Ad Building Stood as Witness to Lab History

The old Administration Building at TA-3 was torn down this year, slowly reduced to small piles of rubble and rebar. But the building will always stand at the center of Los Alamos National Laboratory's history.

Built in 1956 as an integrated administration and science laboratory building, the Administration Building eventually became the nerve center of the Laboratory, its reinforced concrete construction on the South Mesa site solidifying the Laboratory's transition away from the town site and its Manhattan Project wartime roots to its role as a permanent scientific institution.

The building's history spans the very history of nuclear weapons in this country, from the early Cold War and nuclear weapons research, design, and testing, to stockpile stewardship and research into increasingly diverse fields of national security science and technology.

Seven Laboratory directors (Norris Bradbury, Harold Agnew, Donald Kerr, Siegfried Hecker, John Browne, Peter Nanos, and Robert Kuckuck) led the Laboratory from its fourth floor offices, directing the Laboratory's administrative and scientific work and accomplishments over five decades. Interestingly, the building's lifespan also corresponds to the years the Lab was managed by the University of California.

"The significance of the building is the significance of the Laboratory," said Laboratory historian and archaeologist Ellen McGehee of Environmental Stewardship. "All the work of the Laboratory was directed from there. It represents all the history of that time."

The building encompasses a history so extensive, a recent two-volume historical report on it, "SM-43, Nerve Center of a National Laboratory," needs nearly 1,000 pages to tell its story. The report recaps not just the building's beginnings (its first design included a request for a barbershop) and its years of planning and construction (the design criterion was one of "spartan simplicity," its style "pragmatic utilitarianism") but also summarizes the 50 years of remarkable science that transpired around and through this Lab focal point.

Lab Director Norris Bradbury oversaw the building's construction and the moving in of 12 administrative organizations, five science divisions, including the Gadget, Mass, and Explosive (GMX) Division, and a library.

"Bradbury had a vision that the Laboratory was going to be permanent, and this building was a symbol of how to make it happen and how to build a modern Laboratory," McGehee said.

During the building's first years, scientists conducted major research in the building. In the most significant research, carried out in the building's basement, scientists achieved the world's first controlled thermonuclear plasma, using the device called the Perhapsatron (a device named in response to a skeptic who called it an "impossibilitron").

The auditorium, designed with help from United Artists Theater, played host to the weekly colloquia, perhaps the Lab's most treasured tradition, whose roots trace back to the Manhattan Project's weekly lectures.

The working scientific laboratories eventually moved elsewhere, the library moved to Oppenheimer Study Center in 1977, and some administrative functions moved to the new Otowi Building in 1982. In 2008, the utility and structural systems were declared unsafe, and the building was closed.

"It is reasonable to say that the SM-43 decommissioning and demolition is the highest-profile D&D to take place since the Lab moved out of the town site," said Randy Parks of the Lab's Infrastructure Planning Division.

Long-range site plans, fittingly, include a major line item facility of a scale similar to the Metropolis Building to support the Laboratory's mission.

–Caroline Spaeth

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