May 7, 2007
The million-dollar restoration of a dilapidated building deep in the woods of Los Alamos National Laboratory was recognized by the New Mexico Historic Preservation Division this week for having rescued an important piece of the state's architectural heritage.
V-Site, behind the lab's security perimeter known as "the fence" can't be seen by the typical tourist, but the lore surrounding the origins of the first nuclear bombs, is filled with deep significance.
And V-Site, like the names of the founding fathers on the Declaration of Independence, stands for one of the authentic signatures on the pages of American history.
Fat Man, the first plutonium weapon tested at Trinity Site in southern New Mexico, was not exactly born in a barn, but it was born in a hastily constructed shop that resembled a garage. A secret area within a top-secret project, V-Site was set apart from much of the other frantic work going on during the first two years of the Manhattan Project.
The High Bay building where that work took place was one of the only salvageable buildings after the Cerro Grande Fire ripped through the western end of the laboratory in 2000. The other was the Gun Site, where ballistic tests were performed to perfect the gun-method that was used in the uranium bomb at Hiroshima.
"V-Site was where the Trinity device was assembled before it got to Alamogordo," said John Isaacson, who was the cultural resource manager at LANL and one of the main champions of the preservation project.
"It was where the implosion device, the lenses, the detonators, the high explosives and tampers - all came together for the test," he said.
The plutonium core went in later on the eve of the big moment, July 16, 1945.
"The test was the beginning. That was the big watershed event, a high-yield explosion that changed the world," said Isaacson.
After the initial bombs were deployed to the Pacific and the war ended, V-Site puttered along for another decade or so, until it was abandoned in the 1950s and then slated for demolition in the late 80s.
Then in the 90s as the laboratory began inventorying cultural resources, "We recognized the significance of the V-Site and we saved it," said Ellen McGehee.
McGehee, a historical archaeologist in the lab's ecology group, was among the group along with Isaacson that was honored by the state.
Saving the site was one thing, getting it restored was another. That took a lengthy educational campaign.
"Ellen and I spent years talking to people with slide shows to raise awareness of how important these structures were," said Isaacson. Eventually, interest from the state and the federal agencies found the lab more receptive, as the advocates briefed planners, senior managers and former directors.
"We had to change the mindset, from who is going to pay for it - to, if we can get the money, will you support us," said Isaacson.
Another key player in the preservation saga was the Atomic Heritage Foundation, whose director Cynthia Kelly was recognized during the ceremonies especially for raising private funds. Kelly was able to match a grant from the Department of Energy under the National Park Service's Save America's Treasures Program that has financed a number of Manhattan Project heritage projects.
In a telephone conversation this week, Kelly said the "S" in S-Site stands for sawmill, which is the name for the larger area in which the V-Site is located.
"The retaining walls in the (V-Site) restoration were made of Douglas pine and white fir," she said. "The retaining boards were done by grandchildren of the original sawyer."
Recognized for their work on the reconstruction were Crocker Ltd. of Santa Fe principals Ed Crocker and Jonah Stanford; and J.B. Henderson Construction Inc. of Los Alamos principals Paul Inglat and Fred Schneider.
The Historic Preservation Division of the Department of Cultural Affairs held its awards ceremony on May 1. Other award winners included the Norman Petty Recording Studio in Clovis, where Buddy Holly's "That'll Be the Day" and "Peggy Sue" were recorded in 1957. The current owners, Kenneth and Shirley Broad, have preserved the recording studio and give tours to about 500 people a year.
A highlight of the award ceremony at the Scottish Rite Temple in Santa Fe was a live performance by the Fireballs, who recorded tracks for some of Holly's posthumously released songs at the Petty Studio. The Fireballs had their own big hit, "Sugar Shack,"in 1963.