg, TX. Watch a non-audio described version of the presentation on YouTube.
Cultural Landscapes of the Manhattan Project: Preserving the Pajarito Site, Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico
Presenter: Julie McGilvray and Robert Melnick
AbstractUnderstanding, documenting, and preserving cultural landscapes of the Manhattan Project’s early atomic era provides an important opportunity to comprehend both the obvious and often obscure workings of the national, and very secretive, effort to develop the atomic bomb during World War II. These sites, and the machinations that led to their development, are only now on the verge of coming open to public access. They are a window into a critical time in our nation’s history, when the outcome of the war was far from certain, and the military and civilians cooperated, but were often at odds with each other.
The Pajarito Site (Site), also known as TA-18, is part of a larger set of testing areas located within the remote mesas and canyons of Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), New Mexico. The Site was developed during World War II for plutonium chemistry research and following the end of the war, it was the primary location for critical assembly work. In 2015, the Site and two other atomic weapon development locations at LANL, became part the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. The park is jointly managed by the National Park Service (NPS) and the Department of Energy (DOE). Following park designation, the NPS worked closely with DOE staff to determine preservation priorities and necessary steps forward for site development and public access. While preservation of extant historic buildings at the Site (Slotin Building and Pond Cabin) were deemed critical, the NPS encouraged the DOE to pursue a cultural landscape study to better understand and protect the evolution of the Pajarito site including the larger landscape setting and features. In 2018 the NPS partnered with the University of Oregon Cultural Landscape Research Group to complete this study.
This project, and this paper, address key questions: How were landscape and laboratory functions critically intertwined at the Pajarito Site? How did natural systems aid in establishing boundaries, research, and testing locations, and how did those natural systems aid in the protection and defense of the area? Further, the paper explores how the NPS Cultural Landscape methodology and methods have revealed valuable cultural layers at the Site that may seem invisible at first glance. These resources include key building placement of the Cold War Era, circulation, and connection patterns to the larger LANL structure, critical views and vantage points, and the use and importance of archaeological sites (cavates) as the Pajarito Site was constructed and engaged. Finally, the paper raises key issues about documentation of secretive, and very dynamic, nationally significant cultural landscapes, and the message they bring to the public about behind the scenes events and wartime policy.
Julie McGilvray: So, I wanted to start off by saying how cool it is to be here. Robert tells me I give him strange projects, and this is definitely one of the most interesting ones I've worked on in my career at the Park Service and probably before that.
I think we just keep learning more and more, and more about the Manhattan Project as we work on this, so it's pretty fascinating stuff. So, I also wanted to add that Jeremy Brunette, who is presenting after us, is also a part of this project, so we'll do our best to answer your questions, me from the Park Service, Robert as our partner from the University of Oregon, and Jeremy from Los Alamos National Lab, to kind of address both talks at the end if there's time.
So, to move forward, this is a map of the Los Alamos portion of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. When I first started working on this project, just as the ink was still wet on an MOU between the Department of Energy and the National Parks Service and our other partners, I was based in the Santa Fe office of the intermountain regional office, and I was the landscape architect on the scene. We also had a historical architect, and we had the Vanishing Treasures program there to look at these sites with us.
We went out and it was a daunting project to begin with. As a Park Service person, I had never seen a site like this before. Okay. So, if you can see numbers one, two, and three, that's tech area, or TA-18, or the Pajarito Site, that's what we're going to be talking about today. Four is Gun Site, and five is V site. So, these are all dis-contiguous pieces of the Manhattan Project within Los Alamos National Lab, so this is a functioning research lab. So, working within there was very different for a Park Service person, and we saw that these were sites that hadn't been used in awhile. They were in varying states of decay, and our role as the Park Service was to help preserve and maintain and interpret these.
So, as I started learning more about this history and this contiguous park unit, I realized of course that this is part of the larger Manhattan Project National Historical Park. This includes Hanford, Washington, and Oak Ridge, Tennessee. But beyond that, this is also this vast cultural landscape from Germany and the nuclear arms race that started there that we took up through the Manhattan Project, and then to what happened to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So, to me this was this extended, large history, it was complex and it was a very big cultural landscape.
So those of you who are not familiar with what a cultural landscape is, this is a concept and a set of methods we use in the Parks Service, and also UNESCO does cultural landscape studies too, and what we're really looking at in a cultural landscape study is the merging of the cultural and natural to understand how humans have adapted to a place over time, so it gives us one of the most comprehensive looks at a site that we can get. It is a very detailed study.
This is Robert Oppenheimer on the left, that's his official ID picture and Oppenheimer and Groves on the right. Yesterday we saw that great statue of them at Los Alamos town site. And this is a schematic drawing for the Fat Man bomb that was dropped on Japan. So, it's very important to understand that there's this intense fury almost about getting this done as fast as they could because of the fear that if we didn't get it done first, the bomb would be dropped on us, or some nature of the bomb would be dropped on us. This is the Pajarito site when it was in full bloom and you can see here kind of the core of it. There are these two canyons, Three-mile Canyon and Pajarito Canyon, and then there are these bluffs all around it. This allowed for the structure of that landscape, that natural landscape, to support the needs of the project, and that became an important part.
So, Oppenheimer's love for New Mexico, which he got as a teenager visiting here when he was a teenager growing up in New York played into and really supported the needs of the project. This is another picture of that and you can see, I really want you to look at these because there is this main kind of complex here, there's a complex here and here, and this is the only access road right there. So that landscape structure was very, very important. And I'm going to show you some pictures of it today. It was known in the early 50's and later on as the Center for Advanced Nuclear Technology. And you entered here. These are obviously pictures, these are six months ago or so. So you entered here at the gate, it was a very, very high security site. This site is now no longer in use and not yet open to the public. The long term goal is that all of the sites for the Manhattan Project National Historical Park will in fact be open to the public at some point, but it's far from that. This is the first of what will probably be many projects here. More here hopefully, something in Hanford, and perhaps something in Oak Ridge as well.
This is the site today, looking from on top of one of those bluffs, and that area that I just pointed out right here was an area that had a number of buildings on it. So one of the things that we're trying to do is to understand how this landscape was structured, what remains there, what can be understood there, and how that story can be told. Remember while there is great cooperation, and you'll hear from Jeremy in a minute, he's at LANL and part of DOE, and obviously Julie is NPS, and I'm kind of a partner with them. One of the goals here is to understand how we can tell the story of this amazing event that happened in our country's history. Regardless of how you feel about it, it was in fact a world changing event that happened and that we've all lived with ever since the early mid 1940's.
Here's another picture of that site looking back at the Sloten building and Jeremy's going to talk about that in much greater depth. But you can see the road structure that's still there, you can see the pads where there were some buildings, and the mesa cliffs on the left in the photograph.
We should mention that all these photographs were taken by the third member, the second member of my team Noah Curr who's a PHD student who's very research associate and part of this who couldn't make this trip with us today. You get another sense there also of this landscape, the vastness of it. And part of what this takes is imagining what it would have been like when it was fully built up. And here is another picture of it. The site in the background right, it's hard for me to see, right up there was one of those sites. Those three sites that I pointed out outside the core were known as casas, obviously because of the country that in the part of the world we were in. So each casa had a different purpose and a different activity.
This is the area that remains of that core area. You can see where there were sidewalks, there were curbs, there were tree plantings. So you can have a real sense of what this landscape was like. As Julie said were applying the very now accepted, standardized, kind of cultural landscape methods for analyzing a place, but we do that differently at every single site. And this site, as Julie said, is probably from my point of view, although I've worked on many, many projects, probably the most unusual, challenging project that I've ever worked on.
One of the things that we take a look at in the cultural landscape analysis is what we call clusters, where there are groups of buildings, or groups of features that are logically together, and here you can see A, B, C, D and E. E, which is, and it says Kiva but it really is Casa now, that's a typo that has been corrected. A was the entry area that I showed you when we started when people came in, B is that administrative area, and then there's the Casa 1, 2 and 3. The importance of this is that it really mimics that map nationally of the Manhattan Project, that these areas are separate.
The walk by the way from the administrative area to C, or Casa 1, is less than ten minutes, so you get a sense of how large this is. And you can see that there is a butte here that comes in, there's a butte here, and there's a butte back here. So you get a sense of those finger valleys that really allowed the activities required for this site. TA-18 was very important because it did all the criticality testing. Most of the criticality testing in preparation for construction of the bomb and further activity after that. It didn't stop in 1945 it actually continued up in to the Cold War. And there are, in our paper for this we actually list a number of other projects that were undertaken here. So it wasn't just a one-time event, it was ongoing where a lot of the major criticality testing occurred.
This is Casa 1, and you can see the guard tower. There was obviously a lot of concern about security, and a lot of concern about activity here both into the 50's but even as late as 9/11 when this was still an active site. One of the interesting things about this site, is that as we saw yesterday there were some drawings of other sites, this site was just built in a hurry, okay? There are some drawings for some buildings, but the roads are just laid out quickly, and the buildings were put up very quickly because there was this ever-prescient, Oppenheimer was always pushing his scientists to do work daily, often into the night. People would spend, they would stay over-night in these buildings that they needed to be there for an experiment.
Remember also that even though there were families at the site, at the Los Alamos town site, scientists could not discuss what they were working on. So often, families, not often, always, families had no idea what was going on on-site. All of the residents of Los Alamos had mail addressed to a single post office. They all had a very unusual license plate that was unique to them, and people in Santa Fe, which is about half an hour, forty minutes away had no idea what was going on up on the mesas, okay? So you have to, remember, put your head into that period of the war when what is going on here.
Another view down here, I'll get on the building on the right in a second. This is the Sloten building, where Jeremy will talk about in much greater depth where a major accident occurred, I think it was 1946 that it occurred. That really changed the way tests were done and there was a major death that happened because of that, and Jeremy will talk about that in a second. This is the Pon Cabin, the Pon cabin predated the Manhattan Project and it was there, as Julie mentioned, as part of a, basically a gun and rod club I guess, a fishing club that was there before Los Alamos was taken over by the government for this purpose that was a boys' school in the town site, and then some of the activity from there extended to TA-18.
I want to show you this. This is a vault that you can see right here, where there's the entrance to the vault, which had been, and Julie will talk about this in a minute, originally a kavai which was a Native American activity that occurred where it was dug in to the hills for lodging I guess, so put it like that way. But this was also the site inside, and you can see these two images, where at one point all of the world's active plutonium was stored, okay?
I should tell you that Noah, who's not here right now, took a pic. Every unit on the site has a number label, this is TA-18-27. We took a picture of that, we printed it, and we put it on our office door back in Oregon. So, no one knows what it means, but we do and it's kinda [inaudible 00:18:27] to think about.
The bunkers, here's one, which was, they're all battleship bunkers, here's one and here's what it looks like today with this cover on it, were used for critical testing. And this is the front of it, you can get a sense of that it looked like a battleship. This is actually a second one. There were two of them still on-site, and they were used for various kinds of experiments. And although TA-18 was more integrated than LANL as a whole and certainly more than the Manhattan Project as a whole, there was still some security between what was going on in one of those casas compared to the others. So, we're kind of really pushing that idea that the level of security overwhelmed the kind of communication integration of all of them. This is the backside, you can see the entrance and you can see the number there, TA-18PL5. TA-18 obviously refers to the technical area, and then PL5 is the number of the structure. There were gabions that were built more recently for flood control and so on. And then, there is that whole sense, even now, of no trespassing.
One of the things we're very interested in is what we call small scale features, it's kind of a collective term, one of those little features that tell you what life was like here. Part of our goal with the cultural landscape process and the cultural landscape studies is not only to understand the place, but as Julie mentioned when we began, to really understand the integration of people and place. So it's place, people, and natural systems and how do we understand those, and in the paper that we wrote there is more detail about this.
I want to emphasize what Julie said that we are in the early stages of this project. The cultural landscape inventory that this is about today is not completed yet, but we couldn't pass up the opportunity given the nature of this symposium to really share this with everyone.
And now, I'm going to turn it back to Julie, who's going to talk about the archeological sites, and then a little bit about where we're going to go from here, and then we'd like to turn it over to Jeremy who will talk about his work and then hold questions for the three of us if that's okay.
Julie McGilvray: Okay, so, the archeological piece of this is very important, and much of the site is archeological in nature and typically, when we do a cultural landscape study we have a lot of buildings and we have roads, we have waterways, we might have pretty robust structures in the landscape to work with. That is not the case here because of the evolution of use of the site and throughout, you know, the lab's history they built and tore down buildings, as they needed to. So we have lots of missing buildings here as Robert has already shown you, and a lot of the roadways and the footprints, and there's evidence of them still in the landscape, but again, these are archeological now in nature. So, the archeological component became a very important part of this process, so much so that we decided that we needed to have a standalone archeological report to address these needs that would be then woven in to the cultural landscape study. Typically, you do these things separately, landscape architects do cultural landscape work, archeologists do archeology. I am both, and so I wanted to pull them together, but we will produce an archeological report from this site.
So what you see here are the kavaits in the mesa and three mile canyon. Let's see if I can get this to work. All of these are kavait structures. These are ancestral Puebloan structures, they were dug in to this tuft which is very soft stone, for people to create dwellings, and they date from about 1100 to 1500 CE. So, we are in the process, while Robert's doing his work on the larger cultural landscape and working with Vanishing Treasures to document these in great detail, and this work has not been completed at this point, and also the lab had not been able to finish it either, so the Park Service is sort of coming in and helping with this. Here's another image of those and what you see here are Viga holes. Viga in New Mexico language is just the post that would have supported the ceiling, so these were multi-level apartments like what you see at Bandolier.
So, why this is all so important is because during the Manhattan Project they went in and used these kavaits and this landscape as they needed to support their project. So, the plutonium storage facility that you saw was a kavait that was dug out and supported with concrete, and then they started storing all of that plutonium in there. And then, with other ones they just literally scraped them off the surface of the mesas. So, part of what we're trying to understand too is not what ancestral Puebloan sites are still here, but also how the Manhattan Project impacted them, and how they were used for those purposes.
What you see here is a prehistoric trail cut by hand into the stone of the mesa, and again, this is very soft stone, but still, this was cut by hand, it's pretty impressive structure. We also know that, and here's the other view going up, it's right here. We also know that the guards that were stationed around the Manhattan Project stayed up there and used this path, and while we have prehistoric rock art, or graffiti, petroglyphs, pictographs, we also have historic graffiti that was drawn into the stone there as they were sitting and waiting, and it looks like they did some good target practice up there too. This one dates from 1947.
So, this preservation again, and typically what you see in a cultural landscape is that things are completely intertwined, so you really need to comprehensively understand a place so you make sure you're protecting and preserving things well. And again, the archeology has become a huge component of this.
All right, so next steps, where are we in this project? We are in the process of completing the cultural landscapes inventory and again, this is just telling us what we have. This does not give us preservation treatment recommendations. We'll also consider continue archeological documentation over the summer, and then hopefully we'll be starting a cultural landscape report in the fall. And this report has our treatment recommendations in it. Schematic design drawings, hopefully a 3-D model of the site, and that was recommended by the Park Service so we could understand this evolution, this coming and going of all these buildings and structures as the lab needed to proceed into the Cold War and remove and rebuild and this just entire process.
So, that 3-D model can be used by the Park Service and the Department of Energy, and the lab to understand this evolution, but also it could be used as an interpretive tool. And finally, we'll have GIS of course and an archeological treatment plan. So, that's where things are. We are mid-stream with this. Again, this is the first cultural landscape study of the Manhattan Project and we're sort of testing some ideas here too, and we hope we can continue on with this work.
Julie McGilvray is the Cultural Resources Program Manager at Guadalupe Mountains National Park in West Texas. Ms. McGilvray holds a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology and a Master of Science in Historic Preservation from the University of Texas at Austin. She holds a Master of Landscape Architecture from the University of New Mexico (UNM) and teaches graduate level courses in cultural landscape preservation and conservation within UNM’s School of Architecture and Planning. Ms. McGilvray’s research interests include the preservation of regional modernism in the Southwest and creating new frameworks to improve integration of cultural and natural resource management and planning.
Robert Z. Melnick, FASLA, is professor of landscape architecture at the University of Oregon, and Senior Cultural Resource Specialist with MIG, Inc. He has been working in cultural landscape studies – research, planning, and stewardship – since the 1980s. His most recent award-winning work, as PI for the UO Cultural Landscape Research Group, addressed the impact of climate change on cultural landscapes. Melnick is co-editor of the award winning book, Preserving Cultural Landscapes in America, (2000). In 2008, he was awarded the James Marston Fitch Award by the National Council for Preservation Education for lifetime achievement in historic preservation education.