History Nuts Column: What Makes Our Historic District a Special Place?

Column by Janie O’Rourke

History is an integral part of the landscape that surrounds us. The lives and actions of those who have come before us have created, layer upon layer, the places in which we live. 

Historic districts are special areas set aside to protect pieces of these layers: historic and archaeological sites, historic buildings, and even viewsheds or cultural landscapes without manmade structures.  

Here in Los Alamos we are fortunate to have a historic district located in our downtown.

If you have attended a lecture or concert at Fuller Lodge or strolled across the Fuller Lodge lawn during an arts and crafts fair, your experience has been made more memorable by one of the historic district’s most prominent buildings or the nearby archaeological site. 

If you have picnicked at Ashley Pond or listened to a rock concert at the water’s edge with the Jemez Mountains in the background, your experience has been enhanced by one of the district’s most important historic sites and cultural landscapes. 

Historic districts can provide scenic vistas, recreational opportunities, ecological diversity and economic vitality, but a cultural landscape’s most valuable asset may be that it offers an opportunity to experience a place that stimulates the historical imagination. 

A heightened awareness of our history with the land is a key element in conveying a sense of place

In the context of historic preservation, a cultural landscape has significance and value when it conveys a sense of time and place through an association with people, activities, or historic events. 

In 1965 the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory was designated a National Historic Landmark because of its association with the Manhattan Project, a World War II endeavor in which the United States developed the world’s first atomic bomb. 

The survey map that accompanied the nomination included three adjacent tracts of land. Together, they encompassed the core of the original site of Project Y, as Los Alamos was known at that time.  

Two tracts were located north of Central Avenue and included Fuller Lodge and the houses north from there along Bathtub Row. 

The third tract lay south of Central Avenue encompassing the area around Ashley Pond.

Subsequent to the 1965 National Park Service (NPS) designation, the County of Los Alamos made plans to amend its local zoning map to create its own Los Alamos Historic District. 

The district boundaries, which would essentially follow those of the NPS designation, have yet to be codified. 

Today, visitors who come to Los Alamos to learn about its history are often surprised to find that the story of this place begins hundreds of years before the Manhattan Project. 

It is in the Historic District where multiple layers of the past are preserved and where the long history of Los Alamos and the Pajarito Plateau can be visualized and imagined. 

The deepest layer of human history and the first permanent settlement of the plateau began in the 12th century as the ancestors of the modern Pueblo people migrated southeast from the Four Corners area. 

Throughout a settlement period of four hundred years, structures from single field houses to large multi-storied pueblos were constructed across the mesas of the Pajarito Plateau. 

The ruin of one small village is preserved in the Los Alamos Historic District.  Its low, broken-down walls of volcanic tuff peek out of the lush lawn north of Fuller Lodge. 

The 28-room pueblo and kiva were built circa 1350 at the edge of a slight ridge atop Los Alamos mesa and north of a natural depression where rain and snowmelt would collect. 

Because water was a vital and increasingly scarce resource, proximity to this water catchment would have been an important advantage to these families. 

Eventually, however, a combination of droughts and depleted resources forced the Ancestral Puebloans to seek the more moderate climate and stable water source of the Rio Grande Valley. 

By 1600 the villages that once were scattered across the Pajarito Plateau were abandoned.

The second layer of settlement on the Pajarito Plateau occurred following the passage of the 1862 Homestead Act and continued up until World War II. 

Antonio Sanchez and his family were one of the earliest to try homesteading on the plateau. In 1893 they began farming the mesa to the north of Los Alamos Canyon, in the area of today’s townsite. 

Like the majority of the early homesteaders, the Sanchez family lived in the Rio Grande Valley and stayed on the mesa only during planting and harvesting of their fields. 

Unfortunately, Sanchez was killed in an accident suffered while improving a trail between his mesa-top fields and Los Alamos Canyon. 

Sanchez’s untimely death eventually forced his family to give up claims to the homestead. 

Years later, the boys from the Los Alamos Ranch School used Sanchez’ trail to ride horseback from Ashley Pond into Los Alamos Canyon and referred to it as the dead man’s trail

Today, the Deadmans Trail is one of the many historic trails and roads upon which our Los Alamos Trail System is based.

In 1908 Harold Hemmingway Brook, with his partner William “Mack” Hopper, homesteaded the same area farmed earlier by the Sanchez family. 

Brook and Hopper, who lived on the mesa throughout the year, built their homes in a line between the natural depression, where their stock could find water, and the ridge-top Indian ruins.  

Brook later named his homestead the Los Alamos Ranch after the canyon adjacent to his farm. 

The location of the Hopper log cabin was between today’s Fuller Lodge and the Tewa ruin. All that remains of the Hopper cabin is its stone chimney, now a tumbled heap of volcanic blocks, most likely taken from the nearby ruin.

The third historic layer began in 1916 when Ashley Pond Jr. bought the Los Alamos Ranch from H. H. Brook to establish the Los Alamos Ranch School, a preparatory school for boys. 

Pond’s dream was to create a school whose rugged outdoor curriculum would transform sickly city boys (typically from wealthy families) into hardy young men. 

Several of the school buildings that served as classrooms and master’s cottages can be seen today north of Fuller Lodge along Bathtub Row. 

Fuller Lodge, built in 1928 to serve as the school’s dining hall, was the Los Alamos Ranch School’s most impressive structure and is today the community’s most beloved public space. 

Its rustic design, with the grand, two-story portico and massive vertical logs, was the creation of architect John Gaw Meem. 

Meem later became famous for the development and popularization of the Pueblo Revival or Santa Fe Style.

South of the lodge, the natural depression, often a mud hole during wet periods, was enlarged by the ranch school and filled with water from the creek in Los Alamos Canyon. 

Transport of the water was accomplished by damming the creek high up in the canyon so that water could be piped from the reservoir to the mesa top using gravity. 

This not only ensured a more reliable water supply, it created a pond that was used by the boys for swimming in the summer and skating in the winter. 

Not to miss a good pun, the pond became known as Ashley Pond in reference to the school founder.

The fourth, shortest, and probably best known layer of history began in 1942 when the Los Alamos Ranch School, as well as all the homesteaders of the plateau were forced to sell their properties to the U.S. Government during World War II to accommodate scientists brought to Los Alamos to collaborate in the military’s top-secret Manhattan Project.  

During the Manhattan Project, the school’s Fuller Lodge served as both dining hall and temporary housing for the scientists. 

The school’s masters’ cottages and classrooms along Bathtub Row became residences for the families of several well-known scientists, including Project Y Scientific Director J. Robert Oppenheimer. 

Even before the school had officially closed, the army moved bulldozers onto the mesa to clear the area around Fuller Lodge for the technical buildings and barracks that would be needed. 

An order to fill in Ashley Pond to create a construction site was rescinded at the last minute when it was realized that the pond could be useful in fire protection. 

So instead, the tech area was built around Ashley Pond, and it was in these buildings that scientific work was carried out at a feverish pitch to develop a secret and powerful weapon—the atomic bomb.  

In 1948, after the end of World War II, it was decided that a scientific laboratory would continue at Los Alamos. A new era on the mesa was beginning. 

Army barracks were razed, and a large community center was built east of the lodge. The newly elected town officials decided to fill in Ashley Pond to make room for the spread of a modern city. 

However, the threat to Ashley Pond precipitated an outcry among the citizens, and a petition drive was quickly organized to save the pond. 

And to prove that history does in fact repeat itself, the town council promptly rescinded the order. Ashley Pond was saved again! 

A heightened awareness of the history of a landscape is what helps create a sense of place that is unique. 

As we pause to contemplate the worn volcanic blocks from the walls of an ancient pueblo and lift our eyes to the distant peaks that once defined the edges of the Tewan world, we can start to imagine the lives of the people who called this place home over a thousand years ago. 

The view of Ashley Pond set in the middle of one of the dry, east-stretching mesas of the Pajarito Plateau can help us better understand why a homestead family might choose to build its cabin and plant its fields near what was once a small water catchment. 

Stately Fuller Lodge, built of enormous ponderosa pines and aligned with a view across a landscape of mesa, mountains, and sky, can help exemplify for us a school where place was integral to its educational goals. 

And finally, Gen. Leslie Groves’s choice of the mesa-top school for the army’s secret laboratory site was predicated, in part, on Los Alamos Ranch School’s isolation along with its existing infrastructure. 

Its school buildings allowed for the immediate arrival of the first scientists, and the reservoir and pond seemed to give some assurance of an adequate water supply. 

Imagining Los Alamos during those hectic war years we would see a bee-hive of activity around the lodge, a disorderly camp of temporary laboratory buildings crowding the edge of Ashley Pond, and barracks and hutments spread across the dusty mesa top. 

The long and often frenetic hours of hard work, lack of material comforts, disappointments, loneliness, and separation from familiar environs made life difficult for the scientists and their families. 

And so, perhaps what made General Groves’s choice of Los Alamos a successful one was that the reality of these daily hardships could be balanced by the magical setting of this place: a place of ancient cultures, enchanted landscape, and inspirational views.

In the book Standing By and Making Do: Women of Wartime Los Alamos, Ruth Marshak describes her heart-felt sense of Los Alamos. 

Her words (inscribed on a plaque at the east end of the Anniversary Trail) poetically reflect a sense of history and a sense of place:

The most direct road to it was a treacherous washboard running though the Indian pueblo of San Ildefonso, over the muddy Rio Grande, and then up a series of narrow switchbacks. As we neared the top of the mesa, the view was breathtaking. Behind us lay the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, at sunset bathed in changing waves of color—scarlets and lavenders. Below was the desert with its flatness broken by majestic palisades that seemed like the ruined cathedrals and palaces of some old, great, vanished race. Ahead was Los Alamos, and beyond the flat plateau on which it sat was its backdrop, the Jemez Mountain Range. Whenever things went wrong at Los Alamos, and there was never a day when they didn’t, we had this one consolation—we had a view. 

 

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