Cultural Elements in Our Historic District

Los Alamos

As part of my thesis work for a Masters Degree in Community and Regional Planning in 2001, I created a conceptual plan for the Los Alamos Historic District entitled Historic Pathways: Connecting People to Places Past and Present. 

The goal of the plan was to develop a set of ideas and design concepts that could improve the experience of visitors to the historic district. The three main objectives were to: 1. identify the period of origin of existing historic elements; 2. visually define the boundaries of the district; and 3. design a safe and continuous pathway through the district that exposed pedestrians to visual impressions of the layers of Los Alamos history. 

The core area of my planning site encompassed the historic district, including Bathtub Row, Fuller Lodge and Ashley Pond. And because Los Alamos Canyon (after which the town was named) is such an important landscape element, I also included as part of my planning area an additional narrow parcel of county-owned land that ran from the south corner of Ashley Pond to the edge of Los Alamos Canyon. Outlined in red on the aerial map below, we see that the two areas combined resemble a whimsical fellow gazing resolutely to the east with feet planted steadfastly on the edge of Los Alamos Canyon. 

Project Boundary Outline in Red. Courtesy Image

Based on my research of the succession of settlement, land use and ownership on the Pajarito Plateau in general and Los Alamos Mesa specifically, I delineated the historic district’s past into four historic periods. The earliest period (1150-1550) was the settlement of the Pajarito Plateau by the Tewa and Keres people. The second historic period (1898-1917) included the years of homesteading on the Pajarito Plateau, specifically in the area of the historic district. The third period (1917-1942) encompassed the establishment and development of Los Alamos Ranch School. The fourth historic period (1943-1945) covered the secret Manhattan Project in Los Alamos during World War II. (I describe each of these four periods in more detail in the earlier (10/31/12) Los Alamos Daily Post piece, “What Makes Our Historic District a Special Place?”).

To illustrate the evolution of the historical and cultural landscape, I created four maps of the project site. Based on archival sources, I depicted the historic and cultural elements existing during each period onto it’s specific historic period map. The historic and cultural elements that I recorded on each map included the natural landscape (topography and water features), built structures, spatial relationships (proximity and viewsheds), circulation (trails and roads), and vegetation. The purpose of the period maps was to help identify historic elements that exist today and, through comparison of these maps, to pinpoint an element’s historic period of origin as well as its disappearance, modification, or later adaptive use.

To help the reader with map orientation, I colored two well-known and easily recognized elements that existed during all four periods: the water catchment (a natural landscape element) and the small Tewan pueblo (a structural element). To differentiate between new structures and those pre-existing, I crosshatched the structures that originated during that particular historic period, while those still existing but originating from an earlier period were no longer crosshatched. Culturally significant viewsheds were indicated with angled arrows describing the outward view. The underlying topographical information I used for all four historic period plans was based on a survey of the area performed by the War Department in December 1942.

Ancestral Puebloan Period Map and Homestead Period Map. Courtesy Images

Ranch School Period Map and Manhattan Project Period Map. Courtesy Images

To track the evolutional changes to the historic and cultural elements within the project site we begin by looking at the maps successively starting with the earliest, the Ancestral Period map.  On this map, the most obvious element is the water catchment, a natural landscape element near the center of the map.  As a seasonal water source near the pueblo, it was an important landscape element in the Tewa and Keres peoples’ lives.  A second significant landscape feature and important permanent water source was the stream in Los Alamos Canyon.  The canyon’s edge is located along the south edge of the planning area and along the bottom of each period map.  Los Alamos Canyon was also an important circulation element.  As the Tewa and Keres people traveled from village to village they created a vast network of foot trails across the Pajarito Plateau.  While no visible evidence remains within this project site boundary, the steep hand-and-toe hold sections of these ancient trails can still be found nearby, some etched into the cliff walls of Los Alamos Canyon.

Ancestral Puebloan Map. Courtesy Image

The small brown-colored Tewan Pueblo located on the mesa ridge north of the water catchment, is the one man-made structural element shown on the Ancestral Period map.  We know it was just one of many such ancient villages that once existed on Los Alamos Mesa and all across the Pajarito Plateau. Looking more closely we see two pairs of arrows indicating viewsheds (a spatial relationship element) to the east and west from the pueblo. To the people who once lived in this Tewan village, the views to the edges of their world, as defined by the sacred Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east and Jemez Mountains to the west, would have been integral elements within their cultural landscape. 

Moving forward in time to the Homestead Period map, we see that two new structures have been added to the landscape between the natural water catchment and the pre-existing Indian ruins. The smaller cabin built closer to the ruins was the home of Mack Hopper. The cabin closer to the pond belonged to Harold Hemingway Brook. (Note: H. H. Brook was a pioneer in experimental farming and invested in the latest agricultural machinery. In a letter written in 1911 he rightfully boasts of having “the best equipped farm for modern machinery in this part of New Mexico.”  It’s therefore probable that several of the outbuildings and barns shown on the later Ranch School Period map would have originated with Brook during the earlier Homestead Period). 

Homestead Period Map. Courtesy Image

The views from the Brook home included the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east, but the Brook home is angled to also include a view of the water catchment, a natural element upon which numerous livestock depended and around which much of the farming activities were focused. Like other nearby homesteaders, during dry years Brook had to haul water to the mesa top from the permanent stream in Los Alamos Canyon. The “cistern finally played out and we’re once again hauling water from the canyon.” Brook writes in a letter to his fiancée Katherine Cross Brown. Katherine was the one who named Brook’s Los Alamos Ranch after the nearby canyon.

Los Alamos Canyon also continued to be a significant circulation element during this period, as it was one of the early homestead routes used to travel from the Rio Grande Valley to the mesa tops of the Pajarito Plateau. Writing once again to his fiancée in November 1911, Brook describes working on the road in Los Alamos Canyon. “The road has been coming along fine up until yesterday when it commenced snowing and today has turned very cold and may freeze the ground so much more that we can’t work.”

Brook’s road, once completed up to the mesa top, looped from the west around the water catchment to pass in front of his house. A more direct trail to Los Alamos Canyon, shown branching south from the wagon road, had been built several years before this by the original homesteader of Los Alamos Mesa, Antonio Sanchez.

On the next map, the Ranch School Period, many new elements have been added including structures, roads, and formal landscaping. The seasonal watering hole is still there but is now having water piped into it from the stream in Los Alamos Canyon. The iconic Fuller Lodge has been built north of the pond near the site where the Brook home once stood. The Hopper cabin remains, but is now being used to store pack trip equipment for the Ranch School boys’ outings. The Big House, with its 360-degree view has been built just east of the ruins, preserving the archaeological site.  And new structures extending in a straight line north from Fuller Lodge have been built for classrooms and teacher residences. Fuller Lodge is orientated so that there is a view to the east from the front portal that sweeps across the fields and down the mesa to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The architect of the lodge, John Gaw Meem, no doubt was also mindful of the view of the lodge, seen framed by the Jemez Mountains by visitors as they approached the Ranch School along a road built up the mesa’s east end in 1921. 

Ranch School Period Map. Courtesy Image

The earlier period wagon road up Los Alamos Canyon that once circled the pond from the west has been extended into a private double looping road around the school buildings north of the lodge. This road is edged with elms on both sides, a formal landscape design element called an allée. A processional path used during later Ranch School ceremonies curves in front of the lodge portal and is paralleled by a walking path on the other side of the green lawn. A footpath also leads down from the main road south of the lodge to a boat dock at the edge of Ashley Pond, which has become a year round recreational feature.

The last and most recent of the four layers of maps is of the Manhattan Project Period. We see that the earlier Ranch School buildings are still in place—with more structures added nearby—and being used by the army and as housing for the scientists. The view eastward to the Sangre de Cristos is still visible from the Big House and Fuller Lodge. The water in Ashley Pond has become important for fire safety, and the technical buildings have therefore been constructed right around its very edge. Large new temporary structures have also been built in the area south of the pond and along the edge of Los Alamos Canyon. Transportation corridors to Los Alamos, including the 1921 road and the later State Road 4 as well as the wagon road built through Los Alamos Canyon, were improved for truck traffic but were also gated to restrict access to the secret laboratory.

Manhattan Project Period Map. Courtesy Image

As time passes, landscapes continue to change. But a historic district is a special place that has been set aside to preserve those cultural and historic elements that can help tell a story about a specific time in a specific place. In Los Alamos, in our historic district, I have identified significant historical elements that are associated with not one but four layers of history. Using the same map format as the four period maps, I have highlighted in color all existing and significant elements still to be found within the historic district and larger project site. 









Existing Cultural Elements. Courtesy Image

Included within the natural landscape elements are Ashley Pond and the edge of Los Alamos Canyon. Remaining structural elements include the Indian ruin, the chimney of Mack Hopper’s homestead cabin, the center section of Fuller Lodge, and several original sections of buildings and houses along Bathtub Row.  Within the element of spatial relationships there is the visual connection and proximity between the ruins, lodge, and pond. The views of the Jemez Mountains are accessible from many key places within the project area. However, the view east to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains is accessible only from the project site’s southern most area along Los Alamos Canyon. Within the circulation element, there are links to remnants of early trails that drop down into Los Alamos Canyon. And there are sections of the old looping Ranch School road system.  Some sections have been converted into pathways and some are within lawns but recognizable by an occasional edge of old elms that once shaped the formal allée.

While significance of a historical element depends on its association with an important person or historical event, integrity depends on the survival of physical characteristics from a specific historic period. The qualities of integrity include location, setting, design, and feeling. In a subsequent article, I will assess the quality of the historic and cultural elements within the project site and suggest some ideas that might strengthen the historical sense of place.

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