On Thursday, Aug. 9, 1945—the day that the United States dropped the second atomic bomb on Japan—the top headline of the Oak Ridge Journal newspaper read: "Oak Ridge Attacks Japanese." Oak Ridge, Tenn., is one of several planned communities built by the United States government to house workers on the Manhattan Project, the government initiative launched in 1941 to create an atomic bomb that was secret even to the workers themselves. "Secret Cities," a new exhibition at the National Building Museum, examines the planning, housing, and lives of the residents of Oak Ridge and two other developments—Hanford/Richland, Wash.; and Los Alamos, N.M.—that the United States government built to support the Manhattan Project.
"The collective population of the three cities grew from almost zero at the beginning of 1943 to more than 125,000 by the end of the war," the exhibition text notes. "Yet these cities appeared on no maps, and their existence was a remarkably well-maintained secret until the bombing of Hiroshima."
The show breaks into two parts: before and after the atomic bomb. Built for the production of enriched uranium, Oak Ridge was the first of the planned communities, and was designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), which already had experience in factory housing. The second development, centered around a plutonium production facility, was comprised of two parts: the Hanford Engineer Works camp and the community of Richland, designed by G. Albin Pehrson. Los Alamos, the research arm of the project, included the existing Los Alamos Ranch School as well as purpose-built structures designed by W.C. Kruger & Associates.
Photographs, architectural drawings, and oral histories show examples of prefabricated housing and propaganda billboards with phrases such as "Loose Talk—a chain reaction for espionage" that encouraged residents to keep quiet about the work they were doing. Residents of Los Alamos all had the same mailing address, the exhibition text explains, so at one point Sears, Roebuck & Co. received 12 orders for bassinets to be mailed to the same address.
These quirky stories about daily lives comes to a hard stop at a black hallway marking the entrance to the exhibition's second half, where J. Robert Oppenheimer's famous quote, lifted from The Bhagavad Gita—"Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds"—frames a photograph of a mushroom cloud (the Trinity Test in 1945). A large photograph of a woman's back, burned from the radiation of the Hiroshima bomb, hangs next to it.
The exhibition concludes with the demilitarization and present-day life of the cities. The model of urban planning and prefabricated housing, especially SOM's work in Oak Ridge, was an inspiration for the postwar Levittowns. The exhibition also showcases some of SOM's portfolio after Oak Ridge, such as Lever House in New York and U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. "Perhaps the most significant building-related legacy of the Manhattan Project is the emergence of the multidisciplinary architecture and engineering firm, as exemplified by SOM, which went on to become arguably the most influential corporate design firm of the modern era," the exhibition text notes.
"Secret Cities" runs through March 3, 2019, at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.