Snyder: Oldest Continuously Used Building In Los Alamos

The Guest Cottage as it appeared in 1942. Courtesy/Los Alamos Historical Society Archive

The Guest Cottage, 2018. Photo by Todd Nickols

Los Alamos Historical Society

For more than a century, the oldest continuously used building in Los Alamos has served at different times as an infirmary, a guest cottage, living quarters, a shelter for skunks, and a museum and gift shop. As we might expect, a building that has existed on the plateau for that long has stories to tell!
Referred to as the Guest Cottage for most of its existence, the building can be documented as far back as 1918 in records left by the Los Alamos Ranch School (LARS).

It may have been on the plateau before the school was established. The first recorded occupant was Genevieve Ranger, the first nurse and matron for the school. She lived in the tiny log cabin, which doubled as the school’s infirmary, and also supervised the housekeeping and food service for the school. She left in 1924 and was followed by other matrons and nurses who would eventually live in Fuller Lodge when the infirmary was moved to the second floor.

In 1925, two rooms were added to the living space, and the building became a guest house for parents and occasional other visitors to the school. The interior was remodeled, and stone fireplaces were added. The guest house was enlarged again that year when Santa Fe architect John Gaw Meem designed the stone addition on the west end of the building. When the new accommodations were completed, a stay in the guest house cost $6 per person for a day.

The Guest Cottage was used at LARS until 1942 when the Manhattan Project took over the campus. During the years of World War II, the cottage residents included Ernest Titterton and his wife, Peggy. Titterton was a nuclear physicist with the British Mission. Richard Tolman, chemist-physicist and head of the National Research Defense Council, was another occupant of the cottage and was also chief scientific adviser to Gen. Leslie Groves, who had a reserved room in the cottage for his frequent visits. After the war, visiting scientists often stayed in the Guest Cottage, and in 1948 it became the temporary home of Ralph Carlisle Smith, assistant director of Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory.

When Fuller Lodge was converted to a hotel in the early 1950s, the Guest Cottage became the home for managers of The Lodge. In 1965, Robert Martin was the hotel manager, and he and his wife, Mary, moved into the cottage. According to Craig Martin and Heather McClenahan in their book Of Logs and Stone, the Martins enjoyed the rustic atmosphere of the cottage and the closeness of the beautiful memorial rose garden right outside their door. That is, until they awoke one night to the strong odor of skunk! Apparently local skunks had taken up residence under the house near the steam pipes to stay warm. The Martins moved elsewhere for a month until the skunks were be persuaded to move elsewhere and the cottage was deodorized.

After the hotel closed in 1966, the cottage had various uses and even stood empty for a time until the County entered into an arrangement with the fledgling Los Alamos Historical Society to use the building as a museum. It became apparent that renovations were needed, and Waterman Inc. took on the precarious project of raising half of the building by 18 inches and lowering that section onto a new foundation. Heat and smoke detectors, drain pipes, ramps, and railings followed.

The County completed a second major renovation of the Guest Cottage in 2016, when structural improvements created a front patio and a new entrance. Heating, cooling, and electrical components were upgraded, and the restroom was made ADA-accessible. The historical society took advantage of the long closure of the museum to design a larger museum shop, new exhibits, and new patterns of movement through the rooms and eras of our history. In that way, the Guest Cottage was readied for another century of showing visitors the incredible history this building represents.