A couple of weeks ago I visited The Secret City Festival in Oak Ridge, TN. The Secret City Festival is essentially a county fair type shindig but nuclear. As you’ll recall, Oak Ridge was one of the sites used to create the atomic bomb, and this festival highlights the city’s place in that huge undertaking, with the happy accompaniments of fair food (fried pickles!) and Rick Springfield. The festival was fantastic, and there was so much to see! So, I’ve split my visit into two columns—one about the American Museum of Science and Energy (AMSE) and one about the three hour tour of the sites I was lucky enough to grab a seat on.

Today’s column is AMSE-centric. One of the coolest things at the AMSE is the kids’ scavenger hunt, and particularly the pamphlet listing the booty to be found. I’m not going to lie—I used this pamphlet as my guide for my museum visit. And my visit was out-of-this-world great!

First, let’s talk about the pamphlet itself. The pamphlet was a folded in-half piece of letter-sized paper, printed on both sides, using Word’s “booklet” setting, and was obviously made by someone with superior Word skills (do I smell an MCAS?) and a super old copy of the software. The clip art is the tell—it screams mid-Nineties, just barely not 8-bit rendering. It looks like a booklet I would have created about Mayans for a junior high social studies project c. 1994; the only thing missing is the serrated edge from the dot matrix printer. Anyway, it’s great! See? I mean, look at that happy battery!

The pamphlet consists of questions of the nuclear pub quiz variety, and is organized roughly by topic and area of the museum in which the answers can be found.

The History of Oak Ridge section contains questions answerable by the exhibits on the first floor, according to the handy dandy map printed on the back of the guide. Here’s a sample of the questions in this section:

“What was the code name of the project that built the secret military facility in Oak Ridge?”

“Who was the official US Army Manhattan Project Photographer?”

You should know the answers to these questions readers, but if you don’t, the museum is here to help!

The answer to the first question is obvs the Manhattan Project, and the answer to the second question is Ed Westcott. The museum currently has a fine exhibit of Westcott’s works in the Rotating Display section.1

Chances are, if you’ve seen any photos of the Manhattan Project, Westcott likely snapped them. Westcott was THE man (photographer) of the Manhattan Project. He was the only person authorized to take pictures of any of it, and he probably did take most of the photographs, which is pretty hard to imagine in an age where we’re all taking pictures pretty much non-stop. I mean, I haven’t even left my house today, and I’ve taken three.

Most of the Westcott photos highlight the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki following the detonations of Little Boy and Fat Man. The destruction in the photographs is alarming and nearly complete. A photograph of the Aioi Bridge and surroundings looks like a wasteland from the mind of Cormac McCarthy rather than reality. The photo centers on the bridge, which was the intended target of Little Boy. Instead of hitting the bridge, the bomb detonated 1890 feet above a civilian hospital, 800 feet from the bridge. The description accompanying the photo notes that the stone columns flanking the hospital were rammed straight into the ground, while the building collapsed and all occupants vaporized. Vaporized. To read that on the page/screen is one thing, but take a second and really think about it. Vaporization is the change from liquid to gas and can happen in two ways: boiling and evaporation. So, the people, living breathing, wondering what to make for dinner, just like you and me people, went from person to gaseous nothing in less than a blink. Instantly enmeshed in the incinerated atmosphere.

That was a pretty gruesome (but important) way for us to start out our tour. Sorry about that guys.

I headed upstairs to the much more kid-centric section of the museum. I didn’t spend a whole lot of time up there for a couple of reasons. First, there were literally classrooms-full of children, wandering about and children en masse frighten me. Second, this is where the Cemestos house lives! Well, this is how you get to the Cemestos house, anyway.

The AMSE has an entire Cemestos house on display outside. What’s a Cemestos house? I’m glad you asked.

Cemestos is a building material that is essentially a sugar cane fiber core, coated with a combination of cement and asbestos (Cemestos = cement + asbestos portmanteau!).2 The panels are sturdy, weather- and fire-proof things, and exceptionally light, making them easy to transport to construction sites. Cemestos panels were generally placed in a lightweight wood framework, and sealed together with I don’t know what.

Cemestos was developed in the Thirties by the Celotex Company (don’t you just love those sciencey sounding names of the era? Clorox! Rayon! Valtrex!). A modular (the modular construction method was known as the Pierce system) Cemestos house was displayed at the World’s Fair in 1939. The Chicago architecture firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill designed the 600 house planned community of Aero Acres, outside Baltimore, to house employees of the Glenn L. Martin Aircraft Company, using prefab, modular Cemestos houses as the centerpieces.

After the success of this project, Skidmore was asked to design another community of the same sort, but this time for the US government. However things were a bit different from Aero Acres. The new development was to be for 75,000 people and at an undisclosed location. The architects were given a very basic (like stripped of directions, so they had no idea where north, south, etc. were) map with elevations and let loose. Skidmore spent FOUR days on the original plans, that included roads,3 community centers, and floor plans for the various houses, dormitories, shopping centers and schools of the new community. That’s right, four days. What have you done in the last four days? The plans were accepted and the firm was given another month to polish the plans. When the month was up, the team was handed tickets to Knoxville, TN, learning for the first time where the new community would be. Or at least the general area.

All in all, the people of Oak Ridge lived in: 10,000 houses (2,500 of which were Cemestos), 90 dormitories, 5,000 trailers and barracks and huts for 16,000 people. Houses were assigned to white workers with families of relatively high rank on the food chain, while single men and women were assigned to the dorms. I’m not sure who ended up in the trailers but I do know that the barracks and huts were assigned to people of colors and people with generally lower job positions.

There were six Cemestos house designs in use in Oak Ridge, and they were all simply named after the letters of the alphabet; they’re even known in some circles as “Alphabet Houses.” These are the basic stats of the Alphabet Houses:

A: 2 bedroom, 1 bath

B: 2 bedroom, 1 bath, larger living area

C: 3 bedroom, 1 bath

D: 3 bedroom, 11/2 bath, larger living area

E: 2-story, 4-plex

F: 3 bedroom, 11/2 bath, utility room, nicest and largest living space

From what I’ve gathered, most houses in Oak Ridge were of the B variety, and just my luck, that’s the letter (a B-1 specifically) the AMSE has on display!

The Cemestos house on display at the museum is accessed off the second floor, which is kind of weird, until you realize that looking at it from above does provide a great perspective on the overall size and design of the house.

The visitor walks down a flight of stairs to a fenced-in yard and walks across a wooden boardwalk (of the Old West, and early Oak Ridge variety. Seems mud was a severe problem in the early days of Oak Ridge, and it was easier to slap together boardwalks than wait for cement to cure), past a Victory Garden (!!), it’s off image on the left in the photo, and billboard describing the house to the front door.

The house is so cool! Opening the front door, I was immediately hit with the smell I can only describe as camp trailer. For a minute there, I was hunkered-down in my sleeping bag eating SpaghettiOs, while rain and a fantastic bike accident tried to ruin our Labor Day trip, complaining that my sleeping bag wasn’t warm enough. But I quickly came back to Oak Ridge and explored the Cemestos-walled, linoleum floored beauty.

The house had linoleum floors throughout (the nicer models had wood) and was very trailer-chic in a medium Airstream kind of way. The bedrooms were exceptionally small. I think one of them had a full sized bed while the other only fit a twin, and that was tight. The bathroom had great high school meets suburban poor person fixtures—wall mounted soap dish, faucets—original to the time, and probably the worst shower I’ve ever seen. It was almost exactly like the shower stalls at a church camp I once visited. Basically a vertical casket with a waterspout, and a nice high curb that you’d surely trip over every goddamned morning, maybe even twice.

I certainly wasn’t of the Ed Westcott level in my photo taking, but here’s a picture of the larger of the two bedrooms, done-up in contemporary furnishings. Shout out to the chenille bedspread.

All of the windows in the house open. Put together with the whole house fan descending from the ceiling, camper style in the living room, I’m sure there was great airflow. The windows in the bedroom are the tilt-out (casement?) variety, and just generally smart.

There weren’t any ceiling lights, that I remember anyway, though I don’t think that was uncommon, but there were excellent porcelain sconces.

Here’s a pic of the kitchen cabinets, etc. The countertop is that pattern with the gold lines and sparkles in it that seemed to cover nearly everything middle class for a few decades, and the view out the window is obviously needs to be green-screened in post, what with the central air unit in the background. But it’s so neat!

The houses were generally heated by coal stove, which I find to be a bit odd considering what the tenants of this house were working on. But then again, this is coal country. And the whole nuclear thing hadn’t really taken off yet. Come to think of it, it still really hasn’t.

Cemestos houses were designed for a lifespan of seven years, but the awesomeness of the material, and general good housekeeping means that a good number of them are still standing in Oak Ridge and the surrounding areas, as many have been moved to various lakes and country sides for use as cabins. And this really would make a kick ass cabin.

I took a peek at the real estate listings for Oak Ridge, and there are several Alphabet Houses in the listings. Headings like “Well-maintained D model with updated façade” pepper them. I love the colloquialism of Alphabet and Cemestos houses in Oak Ridge just about as much as I love Shotgun, Camelback and Double houses in New Orleans.

By the time I’d finished overstaying my welcome in the Cemestos house, I had just enough time to stop by the museum gift shop and scoop up a book of Oak Ridge house plans and a fantastically named cookbook: Cooking Behind the Fence, before the three hour tour of the area’s marvels departed. We’ll talk about that next time.


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1 The Rotating Display section of the museum is on the first floor. If you’re wearing an even slightly low-cut top, high school boys will look down your shirt from the balconies above. So cover up, ladies! Or not.

2 I know. Asbestos is scary. But, it really shouldn’t be. Or maybe it should, but just not quite as. I don’t know. Here’s the lowdown on the asbestos/cancer thing. Asbestos can only cause cancer if it’s inhaled. And since I highly doubt that the Cemestos house dwellers scraped the coatings off of their walls and inhaled them, I think we’re in the clear. I mean, I wouldn’t eat any Cemestos, but I’d happily reside in a Cemestos structure. The people making the Cemestos though, are likely another story. We’ve seen how good we were as a people at OSHA type stuff back in the day, so I’m going to go ahead and say that the people making the stuff weren’t extra careful and were probably exposed to asbestos in an inhalable form. All speculation of course.

3 The plan for the roads was actually pretty cool. All of the main streets were named for states. All of the roads running from the state streets started with the same letter. Roads connected to other streets while lanes were dead ends. The setup worked well in orienting the population which was all new to the community.