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The Top Secret Town Built By Skidmore, Owings And Merrill

By Samantha Abernethy in Arts & Entertainment on Apr 23, 2012 7:00PM

In 1942, the Department of Energy commissioned the building of the top secret town of Oak Ridge in eastern Tennessee, developed to separate uranium for the Manhattan Project. The young Chicago architecture firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill was brought on to plan the community of 70,000 people. It was one of the firm's first big projects. Architect Walter G. Metschke, who worked on the project with Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, wrote in his memoir, "From a small firm with offices in New York and Chicago with a handful of employees in each, they grew to where they had over three hundred employees at Oak Ridge, cost-plus for years, making them one of the largest firms in the country."

The town was fenced in with armed guards, and it didn't appear on maps. It was one of three top secret locations — the other are in Hanford, Wash., and Los Alamos, NM. Now information about life in these secret cities has been declassified. The Department of Energy is digitizing its Oak Ridge collection on Flickr, and the American Museum of Science and Energy has "The Secret City" Flickr:

Here in this "Secret City," over 75,000 workers toiled night and day at tasks which even they did not understand. It was not until the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, that their work was revealed - Oak Ridge's task had been refining uranium ore into fissionable material. Today, Oak Ridge is the home to the Y-12 National Security Complex and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory - two of the top scientific establishments in the world.

Architect Walter G. Metschke worked on the Oak Ridge project with SOM, and he later worked on the O'Hare International Airport program from 1957 to 1962. The following excerpt is from Metschke's 1997 memoir, part of the Art Institute of Chicago's "Chicago Architects Oral History Project," available online.

When I arrived in New York the next day I was told that a housing project was to be built somewhere, we didn't know where, and that we were invited to submit a preliminary plan for three thousand single-family units. Stone and Webster, an engineering firm, had prepared a site plan, had roads and houses staked in the field and were ready to start construction immediately. Owings contended to General Groves that we could do housing better than Stone and Webster.

We were given four days and nights to prepare a site plan, including floor plans for the units, town center plans, neighborhood shopping center plans, and elementary and high school plans. Nat asked me what I needed to meet this schedule. I said, "I need ten of the best men you have." At that time, SOM had an office in Chicago and one in New York with about twelve people in each. Ten men were assigned to me. We worked for four days and nights. We left the office only to eat at a nearby restaurant. This was a twenty-four-hour-a-day operation. When we got so tired we couldn't navigate anymore, we slept on the drafting table for maybe an hour, then back to work. All I had with which to do the site plan was an aerial contour map with twenty-foot interval existing contour lines, trees and soil borings indicating heavy rock formation—not even a north point on the contour map.

Metschke then decided to travel to Nebraska to see his family, but when the train arrived in Chicago he was told he must return to New York immediately because their plans had been approved. Metschke says they worked on the project for another month in New York and only knew where they would be building when they were handed tickets to Knoxville, Tenn. As Metschke writes, "We had positively no notion as to why we were building a town with a population of seventy-five thousand."

James E. "Ed" Westcott was the official photographer of the Manhattan Project, meaning he was the only one taking photographs in Oak Ridge. Westcott just celebrated his 90th birthday in January, and the University of Tennessee has an online exhibit of his photographs from Oak Ridge.

Ed Westcott served a unique double role, officially documenting the historic construction and operation of the "atomic city" for the Army Corps of Engineers and unofficially documenting the daily life and social events of the enclosed community as a photojournalist for the first newspaper at Oak Ridge, the Oak Ridge Journal. His dual role as government documentarian and civilian photojournalist has preserved a rich cultural and historical record of that unique time and place.

Many thanks to Kevin Robinson, for the tip from A Continuous Lean