50th Anniversary Article:
New Laboratory Forged
"The Army Way"
Although the Los Alamos Ranch School in New Mexico provided some housing and
office facilities, the new Los Alamos Laboratory required a whole new set of
technical buildings as well as barracks, family housing and office space. And
although Manhattan Engineer District commander Gen. Leslie Groves found the site
ideal from the security point of view and the scientific director, J. Robert
Oppenheimer of the University of California, Berkeley, found it idyllic as a
retreat for scientists, those who had to build the Laboratory had great
Located several thousand feet above the Rio Grande valley, far
from sources of labor and construction materials, 40 miles from the nearest
railroad, accessible only by totally inadequate roads, with insufficient water,
no natural gas and a limited electrical supply, Los Alamos presented a real
challenge to those who had to make the soldiers' and scientists' plans a
The MED's site report, written in November 1942, predicted most of
the problems. It was ignored, in the interests of time. Less than a week after it
was written, Groves ordered the construction of barracks, a mess hall, officers'
quarters, laboratory administration and technical buildings, a theater, an
infirmary, apartments, utilities, streets and fencing. Some $26 million was spent
on construction in Los Alamos during the war, approximately $200 million in
today's dollars. Without a doubt, it would have been cheaper to build in almost
any other location.
In January 1943, the estimated population of Los Alamos
had risen to 1,500. By January 1944, it reached 3,500, and a year later it
Each new influx of personnel led to a new spate of
construction. In the first phase, before the opening of the Laboratory in April
1943, the Sundt Co. of Tucson, Ariz., had built or remodeled 100 buildings. Sundt
was selected by Col. Lyle Rosenberg, the Albuquerque district engineer for the
Corps of Engineers, because it was well equipped to handle the task and had just
completed Camp Luna at Las Vegas, N.M., and was free to take on the job. Because
Sundt had its own plumbing, electrical, painting and transportation departments,
security was more easily assured.
An old technical area.
An old technical area.
Construction began on Dec. 6 and was
scheduled to be finished on March 15, 1943. Groves wanted 20 percent of the
housing ready by Jan. 2, and the technical buildings ready by Feb. 1. Within two
months, Sundt completed 54 percent of the construction, although the company
received the first blueprints for the technical area plans for two buildings
only on Jan. 7.
Although they were quickly built, the Sundt houses were hardly
high quality or inexpensive. Col. John Dudley, who supervised the early
construction for Groves, answered the question of "why did we put those horrible
houses there?" this way: "An act of Congress had established a civilian housing
agency that set up standards for housing in the United States to be built during
the war years. It specified what would go on the inside. For instance, it
specified showers, no bathtubs.' The manufacturers of bathtubs in the United
States had ceased manufacturing bathtubs about 1942. So even if you tried to get
them, they were hard to find."
Those scientists and officers fortunate enough
to be housed in the Ranch School buildings had the only such facilities in town;
hence the name, "Bathtub Row."
Bathtubs were not the only prized commodity.
Dudley's orders included putting in coal stoves. "Some of us have had experience
in cooking on a coal stove; not very many! Along about January-February of 1943
the housing criteria were outside our hands. Groves tried to get the criteria
modified. He was successful in many matters but not in the housing problem," said
Building a modern scientific laboratory presented greater problems. By
the time the first scientists arrived on March 15, 3,000 construction workers had
been at work for three months and had almost completed the administration
building, five laboratories, a machine shop, a warehouse and a barracks. The work
was far from perfect, and the morale of the workers, who had been building for
three months without any idea of what they were working on, was low. They did not
welcome the scientists/critics with enthusiasm.
Physicist Robert Wilson of
Princeton University, who was to take charge of the cyclotron brought from
Harvard for the project, recalled, "Almost straight away we were in a we-they
situation. ...There was a lieutenant colonel in charge of putting in the
facilities for the building housing the cyclotron. On my first visit, I spotted
that the wires bringing in the power were too small; the cyclotron was off to the
side some way from the power house and there was bound to be a voltage drop.
"Well, I pointed out the mistake to this colonel and that the wiring would have
to be redone, and he decided that things had gone too far and that he was going
to make a fight. Oppenheimer had to write a letter to Groves about it, and
eventually this officer was shipped off to the South Pacific."
accelerators presented similar challenges to the military- industrial mind.
University of Illinois physicist John Manley arranged to provide a
Cockcroft-Walton accelerator from Illinois and two Van de Graaff electrostatic
generators from the University of Wisconsin for the meas rement of nuclear
With Stone and Webster Engineering Co. in Boston, he had carefully
worked out the design of the buildings. "I hadn't seen the ground on which the
buildings would be erected," Manley recalled. "I tried to protect myself a little
bit and also cut construction time by marking on the drawings that the contractor
should take advantage of the terrain in locating the buildings. The Van de
Graaffs were very heavy instruments and the accelerator from Illinois was a
vertical machine that required a basement, so we'd specified that a basement be
excavated for that machine and that there must be a good foundation under the Van
de Graaff accelerators. Cost and construction time could obviously be saved if
they selected the terrain properly," Manley continued.
When Manley arrived at
Los Alamos, after traveling up the steep gravel road from Otowi crossing in a
truck carrying the Cockcroft-Walton acceleration tube, "the first thing I wanted
to see was the building that I'd specified be oriented properly back in Boston.
There are enough jokes about the Army way so you can guess what I saw. The
basement for the Cockcroft-Walton had been dug out of solid rock and that rock
debris taken over to the other end of the building and used for fill under the
Van de Graaffs, where there was supposed to be a good foundation," Manley
Manley, Wilson and the other newcomers pitched in to finish the
construction of the laboratories. John Williams, a University of Minnesota
experimental physicist, took charge of this effort and lived on the site as
acting site director until the buildings were ready to house the physicists. This
took some time.
Sundt was unable to get sufficient labor to meet the
deadlines, and those it could find made trouble through their building trade
unions. It could not get or install basic laboratory equipment rapidly enough to
suit the scientists, who brought pressure on the company through the Corps of
As Wilson's story indicates, these officers were not always
sympathetic. Indeed, in some cases scientists were forbidden to enter the
buildings until they had been formally accepted by the Albuquerque office of the
Corps of Engineers, so that it was impossible to make minor changes, such as
placing shelves, until the building was completed and accepted as specified in
the original drawings. "individually and in detail these early troubles are of
little moment in the history of Los Alamos," David Hawkins, the Laboratory's
first historian, wrote. "collectively, they had effects, some good and some bad,
upon the spirit and tone of the emerging project organization."
(PDF 57 KB)
Moving to Los Alamos: Policy Governing Household Shipments
(PDF 107 KB)
Cost of Living in Los Alamos
(PDF 74 KB)
Medical Facilities and Activities in the
(PDF 220 KB)
(PDF 493 KB)
Nobel Laureate Emilio Segre files a complaint about his heating system
December 12, 1944
(PDF 45 KB)
Abuse of Government Buildings and Property
March 8, 1945
(PDF 46 KB)
General Groves to Captain Parsons
April 25, 1945
(PDF 54 KB)
50th Anniversary Article:
New Laboratory Forged "The Army Way"