Los Alamos Historical Society
The Oppenheimer House

 

During the Manhattan Project, 1943 -1945, the house pictured here was the residence of J. Robert Oppenheimer, his wife Kitty, their son Peter, and the first home of their daughter Toni. It is one of the "Bathtub Row" residences within the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory National Historic Landmark District, which was established by the National Park Service to recognize the Manhattan Project role of various structures dating from the Los Alamos Ranch School period.

Oppenheimer House

Entrance to the Oppenheimer House

The Los Alamos Historical Society is in the process of planning for public uses of the house (the current resident who, along with her husband, generously donated the house, may live there as long as she desires). As part of that process, volunteers have developed a Historic Structures Report, available here, based on guidelines from the National Park Service.

The cottage was built in the late 1920s for Mary K. (May) Connell, an artist and the sister of the Ranch School's director, A. J. Connell, who designed the structure himself. Called Master Cottage #2, it consisted of a studio/living room, kitchen, study, and a "sleeping porch."

(See more about the Oppenheimer House in this video clip from "A Sense of Place: Preservation at Los Alamos," which was sponsored by the the Los Alamos Historical Society and the Atomic Heritage Foundation.)

Oppie House dining room

View out of the east window of the dining room

Oppenheimer House Living Room

View to the south in the living room

Unlike the students, the Ranch School staff enjoyed sleeping porches with glass windows instead of merely screens. There was no dining room in the original version because the staff were expected to take their meals with the students in Fuller Lodge.

However, the Oppenheimers had a pressing need for a dining room, and so the army built a new kitchen, allowing the original kitchen to become a dining room. The house, like all laboratory buildings, also acquired its own number, T-111, which is still visible at the entrance. Following the Manhattan Project a new bath and bedroom were added in late 1945. The original bath became a closet and hallway and the era's envied and presumed claw-footed bathtub was replaced. Except for the lost bathroom and a door between the living room and study that was closed to form a bookcase, the original rooms of the Manhattan Project period have been preserved in their original form and condition. The government added a utility room adjoining the kitchen before the house, like all Los Alamos housing, was sold to the residents in the middle 60s.

Although the title to the house was transferred to the Los Alamos Historical Society in 2003, the current residents, who came to Los Alamos in 1947 and moved into the house in 1956 (by qualifying through a point system), may continue to occupy it as long as they wish. The Historical Society has started planning for when the house is open to the public with a symposium of scholars and museum experts. The report from the symposium is available here.

Thanks to a National Park Service "Save America's Treasures" grant that was obtained by the Atomic Heritage Foundation for the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which transferred funds to the Historical Society, the Oppenheimer House underwent important repairs that were completed in 2006.

Description of the House

The living room and dining room are built with stone and the exterior walls of the other rooms are faced variously with log siding, stucco, and plywood. Each of the three fireplaces is topped with its own, original, chimney pot from W. S. Dickey, Macomb, Illinois. The largest fireplace serves the living room, with smaller corner fireplaces in the study and the original bath. There is an additional chimney for the furnace. Amazingly, the original furnace is still used even though, over the course of seventy years, its fuel has progressed through wood, coal, oil and, finally, gas. The steam heating system (single pipe, cold water return) must struggle to maintain warmth on the coldest days because the 14-inch rock walls do not have high insulating value. The main fireplace in the living room, like those of some other Bathtub Row houses, does not have a damper so its usefulness for heating is limited.

The living room has a large north window, befitting its original use as an artist's studio, and two smaller windows face east. The ceiling is high and vaulted, with exposed beams. It is the largest room in the house and serves well for entertaining.

Oppenheimer House north window

A view to the north from the living room

Oppenheimer House fireplace

Living room fireplace

Oppenheimer House ceiling

Living room ceiling

The walls and ceiling are painted white, which enhances a feeling of lightness and space. Visitors to the Oppenheimers' house in Princeton have remarked on the white walls there, too. All three windows and the double entry doors view the trees and shrubs of the grounds. The interior door of the living room leads to a short hall, with the dining room on the right and the bedrooms and bath on the left. As already mentioned, the built-in bookcase on the west wall was formerly a door to the study that was no longer needed after the changes in late 1945.

The dining room, also painted white, is cozy with an east window to catch the breakfast sun. The furnace chimney warms an interior rock wall. The west wall has a recessed space where the sink window existed before the new kitchen was added during the Oppenheimers' residency. The kitchen reflects well the functional style of the mid century and is unchanged except for a modern refrigerator and range. The sink area has a verdant view to the north and the whole room benefits from two cheery skylights added by the current residents.

Oppenheimer House kitchen

The kitchen

The Legacy of J. Robert Oppenheimer

(For more information on Oppenheimer, visit the website of the J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Committee or the Berkeley Oppenheimer Centennial online exhibition.)

Of course, the significance of the Oppenheimer House lies not in its specific architectural details standing alone, however authentic, but in the history, the memory, the respect, and even the awe they symbolize and evoke of a period of heroic, massive, scientific and technical accomplishment without parallel in the nation's history. Just as the consequences of this accomplishment, like early man's control of fire, will challenge the wisdom of humanity for as long as we can foresee, so it is the challenge of historians and conservators to preserve and promote the legacy of those who brought it about and, especially, the legacy of the person whose personal and intellectual qualities were most responsible for its success.

(You may read more about Oppenheimer and his life in the historic monograph by physicist and colleague Robert Bacher, Robert Oppenheimer, 1904-1967, published by the Los Alamos Historical Society and available here through our secure online shopping cart.)

 

J. Robert Oppenheimer

J. Robert Oppenheimer

Some tributes to J. Robert Oppenheimer are given below.

Proposed National Park Action

On September 30, 2003, Senator Jeff Bingaman introduced legislation that authorizes a study to determine the suitability and feasibility of creating a National Park unit for the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos and other significant Manhattan Project sites. “Two weeks ago I personally visited the Oppenheimer house. Standing in the living room, you almost expect to see Robert and Kitty Oppenheimer and other Manhattan Project participants at one of the regular Saturday night gatherings. The house is virtually the same as when they lived there and will be one of the greatest public attractions. No doubt that it will play an important part in any future plans for a possible National Park unit.”

Statements at the June 2004 Ceremony Marking the Acquisition of the Oppenheimer House

Senator Pete Domenici commented that, “The Manhattan Project was one of the most significant developments in world history, bringing an end to World War II and for the last 60 years any further world-scale wars. Few men were as vital to the effort as Robert Oppenheimer, a theoretical physicist who proved to be an extraordinary manager. By ensuring his wartime home will be in the public domain, this agreement makes an invaluable contribution to the people of Los Alamos and the State of New Mexico as well as to the Nation and the world."

Congressman Tom Udall said, “Oppenheimer was one of the most brilliant physicists of the 20th century and was instrumental in the success of the Manhattan Project. The rustic cottage where he lived with his wife and two young children during the war is delightful and will give visitors some rare insight into the human dimensions of the Manhattan Project.”

Vignettes of Oppenheimer (Lawrence & Oppenheimer, Nuel Pharr Davis; The Story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Denise Royal)

Edward Teller: "Oppenheimer's great virtue was that he was intelligent."

Raemer Schreiber: "If you go around asking those of us who were here then about the job Oppenheimer did during the war the chances are you're going to hear the word 'magnificent' over and over. Always that same damned monotonous word. You could always talk with him. I think that's why the work never seemed frustrating. He gave you a sense of urgency and made you feel that what you did was important. "

Norris Bradbury Norris Bradbury: "Magnificent! That's the exact word. Why? Well, Oppenheimer could understand everything, and there were some hard physics problems here to understand. Don't forget what an extravagant collection of prima donnas we had here. By his own knowledge and personality he kept them inspired and going forward."

Robert Serber: "Magnificent! He would show up at innumerable different meetings at Los Alamos, listen, and summarize in such a way as to make amazing sense. Nobody else I ever knew could comprehend so quickly. And along with this, he developed tremendous tact."

A. Llewelyn Hughes: "Magnificent! He was completely honest in a way that in the long run made him completely vulnerable."

Hans Bethe: " Magnificent! He worked at physics mainly because he found physics the best way to do philosophy. This undoubtedly had something to do with the magnificent way he led Los Alamos."

Isidor Rabi: "Magnificent! He was not in the least a dictator, and except by a few, he made himself deeply respected, even loved. The Mesa as he created it has enlarged the most unexpected variety of careers in science. A certain magic, romance, devotion, causes people who were there to remember it as the most significant period in their lives."

James Tuck: "At the very start, Oppenheimer killed the idiotic notion prevalent in other laboratories that only a few insiders should know what the work was about and that everyone should follow them blind. I, an almost unknown scientist, came here and found that I was expected to exchange ideas with men whom I had regarded as names in textbooks. It was a wonderful thing for me, it opened my eyes. Here at Los Alamos I found a spirit of Athens, of Plato, of an ideal republic. The ignorant think Oppenheimer originated the bomb. Of course this isn't so, but his contribution was magnificent. Few people in the United States know this place that he created and what it has done. It's a story that ought to be told. Nowadays I read in the papers that this should be made an ordinary town, with no gate and three movie houses. I've never seen a place less ordinary. So many people doing a damned difficult job wresting the secrets from nature. Oppenheimer had to concert the fullest effort of the best minds of the Western world. Los Alamos is a phenomenon unique in history. The people who had been gathered here from so many parts of the world ... remember that golden time with enormous emotion."

Bronze Plaque

Brone Plaque on Oppie House

 

Oppenheimer House

This was the residence of J. Robert Oppenheimer, who led the urgent and momentous effort of scientists and engineers at Los Alamos in 1943-1945 to design and build the first atomic weapons, which brought about a swift conclusion to World War II.

The site commemorates not only the leader of an achievement that demands the wisdom of forbearance from mankind but also the personal qualities he exemplified: breadth of intellect, integrity of purpose, humility in a time of glory, grace in the face of adversity, and a profound awareness of the implications of atomic weapons.

Los Alamos Historical Society