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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Martin Moeller’s Interview

Manhattan Project Locations:

Martin Moeller is the Senior Curator at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., where the exhibition “Secret Cities: The Architecture and Planning of the Manhattan Project” opened in 2018. In this interview, Moeller describes the history behind the exhibition and its key themes. He focuses in particular on the role of the firm of Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill in designing Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He also discusses how segregation was built into the Manhattan Project’s secret cities and the Manhattan Project’s legacies for American architecture.

Date of Interview:
November 27, 2018
Location of the Interview:


Cindy Kelly:   I’m Cindy Kelly. It is Tuesday, November 27, 2018, and I have with me Martin Moeller. I’d like him to first say his name and spell it.

Martin Moeller: I’m Martin Moeller. M-A-R-T-I-N M-O-E-L-L-E-R.

Kelly:  Great. So tell me: who are you? Why did we invite you here?

Moeller: I’m the Senior Curator at the National Building Museum, which is a museum of architecture, engineering, design and construction, urban planning, preservation. All aspects of what we call the built environment. One of our current exhibitions, which I curated, is called “Secret Cities: The Architecture and Planning of the Manhattan Project.”

I have always been interested in architecture. My mother came from a working-class family and did not go to college. Neither did my father, but my mother was a very ambitious and intellectually curious woman. She decided that she wanted to design a house for herself and her family. Even on the relatively modest salaries of two telephone company workers, she managed to do that. When I was a very small child I remember how interesting it was to see that house being designed and built, and then knowing how much I enjoyed everybody knowing what my house was. They knew my house because it was unlike anybody else’s. 

I liked that, so I knew from an early stage that I wanted to go into architecture—and sure enough—when the opportunity arose I went to architecture school at Tulane University in New Orleans, and thought I was going to get out and go into practice. It’s what I’d always wanted to do, right?

Instead, I had an opportunity to go work with the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture, which represents faculty throughout the United States and Canada. I thought that would be an interesting thing to do for a year or two—working with academics—and maybe consider whether I wanted to go back and get a PhD in architectural history. I thought I’d do that briefly and ended up becoming assistant director there. Thirty-some odd years later, my entire career has actually been in architecture-related non-profits, and I’ve never ended up practicing—to my own surprise in many ways. 

I’ve been at the National Building Museum now twenty years. Between that and independent work that I do – I’ve written a few books and edited an architecture magazine. I like the fact that I have my fingers in lots of aspects of architecture in a way that frankly I might not have had the opportunity to do if I had been a practicing architect. I’m still trying to get some design out of my system, occasionally designing an exhibition installation or some graphics. I miss architectural practice in many ways, but I’m happy with this kind of curious career that I’ve created for myself.

Kelly:  How did you get interested in doing a project on the secret cities?

Moeller: The idea for this exhibition actually goes back—really goes back 33 years. As it happens, that’s when I met my now husband. I was visiting his family for the first time in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where his father was a nuclear physicist at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Even though having been a very good science and history student in high school – I certainly knew a great deal about the Manhattan Project and was very interested in it – I knew about Oak Ridge’s role in the Manhattan Project. Having already been to architecture school I knew a great deal about the firm of Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill. I didn’t know that firm’s connection to Oak Ridge and how important Oak Ridge was really in the history of postwar modern architecture.

I essentially came to conclude that this was a crucible in which a lot of the ideas of postwar development and design were formed, and under the most extraordinary circumstances. For years, each time I went back to visit his family, I kept thinking, “You know, this is an interesting place.” I thought about it and thought about it, and then I went to the National Building Museum 20 years ago.

About five years ago one of my colleagues was reading Denise Kiernan’s book The Girls of Atomic Cityand was fascinated by that, and said, “I wonder if there’s a story here that we might tell.”

I said, “I’ve been thinking about that for years. All right, I’m putting together a proposal.” We ran it up through all of our review processes and it was approved as one to go ahead. We started raising the money for it, and now it’s open.

Kelly:  Wow. I love the exhibit. I’m really so pleased you did this. Why don’t you tell us about the exhibit and what you learned and what you wanted to convey.

Moeller: There are several key messages in the exhibition. One is that even in the most extraordinary circumstances—really during World War II, a time in which many people felt they were fighting for the very survival of Western civilization—even in those circumstances design matters. Planning matters. 

Good design can make a difference, and that is evident in the extent to which the leaders of the Manhattan Project felt that they needed to create communities that worked for their purposes. Where people would be coming from all over the country—academics in many cases, sometimes coming from very prestigious appointments at major universities—to relatively out-of-the-way places where they weren’t likely to take well to living in military environments.

It quickly became clear that they needed to create real communities. They needed to make them feel at home even under these desperate circumstances, and with very great technical and economic limitations, budgetary limitations. That’s one part of the story—that even in the most extraordinary circumstances there’s a design story. There’s an engineering and a construction story, which is true kind of across the board. That’s very much in keeping with our mission at the National Building Museum. But also, I thought it was interesting the extent to which these communities really were proving grounds, in a sense, for a lot of ideas that were emerging in the United States at the middle part of the 20th century about how we should live, about neighborhoods, about town planning, about housing.

This country of course was just coming out of the Great Depression. Many people were ill-housed, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, and there were people who were interested in exploring new ideas about how architects and engineers and planners could improve living situations for people across the country. During the war they had an opportunity, a necessity, to do that because they needed to house so many people so quickly for armament plants, a variety of other facilities that were necessary during the war—including those of the Manhattan Project.

It’s also interesting to me because there are great stories about how people live and how people create their own community in these environments, whether artificial or sort of naturally occurring. That was another thread here that we wanted to explore—that in these extraordinary communities people really needed to create their own culture. They needed to create their own society in a way because they were so isolated. There were things that sprang up out of nowhere and didn’t have naturally developing cultures and social institutions that would happen in a city that had gradually developed over the course of decades or centuries.

So that’s another story. The very human story about the people who lived in these communities and how their built environments influenced their lives not only during the war but even the lives of people who lived in these communities since the war.

Kelly:  Can you give us some examples? What were these communities like? What was the population like? How did they lay it out in a way that you think influenced how they lived and worked?

Moeller: The designers and planners of Oak Ridge and Richland, Washington—outside of Hanford—and even to an extent Los Alamos were very conscious of some ideas that had been emerging for a long time about town planning in particular, regional planning. For example, the garden city movement, the planned community movement. These were movements that were geared towards trying to bring people into greater harmony with nature. They were very much a reaction to the typical urban environments of the nineteenth century. Cities in the nineteenth century tended to be very crowded, dirty, and not always healthful places.

Really, even going back to the mid-nineteenth century, there was an effort to begin to conceive of new communities. Typically, these were initially bedroom communities such as Riverside, Illinois, in which you found free-flowing curvilinear roads and a great deal of green space. But basically a bedroom community where people would get on a train and go into Chicago to work. Those ideas continued to develop, but really came to a head in the mid-twentieth century—particularly in the Manhattan Project secret cities. The designers and planners looked to those as ideals of how people might live.

We now look back on some of those models and realize that they were very car dependent—things that we’re now moving away from. Even so—for example, in Oak Ridge—Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill—SOM for short—while designing a very car-oriented community or car-dependent community, nonetheless conceived of the town as a series of nodes. A series of neighborhoods where people could walk to an elementary school, to a shopping center, to a movie theater. Trying to create those kinds of conveniences while still creating something that was much more in harmony with the natural landscape.

It was Oak Ridge, after all. This was an area known for its landscape. It was interesting to me to hear story after story after story of people who grew up there, even during the war, when it was a fenced-in community and they were under wartime deprivations. There were so many things that they couldn’t get – how many of these people talked about what a great place it was to live and how pleasant it was and how healthful it felt. How comfortable they felt living there—great places to raise families. This is a community that was built under emergency circumstances during the war.

It strikes me that virtually no other culture, no other country in the world under similar circumstances probably would have gone to that trouble. To house as many people as possible in single-family residences, to create greenbelt zones, and to spare trees when they were building new houses. They didn’t just mow them down routinely, something that tends to happen still today. That is an extraordinary effort.

We don’t have a control in this experiment. We don’t have another city that was built for the same purpose where we can say, “Oh, that was less effective or more effective.” We don’t know, but it seems to me that from these descriptions that so many people gave of life in Oak Ridge during and after the war—the fact that it was such a well-conceived, well-designed and planned environment seemed to have enhanced their quality of life. And I can only assume enhanced the ability of the people in the most critical positions to do their jobs effectively.

Kelly:  What were some of the elements that SOM used to incorporate this kind of integrated neighborhoods? You mentioned the nodes. How were the streets laid out so that they were harmonious with the natural landscape?

Moeller: SOM, in planning Oak Ridge – which, by the way was an interesting thing in and of itself, because SOM up until that point had been a modestly-sized architectural firm mostly doing pure architecture. Although their founding principals did have some experience in designing and planning one of the World’s Fairs of the 1930s, the great New York World’s Fair of 1939 to 1940. So they had some planning experience.

They brought that to bear by really taking into account this hilly landscape, separating out the industrial facilities so they would be secure and would not endanger each other in the case of a fire, or a bombing by enemy planes, for example, or a radiation leak. And then setting aside the community itself, the actual town of Oak Ridge. Then trying to conceive of that as a holistic community.

They began by coming to understand the landscape and laying out the streets in a way that reflected that hilly landscape. Building the city into the side of one of the ridges. Oak Ridge actually has several ridges, and then creating a series of—as I mentioned earlier—nodes, walkable areas where people could get to schools and shopping centers, et cetera.

They also were creating a real structure for each of those neighborhoods that tried to encourage a variety of sort of scales of streets. Avenues would basically run up the mountainside and then other forms of thoroughfares would come off of those in decreasing levels of importance in size. Ultimately getting to little circles and cul-de-sacs and so on to create these more intimate communities in this larger area.

There was also an effort to incorporate greenbelts between the areas of housing, so that most houses in Oak Ridge to this day have a good deal of green space around them. Many of them back up to woods. It was a not-so-dense development for a community that ultimately ended up housing 75,000 people by the end of the war.

And that’s another interesting thing. When SOM initially got the job, the initial target population for Oak Ridge was about 13,000. Then it went up to 44,000, then 66,000, and finally even exceeded that in real numbers. So they were constantly challenged to come up with how to keep building this city and expanding on it based on their initial plans.

The other thing that SOM was involved with was the design of the housing. This housing had to be built very quickly, and so there was an effort to take advantage of prefabrication. Which basically is a term that refers to any kind of construction in which significant portions of houses or buildings are actually pre-made in a factory setting and then delivered to the site where they’re assembled.

In particular, much of Oak Ridge consisted of so-called cemestos—so-called because they were reliant on cement/asbestos panels. The asbestos word, of course, gets a lot of people nervous these days, but the asbestos was embedded very closely in with the cement-based panels. They were semi-prefabricated houses that could go up very quickly.

At the same time, SOM was designing schools. They were designing shopping centers. They were designing all of the other facilities to create an entire new town from scratch. In all of these cases, they were toeing a very fine line. They were trying to create buildings and places that felt familiar, but that also weren’t overly fancy. It was wartime after all, but also, I think, very much had an eye toward the future.

It was a real mix. Some of the little houses have a slightly modernized Colonial feel, but many of the schools and shopping centers felt very modern. In fact, after the war was over – once the word was out – the architecture and engineering press considered this to be truly a sensation. They couldn’t believe not only what happened in secret during the war, but the quality of work that was done.

They considered these schools that SOM had built during and then shortly after the war to be models for educational facilities around the country, absolute models. Some of the other facilities—such as one of the shopping centers I can think of—still looks almost exactly the same today. When you go there it feels pretty fresh and modern. At this time when the country was really in the midst of a transition in terms of attitudes about architecture and design, SOM I think was really negotiating that space. They were negotiating that transition and helping to define some ways in which things would change in the future in a way that we now take for granted.

Kelly:  Tell us about some of the practicalities they had to confront in design. The so-called “alphabet houses” – there were just a limited number of designs to ease getting these things up quickly.

Moeller: Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill had actually been involved in some experimental housing during the 1930s, before the war, working with a group called the John B. Pierce Foundation. [00:15:00] Which was dedicated to advancing technologies in building, but also in particular trying to find new models of affordable housing.

They had come up with a very compact, but pleasantly scaled and I think very comfortable, model house in working with the Pierce Foundation. They had an opportunity to try that out before the Manhattan Project when they designed a community in Middle River, Maryland, for the Glenn L. Martin Aircraft Company. That’s the same Martin that’s now part of Lockheed Martin, and they built several hundred houses very quickly based on this semi-prefabricated technology and created a real community. They showed that that could be done.

That’s what attracted the attention of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers when they were looking for someone to build these houses in short order. As they got there they realized that this one simple model was not sufficient to address the range of family sizes and so on. They began to develop, as you mentioned, the alphabet houses. The “A” house, which was quite small; “B” house, a little bigger; “C” house, et cetera. They didn’t all just keep getting bigger and bigger as you went down the alphabet, but by and large for the first few they did.

Interestingly, most people considered all of the housing that was being done to be fundamentally temporary to varying degrees. Most of those alphabet houses, the cemestos, still exist. Most all of them have been renovated, but they’re still considered to be desirable housing today. They are often now on beautifully landscaped lots. Some trees that had been cut down have now grown in. Other landscapes have grown in. There are pleasant communities to this day where a lot of people really seek to live.

This wasn’t just in Oak Ridge. Also in Richland, a different architectural firm, Albin Pehrson, a Spokane-based, Swedish-American architect, was doing similar things even though he wasn’t privy to what Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill was doing. Using again a level of prefabrication in doing his own set of alphabet houses that were totally different from the ones in Oak Ridge. Created, again, a remarkably pleasant array of living environments that I think most people would have found very desirable in any community in the country at that time.

Now, they continue to be very proud of these. Richland has little guidebooks to take walking tours of these neighborhoods. Some of the areas have been landmarked. They realize that these houses—wartime houses—nonetheless were very special, very high-quality. Often relying on Douglas fir, good, high-quality wood. And again with careful siding to enhance views and minimize views into your neighbor’s houses. All of this during the war, which is just amazing to me.

Los Alamos during the war was a bit different. Other than the historic vernacular houses in what came to be called Bathtub Row, which were remnants of the Los Alamos Ranch School that had been there on the site – these had been faculty housing. Other than those, most people there lived in much more modest circumstances.

There were some apartment buildings. There were prefabs. There were a lot of Quonset huts. But then after the war—even though this was after the war—it was still a time when there was a great deal of nervousness about what was going to be going on with the onset of the Cold War, et cetera. Even in Los Alamos there was an effort to build some new neighborhoods and create pleasant suburban areas that people could enjoy and really make “normal” communities.

I think that’s what’s so interesting. For all of the specialness of these places, in all three cases there is a sense of normalcy there in probably the best possible use of the term. These feel like comfortable, typical, American towns even though they emerged out of extraordinary circumstances.

Kelly:  When you visited these communities today, what were you struck by?

Moeller: Having been very familiar with Oak Ridge for so long, I was really looking forward to visiting Los Alamos and Hanford/Richland. It is funny how even though the landscapes could hardly be more different – Oak Ridge is eastern green forest, hilly, very much part of the Appalachian area; Los Alamos, perched up on top of a beautiful mesa in the Southwest; and then Hanford and Richland, in this very barren but hauntingly beautiful landscape right along the Columbia River in Washington. They could hardly be more different. Yet when you go to these places you sense a certain similarity, certain similarities of spirit.

There’s a certain kind of graveyard humor often that you find about what goes on there. You’ll find lots of places called “atomic” this or other names that pick up on that culture. Sometimes in ways that can be a little shocking to others. The fact that the Richland High School mascot is the Bombers. So a lot of people from outside the area go, “How could they do that?”

In my encounters with people from these places I certainly never encountered anyone who seemed to me to be a warmonger, or anyone who seemed to be interested in seeing these weapons used again. In fact, quite the contrary. But I think—much like an emergency room doctor who has kind of a dark sense of humor about what he or she does—there’s a certain joking and lighthearted approach to the very serious stuff that goes on to this day in these communities.

At the same time, all of these communities have diversified. They are now centers. They’re all sites of national laboratories. They’re doing a lot of research that doesn’t relate to nuclear weapons. In fact, much of it doesn’t even relate to nuclear energy at all. They’re doing things related to energy conservation, solar power, innovative technologies, new materials. It’s a very broad array of research and development that’s going on in these communities. Not surprisingly, they’ve attracted an incredible group of people to work in those facilities. Although they all come off as being small towns, all still feel isolated to one degree or another, you really do sense that these are special places.

These are centers of intellect. These are centers of knowledge and inquiry, and that is evident when you’re there. When you hear conversations in a café or you see what people are carrying around with them – giant stacks of paper and so on – you know that important scientific activity is going on here.

Kelly: That’s interesting. Continuing the tradition 75 years later. I think your exhibit addresses this, but maybe you could help explain what were some of the seeds planted by these experiments in the secret cities, developments that continued on and are reflected in the modernist movement. 

Moeller: I think in many ways these cities were very forward-looking. The designers and planners often were conscious of the fact that they weren’t just doing something for the war effort, but they really wanted to create models or explore ideas for design and planning approaches that might be useful after the war.

Interestingly, and I think this is an important point, despite that forward-looking attitude, in all three cases racial segregation was accepted as a given. That’s one of the shocking things when you do come to understand that the history of these communities—for all of those aspirations—there was just no doubt that African-Americans, and in some cases, particularly out west, Latino workers, would live in separate facilities, separate neighborhoods, in substandard housing. They wouldn’t have the same opportunities professionally in terms of their careers, in terms of their work. It’s a stark reminder of the reality of racial segregation during that time in our history.

That said, as we come forward, that there were certainly ideas that emerged from these cities that struck a chord with a lot of other architects, planners, and developers. Both the developers of Reston, Virginia and Columbia, Maryland – both considered to be model planned communities from the postwar period – they both mentioned Oak Ridge at least as a partial model for their development. You can see some of those same ideas in green spaces that separate [00:24:00] neighborhoods. Again very much a car-oriented culture in both cases, but with nodes that have a certain identity. You get a sense of neighborhood there, so that wasn’t lost in the shuffle of suburbanization as was the case in the other areas in the country.

Also, [William] Levitt, the famous developer of the Levittowns of the same name, multiple ones  construction system that SOM developed for building those cemestos, those alphabet houses so quickly, inspired his construction system for building Levittowns. The little cookie-cutter houses for which he became famous. 

SOM had developed a system of speeding up the process by bringing in trades—individual building trades—and having them go to work quickly and then move on. It’s kind of like a reverse assembly line. The people were moving, but the houses were of course staying stationary. They were working in an assembly line-like fashion that inspired Levitt as he was thinking about how to build his houses so quickly.

At one point during the war, the cemestos were being completed at a rate of one every half-hour, and they were still not able to keep up with the burgeoning numbers of people coming in. Again, particularly in Richland, you find a lot of the same attitudes there about planning which I think inspired much of the postwar development of the rest of the city.

You see some differences—things became a little more homogenized perhaps after the war—but I at least had a sense that the approach to design and planning that was used by Pehrson’s firm during the war did influence this broader approach. It seems like a better-planned community, frankly, than most contemporary American communities of that type and size.

Even at Los Alamos—Los Alamos is so extraordinary because it sits atop a series of finger mesas, and so it’s a bunch of peninsulas of development. That creates its own unique pattern. But again when you go there now to the center of town—there, I think the Los Alamos story that’s the most interesting is the fact that the Los Alamos Ranch School was effectively preserved. You had these kind of log-and-stone buildings that created a core of the wartime community. They were adapted by the Army for their own uses and they remained after the war. I think for a lot of people they feel like really a touchstone, a cornerstone, for the community today.

Kelly:  You’re obviously right about that. Yes. They give a lot of character and a lot of sense of a depth to the history—that it wasn’t just started in 1943 or 1942. It had many layers of history. 

Moeller: There’s a great quote about Oak Ridge—that it “was a city without a past, and it was designed not to have much of a future.” That’s one of the things that distinguishes Los Alamos—is that it does have a sense of past. Even though it’s a small core of buildings from the Los Alamos Ranch School, you get a sense of the texture of history in those log-and-stone buildings. Then you get the wartime stuff and then the things that have been developed since then. In all three cases, some more typical contemporary development has worked its way in with fast food joints and so on and so forth, but a lot of American communities are wrestling with that.

I think we’re seeing some backlash to that now. Not only the surge in larger cities, returning to the center cities, that we’ve seen across the country in the last couple of decades, but a lot of smaller cities now are looking back and saying, “Maybe we should rethink that, too. Maybe we don’t need a parking lot every block. Maybe we don’t need for people to have to drive from one store to another in order to get their daily shopping done.” So there is a growing movement to recreate some sense of core in many of these places where that had been somewhat lost over the last few decades.

In Oak Ridge, interestingly, Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill now has been doing a little bit of scheming about how to rethink the commercial core of Oak Ridge—which very much was typical of the mid to late-twentieth century. It was very car-oriented. A strip shopping mall used to be called the Downtown Shopping Center. For people from cities it didn’t feel like much of a downtown.

They’re looking again now at how they might turn that into more of a downtown in keeping with the original principles of the city, but learning what we’ve learned and taking that to create a place now that does have a bit more density. Where people can go and leave their cars behind and maybe spend a day there and not have to worry about having to get in the car every fifteen minutes and go run someplace else.

Kelly:  How are people enjoying the exhibit? What kind of feedback do you get from visitors to “The Secret City” [misspoke: “Secret Cities”]?

Moeller: As I was developing the exhibition, a number of people asked me if I was nervous about the content because it’s such a sensitive matter. Even though this is not an exhibition about nuclear weapons per se, it is an exhibition about the communities that were built in order to enable people to develop the first nuclear weapons.

When I got to points where there was perhaps some unusual sensitivity or a decision point about how to present some particular aspect of the content, I found myself asking myself a couple of questions. If a Manhattan Project veteran came through and wanted a tour of the exhibition, would I be comfortable giving that tour to him or her? Similarly, if a Hiroshima or Nagasaki survivor were to come through seeking a similar tour, would I be equally comfortable giving that tour.

I have had Manhattan Project veterans, a couple. I’ve certainly had a great many people who had parents or relatives who were part of the Manhattan Project or who grew up in one of the three secret cities, who had a very strong sense of connection. I’ve had lots of those.

I’ve had a Japanese artist who has devoted her career to commemorating the victims—not only of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—but of other nuclear disasters throughout history. I’ve had The [Nishi] Hiroshima Times, a reporter from that newspaper. I’ve had other Japanese descendants of people who were survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In effect, I’ve had a lot of people who have met the bill in terms of those prospective tourgoers that I thought about. I’m pleased to say that they’ve generally all been very complimentary of the exhibition content.

That tells me that we did it right in terms of getting that balance and being objective—dealing with some very difficult material, but helping to explain a couple of things. First of all, regardless of the ethical questions and even the strategic value of this – which many people continue to debate – this was a tremendous scientific achievement. 

The people who were involved with it were incredible. They were working against all odds to do things that many people never imagined would be possible. In order for that to happen, architects and engineers and planners worked under great stress in order to produce communities that made them feel comfortable for them to do that. That is a story worth telling in and of itself.

As of this date, I believe we’ve had over 60,000 visitors to the exhibition. We’ve had just tremendous excitement, a lot of press coverage. I’ve been on Chinese television. I’ve been on a variety of interviews locally and nationally, and the exhibition has been nominated for a Global Fine Art Award for Best Designed Exhibition—up against the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo—some very prestigious institutions. We take that as a really good sign that we have really picked up on a story that people find very compelling and that many of them really didn’t know about.

Kelly:  I know now that the exhibit has been extended because it’s been so popular, so tell us—for those who are watching this—when can they come and see it?

Moeller: The exhibition is up until the summer of 2019. It has been extended by popular demand, I guess you might say. It has been very well-received. We had an opportunity to extend it, and so we took that. It will have been up for a total of more than a year, which is a very long time for a museum exhibition. We’re very happy about that.

It’s still attracting group tours, individuals—people are coming at it from a variety of ways. I’ve had a lot of interesting requests from book clubs. Not just the groups you might think. Senior centers, youth groups, student groups, a wide variety of people across all ages, who have expressed an interest in coming for a custom tour, as well as people just coming in on their own. That, to me, is always a good sign. We’re getting that wide array of requests.

Kelly:  How many are from foreign countries?

Moeller: We haven’t been tracing the visitorship to the exhibition exactly. I can tell you that overall, based on past surveys, the National Building Museum tends to attract about 60 to 70 percent of its visitors from outside the Washington metropolitan area, and about 10 percent to 11 percent are from overseas. We definitely get a good chunk of people from outside the United States, and most people who visit the museum are from outside the Washington area.

Kelly:  What was the most surprising thing that you learned as you delved into this subject?

Moeller: You would think I would have an immediate answer to that. There are so many things. Let me think a moment on that one. I will say this. I think the most surprising thing to me, or at least one of the most surprising things to me about this, was really being able to delve into the stories. Thanks in large part to the Atomic Heritage Foundation’s incredible oral history collection. To hear firsthand the experience of people who were in these communities. It’s amazing to me how often they came back to talking about what pleasant places these were in which to live.

Not everybody felt that way. Admittedly, there were some people who felt like they lived in a prison. They complained about the weather. Certainly, for African-American workers who lived in substandard housing things were by no means pleasant, but for a great many people these were places that helped define them as people. 

Having known a great many people—particularly from Oak Ridge because of my in-laws—they’re an extraordinary group of people. They have a certain attitude I think towards the world, a certain approach to the world, which I would argue is probably true for everywhere. It’s defined very much by where they grew up in that environment. In this case, the close proximity to these very weighty things that were going on, the research and military applications there, they tended to take that in stride.

I found them, in general, to be particularly aware of what was going on in the world politically, scientifically. That proximity tended to perhaps spur some interest on their part in these things that many other people might overlook on a daily basis. I’ve also been surprised just by how much this touches people’s lives. I can’t tell you how often I’ve been talking to someone and they say, “Where do you work? What are you working on? What have you done lately?”

This project, I describe it, I had a fill in the blank – “My father, my mother, my uncle, my aunt, somebody worked on the Manhattan Project,” which is not so surprising because it’s estimated that a total of perhaps over 600,000 people worked in some way, shape, or form on the Manhattan Project or in a way that contributed to it over the course of the war.

Given that the population of the country was much smaller at that point, I mean that’s not one percent, but it’s getting there. That’s a lot of people. Their children and grandchildren and nieces and nephews—that’s a big catchment. It is just funny to me to this day how often I’m talking about this and you see the eyes light up. Someone will say, “I’ve got a connection to Oak Ridge or Los Alamos or Hanford or Richland.” It happens all the time. 

Kelly:  You mentioned the substandard housing. Can you describe some of the housing that was predominantly where the African-Americans or the minorities who by and large were the least well-paid part of the workforce?

Moeller: In Oak Ridge, in SOM’s original plan for the community, there was to be at the eastern end of the town, a so-called “Negro Village,” which was obviously to be segregated. It was fully separate, but interestingly, initially at least, it was to have similar housing to what was being provided to white families elsewhere in the community. 

As the projected population numbers continued to grow rapidly, they abandoned that idea. That part of the community just became another white neighborhood. At that point, most of the African-Americans were relegated to a whole separate area, which was much closer to some of the industrial, scientific-military facilities. Those areas consisted almost exclusively of what were called hutments. Which as the name suggests were really little more than huts.

They were plywood. They had no indoor plumbing. They were rudimentarily heated. No air conditioning certainly. There was really just a little width of plywood between you and the outside elements. Even though the climate in east Tennessee is not particularly harsh—believe me, it can get cold and it can get hot depending upon the season—very unpleasant places to live.

Also, in the hutment areas—where virtually all of the African-Americans lived—some white people lived there, too. I’ll get back to that in a moment. The people in the hutment areas were subjected to much greater surveillance than residents of other neighborhoods in Oak Ridge, and I’m sure that was purely out of racial stereotyping at the time. There was somehow this fear that trouble might emerge from these neighborhoods full of hutments. That was another distinction.

Married couples were often prohibited from living together. Even though families were being accommodated in the white neighborhoods with the cemestos, African-American husbands and wives were separated and put into sex-segregated accommodations as well. The accommodations could be quite harsh, and the experience of life there would have been very different from what it was for the white families.

After the end of the war, as the population of the city declined rapidly, the white families were immediately moved out of the hutments, but many of the African-Americans continued to live there until 1950 or 1951. It was a long time before they were moved out of these substandard facilities.

For all of that background, in the postwar period you have a community full of typically very well-educated people coming often from the coasts—often from college towns—and so they had a very different attitude than the wartime military did about racial relations. Perhaps not surprisingly, in the early 1950s Oak Ridge actually was at the forefront of integration efforts—school integration in particular. Two of the first public schools in the south to be integrated were in Oak Ridge, and that came later. There was a bit of a turnaround, at least in that regard.

In Los Alamos, there was probably less direct evidence of any kind of segregation other than the fact that again, the minority workers probably would have been assigned to the least-popular housing, the Quonset huts, et cetera. Which again often had centralized washing facilities, et cetera, rather than having all of those included in one facility. 

In the Hanford area—which actually had a great many Latino workers—they determined that the African-American workers didn’t want to live with the Latinos any more than the whites wanted to live with the African-Americans. There was again a deliberate segregation of a neighborhood with Latinos often moving to the Pasco area—one of the Tri-Cities of the area that includes Richland—so there was a good deal of separation there as well.

Another story that’s often overlooked is the role of Native Americans. In all three cases, these communities were sited in places where there weren’t lots of people. For obvious reasons, because they all had to be moved out. But there were some people there. Upwards of 1,000 people were displaced in the Oak Ridge area, many of them people who had lived in family farmsteads for generations. In the case of Hanford and Richland, a lot of the people who were displaced were Native Americans. Particularly the Wanapum people, who had considered parts of the Columbia River along the Hanford Reserve to be sacred territory—fishing territories that were vital to them.

That was a significant upheaval for them, and it was also problematic often for the Latinos and others who were coming from far away and trying to settle in a new place, and finding that they weren’t welcomed and weren’t accepted. 

Interestingly, in the case of Los Alamos, the people on “The Hill”—as Los Alamos was called—actually cultivated some very interesting and strong friendships and relationships with local Native Americans and Mexican-American families there. There’s a good deal of evidence of recreational activities where they could mingle at dances and so on and so forth. They managed to establish some connections despite the difficulties of a very segregated time.

One of the things that interests me is—I was very much of a nerd growing up. I was a math and science nerd, so a lot of this resonates with me. I’m fascinated by nuclear physics. My father-in-law was a nuclear physicist, and so all of those stories interest me. But of course, I come from an architecture background and I’m also interested in that aspect of this and the social and cultural aspects of the story. 

One thing that struck me along those regards that I really enjoyed seeing—was a photograph of Enrico Fermi, the famous physicist, standing with María Martínez, who was a very prominent potter, a craftsperson in the area around Los Alamos. There’s a picture of the two of them, and their meeting was considered by locals to be a meeting of two equally esteemed and important and influential figures.

Now, many people don’t know the name Enrico Fermi, but of course he’s in the history books. María Martínez is as well, but not quite to the same extent. For their local culture that was a meeting of the minds. That was a meeting of the greats. It was the sort of connection between the two which seemed to be—the picture conveys a warm friendship. It suggests that at least. I don’t know if that’s when they were first meeting, but it suggests a certain warmth there. So these people from very different backgrounds were often thrown together. That’s even true for the people who were in the communities themselves, the scientific and engineering communities.

My father was a soldier during World War II, and he was from a very modest working-class background in Louisville, Kentucky. He may never have had much of an opportunity to leave the city or the state, even, had it not been for the war—certainly at that point in his life. He was not much of a talker, but he did talk about what it was like being exposed to people from different parts of the country and learning about them. New Yorkers were perhaps not what you thought they were, and people from California weren’t what you thought they were.

That was happening in each of these communities. There were people coming from all over the country and establishing a whole new town and creating a culture from scratch. That led to a variety of interactions and human relationships that are really rich. I think that’s part of the story. That’s what comes out in so many of the oral histories, but also in some of these documents, and that’s part of the story that we want to tell.

Kelly:  Yes. It was an experiment. 

Moeller: Right. 

Kelly: Can you talk about the flattops? Because there is one remaining that is very interesting at Oak Ridge.

Moeller: The flattops? It’s so funny. When I first went to Oak Ridge and was driving around and getting my first tour, people kept on pointing out, “Oh, there’s one of the flattops.” I would look at this building that very clearly had a sloped roof. At the time I didn’t realize that this was a renovated version of a very common structure in Oak Ridge.

There were similar ones actually in Richland and in Los Alamos, and it was called a flattop for the obvious reason that it had a flat roof. It was a truly prefabricated house, generally made in the factory in two or three chunks, brought to the site on the back of a train or on the back of a truck, put on the foundations and stuck together—and there you had a house.

Interestingly, they came not only with appliances and often with furniture, but even with draperies pre-installed. You can see images of these going down the street on the back of a truck with the drapery already installed. There were about 3,000 of them that were delivered to Oak Ridge. Very much inspired by some similar structures that had been designed and built for the workers on the Tennessee Valley Authority project, so the TVA dams of the Great Depression, the New Deal era. They needed temporary housing for them, and so they made these prefabricated structures.

These were modest, certainly – not luxurious in any way, shape, or form – but fundamentally comfortable. You can see this because there’s actually one now that has just been transferred to the Oak Ridge Children’s Museum. I don’t know if it’s on display yet, but it was at the American Museum of Science and Energy, and you can walk in and you can get a real feel for what it was like. It was basically 24 or 25 feet square. I can’t remember which. A two-bedroom house, but with really well-thought-through details.

For example, one of the pieces of furniture that came with it was a convertible dining table, something we really wouldn’t think of as being all that unusual now, but at the time it was really clever. It could be folded down to turn into a desk or folded up to turn into a dining room table in a small space. It was using one piece of furniture to fulfill multiple purposes, but also even down to the design of the furniture itself, with little finger holes that made it easier to pull it out and push it back in.

A lot of that thoughtfulness that went through even at this very modest scale. The surprising thing is, again, this was something that was clearly meant to be temporary and yet a huge percentage of those still survive. Like I said, most of them have been renovated, but to the true Oak Ridgers you can still go through and they’ll say, “Oh, that’s a flattop.” They know it just as they know an A house from a B house from a D house.

Kelly:  That’s great. It’s interesting because the National Building Museum recently had an exhibit on the new architecture for the changing demographics of this country. We’re no longer the family with two adults and two children, but often single people are group living and having to reimagine spaces that can be convertible. Have you thought about this and how they may be some precedence in the way they put together this original housing during World War II, and may be showing up now?

Moeller: Also currently on view at the National Building Museum is an exhibition called “Making Room,” the premise of which is that the demographics of the American household have been changing dramatically over the last half-century and the housing stock hasn’t really kept up.

We all know this, especially in big, expensive cities like D.C. We probably all know people who are living five or six people to a house or an apartment. They’re co-housing. There are people who have in-laws moving back in. Sometimes kids are hanging around a lot longer than they used to. All of those things are shifting a lot.

A much larger percentage of people now live as single-person households than was true 50 years ago, and so this exhibition, “Making Room,” curated by one of my colleagues, Chrysanthe Broikos, really explores how a given space can be designed thoughtfully to allow for a great deal of flexibility.

Flexible furniture, walls that can be closed or opened up, storage units that can convert into something else, not only on a day-to-day basis but also over the course of years or decades. For example, we’ve shown how this one space could accommodate a couple of unrelated people living together but not as a family unit—just as roommates—now up to a retired couple, for example, that might be renting out a space to make some additional income.

All these different variations that can happen over the years with relatively modest renovations to an existing space, and showing some really beautiful furniture and solutions that do all of that. I really do wonder if there is a thread that connects that to the “Secret Cities” exhibition. I don’t know of any direct evidence, but I think certainly a lot of the experimentation that went on during the Great Depression and during World War II inspired a lot of people after the war to rethink housing.

Certainly, many of the neighborhoods that grew up in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s represented a radically new idea about how people live. Open plans, indoor/outdoor connections, all of these kinds of things that if you think about the typical Victorian house—of not that long before—fundamentally different in every respect.

Again, I think those experimentations that were going on during the war and slightly after—there was a famous program called the “Case Study House Program.” Sponsored by a magazine in which many talented architects were asked to design experimental, cutting-edge houses to show how we could be rethinking housing.

It’s not like this has never happened before, but certainly the work that was being done during the war–and again, even before. As I said, Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill, they had been doing experimental house designs during the late 1930s before they were involved in this project. In fact, they were called on by one of the architecture magazines at one point to compile or review a bunch of experimental house designs or ideal house designs that had been done by different firms, and to come up with the “ideal” ideal house. In other words, it was to pick what was best from all of these.

In many ways, it prefigures a lot of what we saw in Oak Ridge and the other communities during the war. They tended to be very simple, comfortable though. Well-proportioned, and very modest but well-thought-out. It was the idea that every inch counts and that making housing even during an emergency situation doesn’t mean that everything has to be stripped down. It doesn’t have to be a cell. It can actually be pleasant. You can have a fireplace. You can have some of these amenities without breaking the budget. Prefabrication was considered to be one of the keys to that.

That’s an interesting story in terms of the legacies of this. What didn’t really happen after the war was that the idea of prefabrication for housing never really took off. I think it was maybe because Americans kind of associate it with mobile homes and things along those lines, but in fact it’s still something that the architecture profession is talking about today. There are a lot of people saying we can really be doing beautiful homes while still using prefabrication or semi-prefabrication. There’s a spectacular house in northern Virginia that won a local design award last year or the year before that is prefabricated and you’d never know it. You would never know it.

So are we going to continue to build these little stick-built houses or are we going to move toward something that’s more of a prefabricated technology? Time will tell. There’s still a great deal to be learned from a lot of the efforts that went on during the war.

Kelly:  That’s fascinating. One other personal memory is when the Smithsonian had Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian House parked out in front of it for a number of months. Can you talk about that—the Usonian House and how that maybe prefigured or inspired SOM?

Moeller: The Usonian House was a design by Frank Lloyd Wright. The term “Usonian” was sort of a play on American. Just as American comes from America, “Usonian” came from U.S.A. That was the origin of that term. His goal was to create a family of houses that were affordable, but that were absolutely representative of the best of design, where everything worked together. They were conceived as total works of art. The German word was the Gesamtkunstwerk. That was a real seminal moment in the early 20th century in the history of American architecture—of coming up with something that felt uniquely American.

Much of what had been done particularly in the public realm or commercial architecture up until that point in the United States owed a great debt to European precedents. Ancient Greek architecture, Roman architecture, Renaissance, Gothic—those were the things from which we drew. Wright was very interested in creating a truly American, a Usonian, architecture.  

A lot of these houses were very modest, but they’d have a way of not feeling that way because they have these details – the character of materials and so on – that really made them feel very rich and often very site-specific. This wasn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, and it wasn’t even about prefabrication per se. What it was about was an attitude of creating a family of houses that reflected different needs, could fit to different sites, but were all based on similar ideas.

It’s interesting that the architects from SOM described the early stages of their design process at Oak Ridge as involving looking at a lot of other examples—not only Wright, but Le Corbusier, the Swiss/French architect who was so influential. The Bauhaus, the famous German school that was very much associated not only with creating pure, rational forms but also very much with a social housing component. There was a strong social component to the Bauhaus’ curriculum.

They looked at all of those and what they ended up concluding was that, “Yeah, all that is interesting—but for us, we really need to get down there and solve some specific problems. We have enough criteria, enough information, to go on based on what the Army Corps of Engineers needs, what the site requires, what we can get to the site, how fast we can get it to the site.” 

It was a very rational problem solving process in many ways, and so ultimately they looked less for some of these more theoretical and academic models and much more at the specifics of what they were asked to do. As they went through time that’s when they really began to develop more and more of their own voice and a much more practical approach to this.

One of the things I argue in terms of the legacy of the Manhattan Project is that largely because of Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill – and you’ll find that I do often talk a good deal more about Oak Ridge than I do the other two. That is because for our purposes SOM – their role really was the most significant story to come out of this in terms of architecture, engineering, and construction.

I argue that this was basically the foundation of the modern, multidisciplinary design firm. They went into it being hired because they had designed a little experimental house, and by the end they had done a whole town plan. They had done civil engineering. They had staked out where all the roads would go. They had done the drawings for where all of the sewers and water would go, where all of the electrical power would go.

They had done civil engineering, structural engineering, urban planning, some aspects of landscape architecture as well as architecture. That laid the groundwork for much of what we now take for granted—these multidisciplinary, corporate architecture and design firms that now are the main approach to practice for commercial projects, civic projects, and even a great many residential projects. That seems to be one of the key legacies of the Manhattan Project in terms of the mission of the National Building Museum.

Kelly:  That’s interesting. Can you describe—how many people did they have? What were they told about the site in which they were to construct, and how much time did they have to do all of this? 

Moeller: There’s a great story that supposedly one day in 1942 two men in plainclothes came into the SOM office in New York. At that time, they already had offices in Chicago and New York. They said they wanted to speak with Skidmore, the “S” of SOM. Once they got in, they said, “We would like you to design an entire town for us,” with no explanation. Of course, this is coming at the end of the Great Depression, where many architects were happy to design a doghouse. All of a sudden, “We want you to design a whole town.”

“Yeah, sure you do.” There was great skepticism at first before it became apparent that this was real.

Once it was evident that this was a real project and they began to figure out how to do it and go about it—as you might expect, they asked for topographical drawings and other information. They said, “We can’t give you that.”

They said, “All right. You want us to design a community. You want us to design housing and then a plan, and we can’t know what we’re working on?” Obviously, that’s not going to work.

Eventually they got some unlabeled drawings that at least gave them some information about the topography. Supposedly it was only when John Merrill—the “M” of SOM—showed up with a few colleagues one day at Penn Station in New York, prepared to get on a train, he didn’t know where he was going until someone handed him a ticket – when he found out he was going to Knoxville, Tennessee. Which is near the site of Oak Ridge.

It was a constant struggle of them trying to get adequate information to do the project that they needed to do. Going into the war, SOM had—depending upon to whom you talk—had something on the order of maybe 60 to 90 employees between the two offices. Again, depending upon the figures you believe – there are different variations on this – it seems that by the end of the war they had something like 650 people. The firm had grown to a previously unimaginable size very quickly as they brought in people to do all of this work in very short order.

The other interesting thing—and this fits into my comment about setting precedence for the modern, multidisciplinary architecture and design firm—the Army Corps of Engineers kept on asking SOM to do things that SOM didn’t really have any experience doing. As Nat Owings, the “O” of SOM, said, “We just kept on saying yes, we can do that.” After that, they’d figure out how to do it.

In a way that’s not quite as ludicrous as it may seem because in a sense architects do this all the time. Every single day in an architecture practice you’re doing things you don’t know how to do because that’s the nature of architectural practice. And so, in this case, “Well, we need you to figure out how many shops there are going to be. How many beauty parlors, how many barber shops, how many pharmacies.”

How do you do that? No one had done that kind of work before. They said, “Yeah, we can do that.” They went back and they realized that one of their hometowns in Indiana actually had about the same population as the target size of Oak Ridge. So they said, “All right, let’s go there and we’ll count. We’ll divide it up by population and say, ‘All right, we need .006 barber chairs per resident.’”

They turned it into a science. That’s part of what design is. It’s not just making the pretty sketch on the napkin—which is a very small part of it, and probably not on a napkin—but it’s also figuring out the program. It’s also figuring out how to accommodate the program within the bounds of zoning codes and accessibility codes and energy consumption criteria. All of these sorts of things that architects are routinely considering.

In a way, this was perfectly natural. There was a good deal of chutzpah on the part of SOM to come in and say, “All right, we may not know. We going to tell them we can do it, and then we’ll figure it out.” And they did. When they needed help with retail operations, they hired a former head of a department store chain to come and advise them. 

They bought an entire construction company and brought them down to help them do the work that they needed to do. Whenever they didn’t have the resource, they identified what the need was, found it, and brought it to bear. It was at a scale that was probably shocking for many of the people involved, but that sort of work is, again, something that to me in my mind happens a lot on an ongoing basis in modern architectural practice.

They worked very quickly, and certainly within a matter of months had developed initial designs for houses, and were well under way at a speed of construction that would now be hard to imagine. Again, similar things going on, particularly with Richland. Albin Pehrson was a similarly resourceful person in figuring out what he needed to bring it to bear. Also insisting on quality. It’s very clear from the documents that Pearson was very active in resisting any efforts on the part of the Army to say, “Well, can we make this cheaper? Can we simplify this?”

He said, “To a certain point,” but then, “No, we want these to stand up. These people have important jobs. We want them to be well-housed. We want them to be comfortable. We want them to be safe. This is what we need.” He insisted on that throughout.

It’s part of the story that this was architects fulfilling their role of defenders of quality in saying this is what it takes in order to achieve your long goals. You can always cut down. You can always make it cheaper, but eventually it’s a diminishing return.

Kelly:  So they were building for the duration, not just for the war effort?

Moeller: There’s a good deal of information that indicates that people were thinking of these towns as being temporary. And yet, when you look at the quality of material that was going into some of these—particularly in Richland, with the Douglas fir wood being used in the houses—these were not things that people thought were going to be torn down in a year or two.

Some of them were more so. The flattops and some of the other manufactured housing; the hutments, clearly—those were all designed to be very temporary. I think anyone who really thought it through realized that even if the Manhattan Project achieved its goal—whatever it was, since of course the architects and engineers didn’t know what it was, many of the people working on the project didn’t know it was—but everybody hoped and assumed that the war would be over in a year or two.

That’s what wars were like in those days. They tended to be very definitive. You had a start. There was a declaration of war. You had a treaty. That was the end of the war. There was the assumption that that would come in a year or two or three or whatever it might be. But they knew that the operation, something of that scale, wouldn’t be able to be shut down right away. I don’t think anyone could have looked ahead to the Cold War and realized that these cities would actually then find renewed purpose just a few years after the end of World War II.

Still, they had to know that there was going to be some demand. You can’t just build a town and have 75,000 people occupy it—in the case of Oak Ridge—and expect them all to leave the next day after the treaty is signed, the armistice. Part of it is just a sign of the fact that even for relatively disposable things in those days, the quality of material was pretty good. You were working with good quality wood, and good quality materials besides that, that often really managed to yield buildings of great quality.

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